Susana Raab: The States Project: District of Columbia
It’s a tad embarrassing to admit that I forgot about the District of Columbia for The States Project. While not a state, it’s a city at the heart of our country, and home to close to 700,000 residents, more than the states of Wyoming or Vermont. Fortunately, photographer Susana Raab reminded me of this fact, and since I have followed her photography and collected her zines for many years, I knew that she would be the perfect tour guide to our country’s capital where photographers live and make work. And I also thought this emotionally charged election week would be a perfect time to shine a light on The District of Columbia, home of our next president.
Susana is one of those special photographers who finds the humor and pathos of everyday life and captures it in a way that has heart. The title of the project we are featuring today, Rank Strangers, is a collection of images that is very American, filled with the absurdities of consumerism, celebrity, and simply being human. An interview with Susana follows.
Susana Raab was born in Lima, Peru and raised throughout the United States. She is a fine-art and editorial photographer working in Washington, DC, and is also the photographer at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. Susana is currently serving as the President of Women Photojournalists of Washington, a 501c3 organization of over 400 members whose mission supports the advocacy and education of women photojournalists.
Susana’s work has been widely exhibited and is held in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History, The Library of Congress, Division of Prints & Photographs, The Art Museum of the Americas, The EnFoco Collection, and the DC Public Art Bank.
She received her MA in Visual Communications from Ohio University and holds a BA in English Literature from James Madison University.
An amorphous kin we are, Americans. And I by no means stake claim to representing the lot. I only seek to show a part of the fullness of our experience and hope that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The characters in Rank Strangers wear different masks, inhabit different spaces – but above all, I imagine them joined in a primal desire for belonging, that need to be recognized as a stranger no more.
The photographs in this body of work are culled from various ongoing projects exploring different concerns but all united in their exploration of an American character. The title is inspired from a song by Dr. Ralph Stanley, about moving through life alone and isolated, and finding heaven when we are reunited with our loved ones. This is the project that is always in my back pocket. The peripatetic practice exemplified in these pictures emulates the restlessness of my own youth spent moving every year or two until I reached early adolescence.
Thanks for reminding me that, though not a state, the District of Columbia is part of this country! What’s unique to being a D of C photographer?
And thank you, Aline, for doing what 535 members of our nation’s largest governing body cannot do: give D.C. equal representation. D.C. is very much a company town; many photographers move here to pursue work in photojournalism, non-governmental associations, and cultural heritage institutions. We are very multi-cultural, and the international presence in this city adds so many rich experiences. It’s a very transient town, too, and unfortunately is turning into San Francisco in respect to the lack of affordable housing. While news photographers dominate the landscape, we do have wonderful fine art photographers- though they tend to live outside D.C. proper. In the District, we consider ourselves part of a greater “DMV” community (the District, Maryland and Virginia).
Where were you born and what brought you to D of C?
I was born in Lima, Peru to a Peruvian father and North American mother. I spent my late childhood in various places in the DMV. And when I returned from a stint in the Peace Corp in Mongolia D.C was the most convenient place to return with a lot of opportunities for someone wanting to start out in photography. As soon as I could I moved into the city and except for a lack of storage space, I have never looked back.
How did you go about selecting the photographers for this week?
I had an agenda. I wanted to highlight a couple photographers who were working on projects about DC, which were not about the photo-ops, or political machinations but what we refer to as the “Real D.C.” Of the six photographers selected (including myself), I just realized that four were born outside the U.S. which I also think is emblematic of D.C. Documentary photography represents the majority of my selections, not because of personal preference, but more due to the makeup of our photographic community.
You are living in the craziest period in American politics. Have you considered making work that is political?
Well, I started out covering politics, beginning at a small tabloid newspaper that covered Congress (Roll Call), and then moving on to work for the New York Times, Time and Newsweek. I covered the White House, rode around on Air Force One, did the motorcades, etc. and this work was just not that interesting to me outside of the ego-gratification and initial thrill. There are many people who cover that world admirably, but it was just not what I wanted to spend my time doing. It is so hard to get beyond the mask. That said, I think that when I am working on something that is more about social issues, that work is political, if not about politicians. So I still consider myself living a life that is very much about politics, the outcomes of politics if not of the political theater.
Other than specific interests about your practice, are there other reasons why D of C is where you should be? Can you paint a picture about why you love about the place?
Your new series is titled Rank Strangers which seems a timely description of American culture these days? Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for the series?
How do your manage such close access to your subjects?
It is amazing how invisible you can be in a crowded room with a large camera in one hand and holding a giant flash like the Statue of Liberty in another. The ability to size up a situation quickly, chat with strangers and find common ground within a few sentences, is a skill I honed moving around so often as a kid. For some reason, in the field, I am able to maintain a much greater (though VERY amateur) Buddhist perspective on things, than I have ever been able to attain in my private life. And I think people feel safe with me quickly, because I am so clearly what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and then they really enjoy the process of being seen. Sometimes I think the interaction is more impactful than the photograph will ever be and I am not sure that is even a bad thing.
What have you learned from spending time with such a wide array of communities?
That most of us have many of the same impulses: for love and connection and its the stuff that happens to us along the road that gets in the way of that love and connection. I believe that even the most unpleasant of people are acting just as they should be given the times and circumstances they have experienced. Which does not mean you don’t hold bad behavior accountable, but you see it for what it is: a defense mechanism that is no longer serving anyone. And of course, easier said than done.
What keeps you shooting film?
I love the process, the tactility of it, the uncertainty, and the discovery. It slows me down and helps me to stay present.
I’m continuing my work on Washington’s east of the Anacostia River communities, The Invisible Wall, and preparing to do some work in Peru for a very exciting project that I can’t really talk about yet.
And finally, describe your perfect day.
There are so many ways a day could be perfection for me but the basic ingredients are: loved ones, an experience around art or storytelling or the outdoors, the making of a huge feast, and the sharing of stories around the fire, late into the evening, the stars being the only witness to our communion. And no internet. But lots of dogs and hopefully at least one llama.
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Jared Soares: The States Project: District of ColumbiaNovember 12th, 2016
Tatiana Gulenkina: The States Project: District of ColumbiaNovember 11th, 2016
Louie Palu: The States Project: District of ColumbiaNovember 10th, 2016
Eman Mohammed: The States Project: District of ColumbiaNovember 9th, 2016
Stephen Crowley: The States Project: District of ColumbiaNovember 8th, 2016