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Picturing the True South

02/24/2014

Grad student RaMell Ross first began documenting rural Alabama five years ago, when he worked as a photography instructor.

RaMell Ross MFA 14 PH has a knack for capturing the quiet moments that offer a rare glimpse into Hale County, a rural region of Alabama known for its antebellum houses and fields dotted with tufts of white cotton. The graduate student is creating a thoughtful collection of portraiture, landscape photography and film that pays homage to the beauty and humanity of those who live in the remote territory. According to the artist, every face he photographs has a unique story to tell.

“Every gesture and eye twitch – no matter how subtle – is an indictor of my subject’s state of mind,” notes Ross. “I hope that it gives outsiders a window into what’s bubbling underneath the surface.” 

Ross isn’t the first gifted artist to be intrigued by the citizens of Hale County. Iconic photographer Walker Evans included portraits of the area’s struggling farmers in his 1941 novel Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Visitors to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, can see an exhibition by famed county native William Christenberry featuring snapshots of forgotten churches, barns and one-room schoolhouses.

But Ross’ survey of Hale County offers a fresher – and perhaps more authentic – brand of Southern romanticism. For his latest project, an experimental film, the RISD grad student shadows two young black men at the cusp of adulthood. With a camera in hand, Ross follows them as they attend family baby showers, visit the local barbershop, shop for baby clothes and receive Holy Communion. The poetic piece also includes short cuts that capture the economically depressed region’s darker moments: a couple engaged in a physical fight and a teenager concealing a loaded gun in his drawstring pants.

“I like to tell real, contemporary stories of the South through the eyes of an African American man,” Ross notes. “Everyone wants to photograph picturesque plantations and abandoned Civil War-era buildings. But there’s so much more to uncover.”

Ross first began documenting Hale County in 2009 when he was hired as a photography instructor for YouthBuild, a nonprofit that encourages teenagers to pursue higher education. Two months later, he accepted a position as a youth manager at Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO), a federally funded philanthropic organization that seeks to act as a catalyst for community development and reduce poverty in the Alabama Black Belt. Answering to the nickname “Uncle RaMell,” the artist not only helped his young mentees apply for college and map out their professional goals, he also jumped in to assist with daily tasks such as figuring out a tricky math problem or scheduling a doctor’s visit.

“I wouldn't tell my students what to do. I’m not that narcissistic to think I know what’s best for them,” he notes. “More often than not, they just needed someone to be a friend.”

Ross is actually an ideal  role model for teenagers. In 2000 the Virginia native earned an athletic scholarship to attend Georgetown University and rack up points for the school’s NCAA basketball team as a point guard. Now playing with the Balls at RISD, he was key to a recent win over rival Cooper Union. “When I was a teenager, basketball was my life,” Ross explains. “I would practice for hours and hours each day. And when I wasn’t on the court, I was thinking about the game. It was an obsession, really.”

Well over six-feet tall, the lanky athlete had plans to play for the National Basketball Association (NBA) until repeated shoulder and foot injuries kept him on the sidelines. Shifting his focus to academics, he majored in English and sociology at Georgetown and took a class in photography before graduating in 2005. “I realized that there was a big world outside of basketball – and I wanted to see some of it,” he notes.

Soon after earning his degree, Ross parlayed his athletic prowess and intellectual aptitude into a position working as a program manager at PeacePlayers International, an organization that unites young people in war-torn communities through the joy of basketball. He spent over a year in Belfast, Ireland coaching and mending social rifts dividing Protestant and Catholic children. “The more I travel, the more I see how we're all alike,” he notes. “Kids just want to play together, especially when they’re really young and untouched by bigotry and prejudice.”

Ross says his travels have only deepened his gratitude for the opportunities he has earned – including his acceptance into the Photography department. Originally attracted to RISD because of the faculty’s deep appreciation for maker culture, he says he also values the school’s wide-ranging connections to Brown University. “I wanted to reinforce the perspective I cultivated while studying liberal arts at Georgetown by developing my artistic practice in an environment in which those intellectual and emotional pursuits are valued and fostered,” he explains.

And though Ross is no longer making a living in Alabama, he plans on continuing to visit his “second home” to mentor students and document the region. “I’ll never stop going back to Hale County,” he notes. “It’s a part of me.”

–Abigail Crocker

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tags: graduate, nonprofits, public engagement, social responsibility, Photography, students, diversity

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At RISD there's nothing unusual about suddenly finding a doorknob on a tree trunk, shown here across from Carr House,
the charming home of Student Life offices and the student-run Carr Haus Café.