A friend of Victor Balaban's recently joked that Balaban is the only psychology graduate student in the country who gets to take photographs and surf the internet as part of his dissertation work.
Even though Balaban's dissertation work may appear to be just a little too much fun on the surface, the project has the potential of yielding fascinating information on the function of language in communities and on the ways in which new technology affects the ways that language is used.
As part of his research, Balaban has been documenting, both orally and photographically, the experiences of the "pilgrims" who travel to Conyers on the 13th of each month for what they believe are visitations and communications from the Virgin Mary to Conyers resident Nancy Fowler. Fowler began having what are termed "Marian" experiences more than five years ago. Since that time, tens of thousands of believers from all over the country have converged on the Atlanta suburb to share in the experience.
"I'm trying to integrate my photography with the academic interests I have," said Balaban, whose dissertation adviser is Robyn Fivush. "I'm also very interested in language and narrative. I've been talking to the people in Conyers, the pilgrims who have had the visions, and collecting their narratives of their experiences with the Divine, whether it's God or Mary or Jesus. I'm looking at what sort of language devices people use to communicate that kind of experience, and also how these people put their narratives together and what sort of function the narratives have for them in that community. Part of that is documenting the site and documenting who these people are. That's where the photography comes in. It's really a photo essay combined with the more academic study of the narratives."
Another aspect of Balaban's work is studying the archived on-line messages of an apparitions list on the internet, which was formed by people who have seen apparitions, including those in Conyers. "I look to see if they use the same metaphors and other devices to communicate what they've seen and heard," Balaban said. "I don't know that yet, and that is one of the things I'm exploring in my dissertation. There is a lot of speculation about how the internet changes the ways in which people communicate."
Under normal circumstances, Balaban's photos might have been seen only by friends and a few psychology professors. Thanks to the psychology department's art exhibition program recently initiated by faculty member Marshall Duke, however, the entire Emory community has the chance to see 21 of Balaban's black-and-white photos on display in the Psychology Building through May 31. Some of the photos are from his travels in Europe, but most are from either Conyers or from Balaban's collection of photos from Atlanta's Majestic Diner.
Located on Ponce de Leon Avenue, the Majestic opened its doors in 1929 and is the city's only surviving 24-hour diner. Balaban discovered the Majestic early in his graduate student career after spending long nights in the library and looking for a place to unwind on the way home. "I started bringing reading to do there, and I would just hang out and drink coffee," said Balaban, who recently founded a photography group for Emory students. "Then it occurred to me that I should bring my camera there. That's how it really took off."
Balaban discovered two communities at the Majestic: the staff and regular customers, whom Balaban said "tend to be blue collar and working class," and customers who don't come in as regularly, such as college students, late-night partygoers who stop in after leaving the bars, and "young kids from Little Five Points just hanging out."
"Part of what makes the Majestic so special is that it is completely accepting of everyone," Balaban said. "For the community of staff and regular customers, it's almost like a community center. The night shift starts at 10 p.m. At about 8 p.m., the waitresses and cooks for that shift will start coming in. There's a table where they usually sit together. They come in, take off their jackets, smoke a cigarette, and just talk and gossip. I couldn't think of any other place where people would come into work two hours early. Then it dawned on me that it's not just work for them. They're coming in to catch up with friends."
Photographically documenting the experiences of people such as the Majestic regulars and the Conyers pilgrims is a form of visual anthropology Balaban hopes to continue throughout his career. After he completes his psychology Ph.D. in a couple of years, Balaban hopes to begin a postdoctoral fellowship that will include a prominent element of interdisciplinary research similar to what he is doing now. For the moment, Balaban is glad to be working on a project that includes photography and the study of communication. "If I keep doing those things throughout my academic career, I think I'll have a happy life."