Jared Ragland, Adjunct Professor
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Department of Art and Art History
Jared Ragland is a fine art and documentary photographer and former White House photo editor. Since 2014 he has taught as an adjunct professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is currently at work on a long-term collaborative photo-ethnographic project focusing on methamphetamine use in rural northeast Alabama.
Jared is the photo editor of National Geographic Books’ The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office and 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 and was awarded third place at the 2017 PhotoNOLA Review Prize for his project, Good Bad People.
His work has been shown internationally, with recent exhibitions at New Orleans’ Front, Candela Books + Gallery in Richmond, Va., the In/Out Transylvania Foto Festival in Cluj, Romania, The National Geographic Society, Birmingham Museum of Art SHIFT space, Huntsville Museum of Art, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Mobile Museum of Art, Rayko Photo, Los Angeles Center of Photography, Click! Photography Festival, and Filter Photo. Jared’s work can be found in collections at the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, Birmingham Museum of Art, Chrysler Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, and the Phoenix Art Museum, and his photographs have been featured by Forbes, The Oxford American, and The New York Times and published in top-tier social science academic journals including the International Journal of Drug Policy, Crime Media Culture, and Deviant Behavior.
During his tenure at the White House with the Bush (43) and Obama Administrations, Jared edited and designed photo books for the President, Vice President, Cabinet and First Family, curated and installed photographic exhibitions in the West Wing of the White House and at the Leica Gallery New York, Leica Gallery Berlin, and New York Public Library, and was part of the editing team responsible for the release of the now iconic photographs of President Obama in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden.
Jared is an alumnus of LaGrange College and a graduate of Tulane University with an MFA in Photography. For recent projects and news, visit jaredragland.com.
Good Bad People: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama
In April 1862 – just a year into the American Civil War – The New York Times reported on a dispatch from Union troops titled, “Advance into Alabama.” It read:
An hour before sundown we reached another barren region inhabited by poor white trash. Their houses were of the worst imaginable description, and how they managed to obtain a living upon such as soil, was a problem to us. Yet hither the pitiless monopoly of the slaveholding class had driven them, and, by some means were other, they managed to wring sufficient food to keep themselves and their children from starving, out of these inhospitable rocks.[i]
Impressions of Alabama have changed little in 150 years, particularly as the roots of deep poverty have perpetuated class division and precipitated widespread drug addiction. The rise in use of methamphetamine across the American South over the last decade has led to increased cultural anxiety about the drug and those who use it, while the general perception of the meth-head is perpetuated by popular television programs and pervasive anti-meth campaigns. These limited representations typically paint one-dimensional, demonized characters whose chronic drug use is epitomized by obsessiveness, paranoia, and monstrous physical side effects. But while there are certainly deleterious consequences to meth use and stereotypes often ring too true, existing cultural narratives too often fall short of individually considered realities.
Photographed over two years in collaboration with University of Alabama at Birmingham sociologist Heith Copes, Ph.D., GOOD BAD PEOPLE simultaneously reinforces and undermines assumptions of what it means to be a methamphetamine user and presents an intimate look into the complicated lives of those who struggle amidst drug use and diminished social status.
Traditionally, Southern Gothic literature has described the South as a deeply flawed place, where the lives of eccentric characters are shaped by poverty, alienation, crime, and violence as they struggle through morally questionable actions to make sense of the world around them. The broken, often sinister, characters in stories by Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Harry Crews embody madness, despair, and decay to reflect social realities and critique conventional cultural understandings.
Similarly, GOOD BAD PEOPLE tells the complex, often contradictory stories of more than 30 meth users from Sand Mountain, a sandstone plateau in northeast Alabama infamous for extreme poverty, poultry processing plants, Pentecostal snake-handlers, and meth production. The project includes the stories of Chico, a 48-year-old ex-convict, meth dealer, and self-proclaimed member of the Aryan Brotherhood; Ryan and Alice, a young runaway couple on the brink of a lifetime of addiction; Mono, a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang; Willow, a transient, chronic binge user; and Fred, a long-time addict who lost everything he owned in a house fire.
Undoubtedly, each viewer will interpret the stories told by the images differently. Although these interpretations can be stigmatizing, they may also facilitate more complex, implicit narratives, focus attention to an often derided and misunderstood population, and engage with the current conversation concerned with the pivotal political role and cultural identity of the marginalized rural American South.
[i] “Gen. Mitchell’s March Into Alabama”. The New York Times. April 14, 1862.
Why University of Alabama at Birmingham?
UAB is an internationally renowned, public research university and provides deep support for visual research, creative collaboration, and interdisciplinary inquiry. At UAB, we believe creative experience is influenced by place, and Birmingham is home to a vibrant community of artists, musicians, and creative entrepreneurs. Students and faculty at UAB have access to an array of resources and partnerships unmatched anywhere else in the state of Alabama.
The UAB Department of Art and Art History is led by a fantastic group of scholars, artists, designers, and educators who are recognized nationally and internationally for their research, and it’s a privilege to join them in making a mark in the classroom, across campus, and throughout the community.
The department offers BA and BFA degrees in studio art, as well as BA and MA degrees in art history and an MA in art education. Class sizes are kept small, and students are mentored through a contemporary-focused curriculum, robust visiting artist and scholars program, and engaged learning and professional development opportunities. At UAB we do not have medium-specific studio concentrations. Instead, students are encouraged to pursue their visual practice through interdisciplinary study across a curriculum that resists prerequisite coursework and encourages experimentation.
What courses do you teach?
While I serve as an adjunct at UAB, the Department of Art and Art History has provided opportunities for me to develop my own courses and offer advanced-level, rotating special topics classes. As a 2015 University of Alabama at Birmingham Faculty Fellow in Engaged Scholarship, much of my coursework integrates experiential learning and community partnerships into the curriculum.
Most recently I developed two engaged photography courses, Stories from the Line – Documenting Poverty and CAMERA-less.
Stories from the Line – Documenting Poverty led students to investigate the formation, contexts, and representation of poverty in the American South. Informed by an in-depth study of the history of documentary photography and film practice, students engaged the local Birmingham community and created semester-long photographic and film projects for public exhibition and publication.
Cross-listed as an interdisciplinary Media Studies course and co-taught with University of Alabama at Birmingham Media Studies director Michele Forman, the course was initiated in collaboration with Stephen Black, President and Founder of IMPACT America and Director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at The University of Alabama. The course served as a pilot for IMPACT America’s documentary filmmaking initiative, which aims to provide an accessible window into the lives of families responding to the challenges of poverty in America.
Several student films from the class were accepted into the 2016 Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, and art studio student Devin Lunsford’s documentary photographs of former methamphetamine cooks was published in the social science journal Deviant Behavior in 2017.
To read more about the course and the Stories from the Line initiative visit the IMPACT America website at: http://impactamerica.com/about-stories-from-the-line/
Another special topics class, CAMERA-less, was taught at an introductory level and open to students without any prerequisite coursework in photography. The class focused on the aesthetic and conceptual implications of current lens-based practices through assignments considering image appropriation, construction, digital manipulation, image archives, government surveillance, and visual mapping. To fulfill assignments, students use traditional cameras as well as their cell phones; appropriated images, gifs and memes were also welcomed.
In addition to daily and weekly assignments, students worked throughout the semester on individual research projects to recontextualize and reanimate content from the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Hansen Library. Each project was presented as a limited-edition artist book or zine and accessioned into the BMA’s artist book collection at the end of the course.
To read more about the class, see the UAB news story about the zine projects here: https://www.uab.edu/news/student-experience/item/7633-self-published-artist-books-and-zines-made-by-uab-students-now-part-of-birmingham-museum-of-art-collection
How does your program bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary photographic practices?
As the medium has evolved greatly over recent decades, UAB Professor Sonja Rieger has built and led a photography program that integrates a variety of methodologies, where traditional and contemporary approaches are taught in tandem. In beginning and intermediate courses, students learn traditional wet darkroom methods alongside digital file management and production, and their study is augmented by regularly offered classes in alternative processes, studio lighting, and documentary practices. Rotating special topics courses, offered both within the photo area and across the department, provide opportunities for photography students to work in sculpture, collage, video and animation, and design.
Describe the process of output for photographs.
The crafting of an art object – the photographic print – is essential to a relevant contemporary practice, and the photography facilities at UAB encourage making of all kinds. Each time I walk into the photography area at UAB I am pleased to see a variety of production. Students are often at work on large-scale digital prints, cyanotypes or Van Dyke prints, and traditional silver gelatin prints, sometimes even combining each of these methods in single projects.
Describe the critique format.
Instead of focusing solely on studio critique (which, let’s be honest, is often viewed by students in the same way as a biology exam: with deep sense of dread), I rely on a variety of methods to generate student learning, growth, and critical evaluation.
By combining studio assignments with museum and library visits, multimedia resources (such as literature, films, podcasts), and visiting artist programming, my goal is to create a classroom culture based in academic curiosity that fosters sharing, collaboration, and conversation. Carefully structured critical reflection (which includes student-led class presentations, writing and journaling, and studio critique) intentionally connects students’ creative work with course content and historical contexts to provide a variety of ways in which students may test the strengths and limitations of their work, integrate new experience against existing knowledge, and analyze their assumptions and beliefs in open, constructive dialogue.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?