Neighbors will be on exhibit through Nov. 30. Photo courtesy of Studio Channel Islands

by Emily Dodi

When he moved into a new house in San Diego, photographer John Mireles asked his neighbors if he could photograph them, and then he hung their portraits on his fence. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive and it helped Mireles bond with his new neighbors. The experience got him thinking. Inspired by writer Jim Collins’ idea of a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG), Mireles thought, “if I went to all 50 states and photographed Americans . . . <em>that</em> would be a BHAG.” It took several years and a few cross-country trips in his RV, but Mireles did it. The result is <em>Neighbors,</em> a photography exhibit on display at Studio Channel Islands. 

Everywhere he went, Mireles asked total strangers if he could take their photo. The subjects are from various walks of life, representing many different backgrounds.  

“Americans are incredibly friendly people,” Mireles says. “Doesn’t matter where they’re from or what political stripe, by and large, they’re friendly and welcoming. We all want the same thing.” When he explained his project to people, Mireles expressed how he hoped it would help us get to know each other as Americans so that we might get along better. The typical response was “well, we need more of that! Take my picture!”

The photos in the show are exhibited in pairs. “The photos exist in dialogue with each other,” Mireles explains. “Sometimes the people are similar. Sometimes they are different. You can see that even if people are dissimilar, they share something.”

“My favorite pairing is an old guy from Vermont. He’s a farmer and he’s wearing the clothes of a farmer. He has the hands of a man who has worked all his life . . . I paired him with a Black woman from the Southside of Chicago. She is very urbane and dressed very nicely. They’re both looking at the camera. I hope what people take away from it is our underlying humanity. There’s a strength in these people. They share something fundamental and I hope that creates empathy and helps to bridge a divide.” 

Each image is accompanied by the location where the photo was taken and nothing else. Mireles points to Richard Avedon’s famous photographic series, <em>In the American West,</em> which listed the location where the photograph was taken as well as the subject’s occupation. “One person was labeled a drifter,” says Mireles. “The man’s mother wrote to Avedon to tell him that her son was much more than a drifter. That got me thinking. We are much more than our occupations.” Giving us only a location, Mireles says, “leaves us to decide who the person is. That’s more powerful and it’s more fair.”   

Whenever <em>Neighbors</em> is exhibited in a new place, Mireles goes out and photographs people in that community and features some of their portraits in the exhibit. It’s his way of saying, “Here’s you! Now here’s the rest of America.” There is no “other.” “We are neighbors. We have more in common than not.” 

You can follow John Mireles on Instagram @johnmireles.  


Neighbors through November, at Studio Channel Islands, 2222 East Ventura Blvd., Camarillo. For more information, visit studiochannelislands.org or call 805-383-1368.