The photographer capturing the melancholy of the queer community.
“Sometimes it’s in the darkest places that you find yourself,” reads the front cover of Ransom Ashley’s Wombat Art Box, which also happens to perfectly sum up the journey of the 24-year-old Louisiana photographer so far.
Before the days of pinning images on Pinterest and liking photos on Tumblr to keep a collection of your favourite visuals, there was another method, a more traditional one, where you would buy your favourite photographs directly from the photographer or post office and store them in a cardboard box. Wombat is a Paris-based company bringing back that throwback touch – every two months, a new box is released that highlights the work of a photographer. From Beth Ditto’s brazen allure captured by Mathieu César to Ashley’s upcoming tales of transgender and gender-queer communities in the American south, titled “Marginalized Identities”.
Ashley’s images hold the hostile hues of adulthood America for minorities under the Trump administration. Taking cues from photography’s great Cindy Sherman and Guy Bourdin, Ashley has documented the shattering lives of a community that is in constant defence-mode.
We sat down with the photographer to talk about his journey so far…
How did the Wombat box collaboration come about?
Wombat contacted me about the opportunity when they were getting ready to present in Arles. I had been in contact with Laurent, the founder of Wombat – he was familiar with my work and then the stars just aligned. They are really the only publisher I know of that’s doing limited edition art boxes.
Looking back at your work, how does it make you feel?
I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of everything I want to say. It feels enlightening to look back through my photographs, which essentially represent chapters in my life. Seeing how I’ve grown and how my perspective has evolved. I think I’ve primarily gained a greater understand of myself and the people around me. The body of work I’m currently working on, it’s been an emotional experience to connect with the subjects and really find the humanity (and the suffering) within their stories
What is your method when you are approached for a new project? How do you come up with that light-bulb idea?
I used to approach my photography as though it was my diary, never with the intention of really sharing it with anyone. I would conceptualise things so that they transmitted the emotions I felt at certain times in my life. Now, I’m a lot more spontaneous and daring with my work. It is sometimes hard to find a balance between what people want and what you feel like needs to be said. At the end of the day, I try to create things that feel authentic to who I am and my experience because when I look back on my life through my pictures, I want to be proud of what I did and what I said.
LGBTQIA+ is such a strong focus point — tell us more about your personal relation to it? And how do you express yourself through documenting LGBTQIA+ subjects?
For some people in our community, identification was not so central to their coming-of-age experience. For me, it was just a huge facet of my life, even before I knew or had come to terms with my own identity. Growing up in a southern Baptist school, the horrible bullying I experienced was such a huge part of my life and story. It shaped and affected all areas of my life. My exploration through my photography and film has almost allowed me to reclaim that part of my life, to take back something that was stolen from me and perhaps use it as a means to connect with others and better understand myself. I want to create a conversation about the experiences of people who deviate from the status quo, especially within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Your photographs are so cinematic — what were the reference points in your photographs?
During the darkest times in my life, I always looked to films for comfort. They allowed me to escape and gave me time to travel through my isolation. This was the first time I fell in love with storytelling and what led me to have more of a cinematic approach to my artistry.
What message did you want to send through this collection of photographs?
The collection of photographs in my Wombat box spans all the way back to the beginning of my work and is entitled ‘Virgins’ to allude to that. It includes work from my current, ongoing body of work “Marginalized Identities” and offers a very broad view of my work on identity up to this point.
Tell us a bit more about growing up in America. What does it mean to be an American in a climate where gender and sexuality is undermined by the Trump administration?
It was always instilled in me that I could achieve anything I dreamed of if I was willing to work hard enough for it. America is so vast that it’s difficult to characterise. My experience growing up was wonderful in every aspect except for the small-mindedness that runs rampant in so many American small towns, including my own. I love my country because of its diversity and opportunities it brings due to that diversity and not despite it.
Your photographs capture struggle, sadness and heartbreak. What is it about misery that strikes you?
Instead of writing my feelings down on a piece of paper to release and understand them, I take photographs. Misery doesn’t strike me; the human experience strikes me. My personal photographs are my ponderings on my own experience about what it means to be human. Struggle, sadness, and heartbreak were a large part of my unique human experience. Those were also the times in my life where I felt I learned the most. I feel that my struggles make my story and that it’s because of them that I feel like I have something to say or something to pull from in an attempt to connect people to my work on a visceral level.
Where do you draw the line when making your art?
I constantly push myself to explore the boundaries of what I can create. I usually set out with clear objectives as to what I want an image to say, but I often get completely wrapped up in my instincts when I am actually shooting. My earlier work now feels more subdued to me, because as I branch out into the world and meet people, I find that there are stories happening all around me that just need to be captured.
Ransom Ashley’s Wombat box is available for purchase here.