Jared Ragland: What Has Been Will Be Again
Projects featured this week were selected from our most recent call-for-submissions. I was able to interview each of these artists to gain further insight into the bodies of work they shared. Today, we are looking at the series What Has Been Will Be Again by Jared Ragland.
Jared Ragland is a fine art and documentary photographer and former White House photo editor. His collaborative, socially-conscious art practice critically explores the identity and history of place through social science, literary, and historical research methodologies.
Jared is the photo editor of National Geographic Books’ The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office,and he has worked on assignment for NGOs in the Balkans, the former Soviet Bloc, East Africa and Haiti. In 2015, Jared was named one of TIME Magazine’s “Instagram Photographers to Follow in All 50 States.” He is the recipient of a 2017 Alabama State Council on the Arts fellowship, was awarded third place at the 2017 PhotoNOLA Review Prize, and first film, SOME MILLION MILES, received the Reel South Short Award at the 2019 Sidewalk Film Festival and is distributed by PBS. He is a 2020-21 Do Good Fund Artist-in-Residence and 2020 Magnum Foundation grantee.
Jared’s work has been exhibited internationally, with recent shows at Candela Books + Gallery (Richmond, Va.), the In/Out Transylvania Foto Festival (Cluj, Romania), Birmingham Museum of Art SHIFT space, The National Geographic Society, and the Royal Geographic Society in London. He has produced three artist books with Eliot Dudik under their collaborative publishing platform, One Day Projects, which can be found in collections including the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University, Birmingham Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, and the Phoenix Art Museum. Jared’s photographs have been featured by The New Yorker, New York Times, Forbes, The Oxford American, and The Washington Post, and his visual ethnographic research has been published in more than a dozen social science textbooks and high-impact journals.
Jared currently serves as Assistant Professor of Photography at Utah State University.
What Has Been Will Be Again
Photographed at a critical moment of pandemic and protest, economic uncertainty, and political polarization, What Has Been Will Be Again has led me across more than 15,000 miles and 50 counties to bear witness to generational racial, ecological, and economic injustice in Alabama. From Native American genocide to slavery and secession, and from the fight for civil rights to the championing of Trumpist ideology, the national history written on, in, and by the people and landscapes of my home state reveal problematic patterns at the nexus of our larger American identity.
Social isolation is both a phrase and experience that has defined the past year, and What Has Been Will Be Again expressly evokes the alienation that has characterized the moment. Yet the work features sites for which isolation and violence is nothing new—places where extracted labor and environmental exploitation have exacted heavy tolls. Such isolation is less accidental or temporal, and more a product of decades of willful neglect by a mainstream America only now starting to visualize what––and who––has been pushed out of our collective frame of vision. By tracing historic colonial routes including the Old Federal Road and Hernando de Soto’s 1540 expedition, the project illustrates the perpetuated segregation and sequestration masked by white supremacist myths of American exceptionalism and reckons a haunting yet tender look at my home state’s troublesome past and tenuous present.
Daniel George: What compelled you to traverse and photograph your home state of Alabama, and how would you say that your perspective as a native is manifest in your work?
Jared Ragland: Between 2010–2013 I served as a White House Photo Editor in the Obama White House. On my last day on the job, the president invited me into the Oval Office for a farewell meeting. During our time together we joked and talked about books and our mutual love for the writing of Walker Percy. He asked what was coming up next, and I told him about the vintage RV waiting for me back home in Alabama and how I planned to crisscross the state and make photographs. He loved the idea. But before I ever got home to Alabama, the RV blew up. And when I say blew up, I mean that literally—explosive flames, fire department, complete and utter meltdown.
While the journey I’d hope to take in the RV wouldn’t come to immediate fruition, my departure from the White House in 2013 still marks the embarkation of my artistic journey—a journey that has led me to pursuing a studio practice that critically explores Southern identity, marginalized communities, and the history of place.
Last year, the dream project I shared with President Obama finally became a reality (although sans RV) through the generous support of both the Magnum Foundation and The Do Good Fund, a Columbus, Georgia-based public charity focused on building a museum-quality collection of photographs taken in the American South since World War II.
Author and native Alabamian Rick Bragg has called the state the “crossroads of history.” In many ways, the state has also played a pivotal role in the history of photography. From Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor to Walker Evans’ chronicling of rural poverty and Gordon Parks’ Segregation Story to the documentation of the Civil Rights Movement, images of Alabama form a kind of backbone of American documentary storytelling.
As a photographer, I’m interested in engaging that documentary tradition. And as an Alabamian, I am acutely aware of and concerned with the many contradictions and complexities that exist in my home state. Through the Do Good residency I was ultimately afforded the means to travel and photograph, to look and read and listen, and to create a project that illustrates Alabama’s rich beauty and fraught history and contends with how perpetuated violence and injustices masked by white supremacist myths have made their mark across the landscape.
DG: Despite the “troublesome past and tenuous present” of the state, your photographs seek out humanity—and in many cases feel empathetic. I like the description you use in your artist statement—”haunting yet tender.” Could you talk about this nuanced approach, and why it was important to maintain throughout the project?
JR: Photography can be an incisive instrument of criticism––it can expose wrongs, illustrate facts, and reveal truths. But the camera can also be a means of connection and communication, edification and empathy. The best Southern Gothic literature isn’t just about the grotesque, it’s about finding and seeing humanity within or despite the horror. I hope my photographs can do the same.
DG: Tell us more about the title of the project, its biblical origin, and how you feel it connects to the work.
JR: When I first began working on the project, I created a reading list of Alabama-focused literature and history. On the list was All God’s Dangers, an autobiography of Nate Shaw recounting his life as a sharecropper and tenant farmer between Reconstruction and the Jim Crow-era. It is a beautiful and difficult book. Very early on in the story, somewhere within the first 10 pages, Shaw quotes Ecclesiastes 1. On the surface, that passage of scripture seems to point to the vanity and hopelessness of life, i.e. there’s nothing new under the sun/what has been will be again… But Shaw reads it differently. He sees it as a promise of hope––that, as he says, the “bottom rail will come to the top someday.” Reckoning with the cycles of injustice and envisioning redemption is integral in my aims for this project, and as soon as I read Shaw’s interpretation, I knew What Has Been Will Be Again had to be the title.
As I work within the traditions of photography in the South, it was also important for me to create connections––both directly or tangentially––to photographic history. James Agee and Walker Evans’ “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” takes its title from another “Wisdom” book from scripture––the Book of Sirach––so that connection seemed appropriately poetic.
DG: Several of your photographs utilize extended captions—guiding the viewer’s understanding and interpretation of your imagery through greater historical context. Tell us more about your intentions here.
JR: What Has Been Will Be Again is an attempt to confront the history of where I grew up, and the captions are a means of sharing that confrontation, of looking at the land and considering what has occurred on it, in it, and to it over time.
I identify my practice as less capital-P “Photography” and more about using pictures––alongside text, sequencing, installation, history, and social science research––as a means of bearing witness to the world, telling compelling, empathetic stories, and creating understanding for myself (and hopefully others).
My use of caption text connects to the realizations I made after working in the White House, particularly about the power dynamics involved in writing pictorial history and the incompleteness (if not deliberate bias) of that type of photographic record. The use of text, for me, helps fill in gaps, provides context and nuance, and creates a tension and counterpoint with the image.
DG: While reading your artist statement, I kept returning to the words “critical moment.” Perhaps because it seems that the world in general is at a reckoning point—socially, politically, and environmentally (though in reality, multiple points in human history have probably had critical moments like these). How can projects like yours, and maybe photographic work in general, help us face and reconcile our “troublesome past and tenuous present?”
JR: While it does feel we are at a particular reckoning point in our nation, What Has Been… addresses the cyclical nature of history and the patterns of inequity, tyranny, and exploitation. Every moment is consequential, and the cliché is true: those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. I believe it is our duty as citizen-artists to critically engage whatever moment we live in and see that our practices are joined the long, ongoing work against injustice.
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