If you happen to see Ashley McKee for the first time, you might correctly pinpoint her as a young artist type: smoky eyes and blunt-cut bangs, a half-sleeve tattoo and pointed boots pulled over dark worn jeans all give her an edgy, creative look. But as with anyone, there's more to the story. If you asked her, she might tell you that she grew up in a single-parent home in Missoula with little money. That when she started college at the University of Montana she began drinking and couldn't stop. That even though she had dreams to be a photographer, people only saw the alcoholic. That she hit rock bottom a few years ago and that with help, she dug herself out.
McKee is now a photographer, and she's releasing a new book, Missoula Rabble, a collection of intimate portraits and brief interviews with people she met walking down Missoula's streets. It's a project inspired by McKee's desire to learn other people's stories. It began one day in late 2012 when McKee was riding her bike home from work and she passed a man walking in a long, white, hooded robe. She had never seen the man before, but she decided to talk to him. McKee had two reasons to stop the man: First, she had recently accepted a challenge from her coworker to take one photo a day for an entire year, and here was a perfect opportunity for a human portrait. And, second, she was looking to use the photo-a-day challenge as a springboard for a new project: photographing and interviewing people she saw on the Missoula streets to try and tell their stories. The project, which would later be called Missoula Rabble, was just a seedling in her mind back then. But this man in the white robe seemed like a good place to start. She pedaled up to him and asked him to stop.
"There was a reason why I stopped him and he knew why," she says. "He looked like a member of the KKK and I'm sure he got tons of discrimination because of how he was dressed. He was pretty hesitant at first, which I think anyone should be. He was pretty distant. I told him what I was doing and he kind of got defensive. But over time he eased up."
McKee learned that the man, Mark, was of Wiccan faith and wore the white robe to symbolize purity and peace. Even as they talked, McKee says, a few people yelled at Mark with remarks that assumed his robe was racist. But when McKee posted Mark's photo on Facebook with a short blurb about what his robe really meant, she got an overwhelmingly positive response from people who found his story illuminating.
"People were saying, 'Oh, I've seen this guy! I thought he was this or that.' And so I started to do [more street interviews] and people started to comment more on my photos. And that's when I knew Missoula Rabble was going to be a thing."
- “Bridget,” top, and “Amber and Rashid,” make up two of 100 portrait stories from Ashley McKee’s new collection, Missoula Rabble.
Over the last year and a half, McKee has been populating her Missoula Rabble Facebook page with photos and interview vignettes. This week for Blaque Owl's First Friday show, she releases the book, Missoula Rabble, which she published through a Kickstarter campaign. The 200-page coffee-table-style collection is culled down to 100 portraits, or "rabbles," as McKee calls them, showcasing a diversity of her interview portraits.
If you look up "rabble" in the dictionary, you'll find two definitions. The first is "a disorderly crowd, or mob." The second is "ordinary or common people who do not have a lot of money, power, or social status." McKee uses the word in the sense of the second definition (though the rebellious connotation also seems present in her portraits). As a descriptor for "common folk," the word has often been used in a negative context. But with Missoula Rabble, McKee has refashioned the word to be a celebration of and respect for Missoula characters.
"This community is an interesting place full of interesting people," she says. "And I think we're all just interested in what people are about."
As someone who grew up in Missoula, McKee was familiar with many of its characters, like chess champion Greg "The Octopus" Nowak and "Lavender Lori," a lavender farmer who frequents the Saturday markets. Many of those familiar characters are represented in Missoula Rabble, but there are plenty of profiles that shed light on more obscure people: a hitchhiker, a couple just married at the courthouse, a breast cancer survivor, a tattoo artist who had sustained injuries in a motorcycle wreck, and addicts of all ages and backgrounds. There are two fathers who had just met their daughters for the first time. One man was just about to meet his adult daughter and the other had found out he had a 3-year-old girl and was adjusting his life to fatherhood.
McKee says she was surprised that people were so willing to tell her their stories. She's modest, but she admits that perhaps the project was beneficial to the interviewees. "We are locked up in our heads and we think we're alone when we're not," McKee says. "I think more often than not people wanted to talk to me and tell me about what was going on in their life."
McKee has been sober for over two years now. She's about to leave Missoula to move to Austin, Texas, to work on more photography projects that, like this one, focus on empathy and the humanities. Though McKee prefers to be behind the lens, the benefits of Rabble have been a two-way street; the project was a transformative experience for her, too. Interviewing other addicts, especially, helped remind her that she also wasn't alone. And it reminded her of how far she's come. She credits her coworker's photo-a-day challenge for taking her down a new path.
"It changed my life," she says, grinning. "It's weird when you identify with one aspect of yourself, and you look at yourself and you're not that anymore. I knew what I was capable of, and that's all started to come out as I've recovered, which is the best part of my recovery—to show Missoula who I really am."
Ashley Rhian McKee releases Missoula Rabble with a First Friday art show at Blaque Owl Tattoo Fri., Sept. 5, from 5 to 8 PM.