Ransom Ashley makes you feel less alone in this wild world.
March 15, 2020 / Jade Fabello
When Ransom Ashley says goodbye, he’ll confirm where you’re from. He wants to know if you’re already aware that in the South: we hug. Ransom Ashley, 27, is an internationally recognized photographer, actor, and cinematographer with work appearing across publications like Teen Vogue, Tribeza, and The New York Times. Ransom is always looking for what connects with people. Whether he just said hello or had a three-hour chat with you, it will feel bittersweet to have to end a conversation with your new best friend.
Raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, Ransom moved to New York to pursue photography. But he would return to Louisiana for family reasons. Now, he and his fiancé, Hunter, live in Austin. A lot of Ransom’s work explores both his coming-of-age story and the emotions felt by vulnerable populations in the South. On the Monday we met, Ransom sat with the sun at his back at the new creative coworking space, The Commune (where he serves as community manager). His hair fell perfectly out of place, and even after the space closed and all the busy creatives cleared out, his voice rarely rose above a gentle and plodding timbre.
So I take it Shreveport fashion didn’t quite do it for you. How would you describe it?
There's a country element, but it's just so safe and banal. I think people are too scared to rail against the status quo because you could be targeted in those smaller towns if you do stand out too much. Mind you, my experience was probably a little harsher because I was in a religious Baptist school. I had friends that went to a magnet school that I wish I could’ve gone to. I would've needed less therapy.
So from Shreveport Baptist schools to Parsons New School of Design in New York — that sounds like two very different experiences.
Oh my God, it was. I remember buying so many cool pieces of clothing on Topman and Asos — ‘cause God knows we didn't have any stores that were fashionable in Shreveport. And I’d buy them thinking that I was somehow going to gain the courage to walk downstairs without wondering what my mom or dad was going to say. The clothes would just sit in my closet. But then I remember packing those up and taking them to New York. I finally felt free.
A lot of creatives dream about moving out to New York, but you’ve talked previously about feeling disconnected from the work you made there. What was it like to return to Louisiana?
I didn't pick up on a lot of things about my upbringing until I came back and saw them through a different lens. I think there's a richness in the way that the South made me feel. It sounds so masochistic. But I like feeling like I'm in a place where I’m connected to those early experiences that caused me to make art in the first place.
The South is still your home.
Yes. I think I realized who I was when I came back to Louisiana. It's funny to reflect on this because now I'm in Austin. But in general, down here, I'm observing the experiences of marginalized people, and in New York, it's almost like it blended into the walls more. And now that I think about it, maybe I was just too happy and busy in New York. Disconnected. I grew up with the land. Being in a place with so much noise and concrete — there was just too much static. Louisiana put me back in touch with this emotional fire that I felt as a kid that I didn't know how to express. And it's like New York gave me the confidence that I needed to come back and to channel that fire into creating meaningful work.
You talk a lot about grief in some of your social posts. So how exactly do you engage with grief?
I’d consider myself a pretty emotional person. I usually try — and it doesn't always work this way — to express the emotions that I feel, whether it be grief or loneliness, in the most constructive way that I can. If you can use your gifts or your career, your resources — whatever it is — to make someone else feel less alone, then you should do it. You know? Because that’s what I needed when I was growing up. There were so many times where I felt like I didn’t have a soul in the world that would understand me or embrace me for who I was. So much of that has changed now, but I still am so connected to those feelings and how important it is to tell those stories. If I can tell a story or post a picture that makes someone feel represented or seen or beautiful, then not only should I do it, but to me, that’s the best thing about what I do.
Did you ever have doubts about sharing deeply personal work?
I remember doing one of my first interviews and talking about my experiences coming of age in the Bible Belt. I was reluctant in the first place because I knew I was going to be talking about things that people maybe didn't want to confront about the place I lived and went to school in. It did get backlash. There were people that felt like I was talking about them, but I was just talking about my experience. It's something that I've had to shed: stopping myself from doing things that I need to do or saying things that I need to say. It's important that we don't wash over our experiences. So much of healing is being honest with what we went through and what we experienced. It shouldn't be controversial to exist.
Do you remember a particular shoot where this all became real to you? Where you felt that you weren’t simply snapping photos?
Hmm. I'm, like, going on this journey with you. I haven't been forced to think about these seemingly transient, mundane moments that happen. They can kind of skim by like whispers. But it’d probably be with my best friend at the time. I remember her laying down in this grassy field by my house. There was a sadness that I saw, and I felt so connected to it. I can't quite say if it was that moment where I realized I was doing something more than just taking pictures. But I do remember seeing her and realizing, ‘I'm not going to take a picture of her running through the field. Those raw emotions are what I need to capture. This is the story that I want to tell.’
As you get more intentional as a craftsman and creative, do you fear losing that unfiltered, raw component?
Absolutely. It's such a balance. You can be intentional yet not contrived. But it's hard. I do fear that if I steer in one direction too far, I could become less effective. I'm learning now that I have to surrender, because the shot is not always going to be the idea that I have in my mind. I hope that I have the objectivity to see that even when it's not what I expect it to be, it's still okay and powerful and people can still connect to it.
Apart from the craft, what’s something odd about you? Do you collect anything?
Oh, miniatures! My fiancé Hunter gave this toy crane to me for Christmas one year. It has like a little claw that you can maneuver around to pick up these little miniature toys and bring them back up. When people come over, we let them put a coin in and choose something out of the crane. There's just something so fun and colorful about it. Color is so connected to emotion with me. I think that also goes back to Louisiana. It's a very colorful place. ■
by: Jade Fabello