Jeanine Michna-Bales’s (American, b. 1971) work explores the relationships between what has occurred or is occurring in a society, and how people have chosen to react to those events. Michna-Bales meticulously researches each topic—considering different viewpoints, causes and effects, and political climates—and often incorporates found or archival text and audio.
Whether exploring the darkened stations along the Underground Railroad, long-forgotten nuclear fallout shelters, or the invisible epicenters of environmental turmoil, her work seeks out places that are hidden in plain sight.
Images from her series about the Underground Railroad have appeared in group shows around the United States, including Southern Exposure: Portraits of a Changing Landscape at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, and have been published by GEO Histoire, Harvard University’s Transition magazine, and WIRED Raw File. In 2014, she was named to the Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50. Her forthcoming book, Through Darkness to Light, will be published by Princeton Architectural Press in February 2017.
In the 19th century, an estimated 50,000 enslaved African American men, women, and children embarked on the journey to escape bondage every year. Taking great risks, they moved in constant fear of being discovered. Some were killed, while most were captured—or returned on their own—and severely beaten as an example of what would happen to others who might choose to flee.
These “fugitives” carefully planned their escapes and displayed a great deal of resourcefulness, fortitude, and ingenuity. Occasionally, they were guided from one secret location to the next by an ever-changing, clandestine group of anti-slavery advocates—which included free blacks, successful former runaways, and black and white abolitionists—known as the Underground Railroad. At the start of their trip and along the way, they were also aided by family members and other enslaved people. This series of photographs envisions what the long road to freedom may have looked like as seen through the eyes of someone making this epic journey.
Using newspaper clippings, books, period documents, personal narratives, and existing research made available to me by the Indiana Historical Society, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Freedom Trails Commission, among others, I envisioned one possible route of escape along the Underground Railroad—from a cotton plantation in Louisiana all the way north to Canada.* I also relied on local lore, interviewing people in communities where it was rumored that stops on the Underground Railroad existed.
The unnumbered routes of the Underground Railroad encompassed countless square miles and paths through many states. The particular path I constructed runs roughly 2,000 miles and depicts sites, cities, and places that freedom seekers passed through—or may have passed through—during their journey.
The Underground Railroad was a loose network of people—from white and black abolitionists and religious groups to female anti-slavery societies and everyday people—who were all working towards a common cause. I believe an appreciation and understanding of this history can inspire and remind us of how diverse groups of people can play a role in challenging and resisting social injustices today.
—Jeanine Michna-Bales, October 2015
*The particular path that the artist envisioned was very rare. Few people escaped from the Deep South to the North, and even fewer to Canada.