Fine Art Photography Daily

Susana Raab: The States Project: District of Columbia

Coney Island, New York, 2005 Fans of Japanese Hot Dog Eating Contest winner Takeru Kobayashi, wave to garner his attention from the sidelines of the contest.  Nathan's Hot Dogs hosts the Hot Dog eating contest annually on the fourth of July.

©Susana Raab, Food-Fighter Fans, Coney Island, New York

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.

Midway, London, Kentucky, 2005 Boys play a game where they hit a punching ball to test their strength at the World Chicken Festival.

©Susana Raab, Midway, London, Kentucky

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.


Rank Strangers

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.

London, Kentucky, 2007 Three competitors in the annual Col. Sander's look-alike contest held at the World Chicken Festival, prepare to face-off, with a quick run of the comb through the hair.  The World Chicken Festival is a celebration of all things, Col. Harlan Sanders.

©Susana Raab, Finger Lookin’ Good, London, Kentucky

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).

Picture 017

©Susana Raab, Miss Senior Congress Heights, Washington, D.C.

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.

Metropolis, Illinois, 2005 A man poses in front of a billboard advertising the Superman museum with a large plastic drink mug, bearing the McDonald's logo.

©Susana Raab, Super-Soda, Metropolis, Illinois

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.

Immokalee, Florida, 2006 Migrant day laborers from Mexico and Guatemala outside their trailer at day's end.  Life for migrant laborers is a mostly ascetic existence, living without the comforts and familiarities of home, with a group of strange men, bound by a common language but little else.  These migrants pick tomatoes, many of which end up as products in fast food restaurants.

©Susana Raab, Migrant Laborers, Immokalee, Florida

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.

Lady Liberty after the Memorial Day Parade, Washington, DC  A Statue of Liberty replica awaits moving at the termination of the annual Memorial Day parade in Washington, DC.

©Susana Raab, After the Parade, Washington, D.C.

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?

Honestly, I could live almost anywhere. However, D.C. is a wonderful city for many reasons. We have all the amenities of a large metropolis, while still feeling like an urban woodland in places. Rock Creek Park is the largest park in the U.S., over twice the size of Central Park, and meanders all over the city. Our cultural heritage institutions like the Smithsonian, National Gallery Art, National Archives, and Library of Congress (to name just a few) provide us with a steady flow of fascinating exhibits, and public programming. So many great artists, thinkers, writers, and activists whistle-stop through here, combined with a strong international presence ensures that the conversations are never boring and you have access to experts in any topic you might care to explore. We are an easy train ride to Philly and New York, and a few hours away from great outdoor recreation. What more could a person want? We are a city of contrasts: the most highly educated city in the U.S. with some of the wealthiest people in America, but we also have neighborhoods where the statistics are comparable to those in our poorest states.
The World's Most Expensive Barbie, Washington, D.C. Barbie fans gather round a vintage Barbie at the 50th anniversary Barbie convention, Washington, D.C.

©Susana Raab, Worlds’ Most Expensive Barbie, Washington, D.C.

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?

Rank Strangers is pulled from several projects I have worked on over the years. So it was not informed by any one idea, but rather revisits and honors this cast of characters whom I have come across in my journey. I am not sure I have really ever finished a project, and I used to beat myself up about it, but now I can see the advantage of letting my images sit amongst themselves for a while and when you revisit them they show you something else. Or perhaps I change and then I mediate it differently. Honestly, when things are going well, I just prefer to let that mystery be and work from a completely intuitive place. I like to overthink in the edit.
Young Man and Dog, Barry Farms, SE, Washington, DC

©Susana Raab, A Boy and His Dog, Washington, D.C.

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.

Sleeping Elvis, Kissimmee, Florida, 2005 A boy sleeps in his fathers arms at the culmination of the EP Continentals, the oldest Elvis' Fan Club, annual fundraiser in Kissimee, Florida.  At right is Elvis' last nurse, Marian Cocke.

©Susana Raab, Sleeping Elvis, Kissimmee, Florida

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.

Phat-Rabbitz, Cumberland, Maryland 2003 Teenagers dance under the gaze of an eight  year-old girl, at Phat Rabbitz , a VERY under-21 no alcohol dance club located in the Cumberland Armory on Friday evenings.

©Susana Raab, Phat Rabbitz 21-and-Under Club, Cumberland, Maryland

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.


©Susana Raab, Blops, Jessup, Maryland

What’s next?

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.

Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

©Susana Raab, Matriarch, Natchez, Mississippi

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.

Teenagers, Cumberland, Maryland, 2007.

©Susana Raab, Teenagers, Cumberland, Maryland


©Susana Raab, Houston Rodeo Trade Show, Houston, Texas

Exploring the Tomb, The HolyLand Experience, Orlando, Florida 2005

©Susana Raab, The Holyland Experience, Orlando, Florida

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