Photojournalist Graduates from Extension School for Harvard Ph.D. Program – Harvard Gazette | Ad On Picture

This story is part of a set of graduate profiles before the opening ceremonies in May.

It’s clear that Ryan Christopher Jones, a freelance photojournalist who brings an anthropologist’s perspective to his work, will be starting a PhD in the field at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences this fall.

But it took two decades, a gift with the camera, and Harvard Extension School to get him there.

Jones ’22 had spent years covering labor, migration and environmental stories in Mexico and the United States, and researching his family’s roots across the border. Over the course of this time, Jones, who is Mexican, began to crave more. When he found what he was looking for in a course at the Extension School, his “whole life blew up”.

The course was “Moctezuma’s Mexico Then and Now: The Deep History, Triumphs, and Transformations of the Aztecs and Their Descendants,” taught by Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin American Studies. It provided Jones with the broader cultural and historical context for his work that he was looking for, introduced him to his academic passion, and helped him see his legacy in a new light.

“I always thought I was either too white to be white or too white to be Mexican,” said Jones, whose maternal grandparents moved from Mexico to California, where they became farmhands in the 1940s and 1950s. His paternal grandparents were from Oklahoma and Missouri. “Davíd spoke about his own split heritage and identity, saying that instead of seeing it as not enough of one of the other, you have to look at it in a way that you can judge the center and the periphery from two different perspectives.”

More anthropology classes followed, and soon Jones was hooked. “It was about asking and answering questions that I’ve had as a journalist and photographer for years, and in the end it was this huge framework that helped me understand the world.”

He ended up graduating with a liberal arts degree from Extension School with a major in anthropology (he began college at Fresno State and left a few credits short of his 2005 degree). But it turned out that this was only the beginning.

His professors were impressed by his photographic work and his Harvard research, which included an anthropological essay on mosh pits, a peer-reviewed paper on tourism and souvenirs, and a recent project with Lisa Gulesserian, a teacher of Armenian language and culture. how western media reported about the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They encouraged him to apply to doctoral programs.

“As an anthropologist, I’ve seen his stories and it was very clear that through his images alone he was able to provide a deep understanding of the people he was photographing,” said Jason Ur, Stephen Phillips professor of archeology and ethnology, who was helping Jones to advise on grad school. “I was really struck by the empathy he had for the Sikh farmers of California’s Central Valley, the first story of his that I was told. It was like ethnography… he was already looking through his camera like an anthropologist.”

Jones has long been an advocate of ethical photojournalism, and in 2018 wrote an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the media’s sensationalist coverage of drug addicts. “Part of our work is to visualize issues that the general public does not have immediate access to,” he wrote. “We have a responsibility to portray the visceral realities of an often devastating world, but we also have a responsibility to preserve the humanity of the people we photograph.”

In 2020, Jones captured that humanity in his most challenging shoot ever. Hired by the Times to cover COVID patients receiving their last rites, he camped out in a Brookline hotel room, camera in hand, awaiting a call from the hospital on a possible topic. This was in the earliest, darkest days of the pandemic, when family members were not allowed to be with loved ones to say goodbye. Jones would arrive, don head-to-toe personal protective equipment, and join a similarly dressed priest and a nurse or two at a patient’s bedside.

He still feels the weight of this task.

“It expanded my understanding of what it means to be a witness and how it is an incredible privilege and responsibility for a photographer to document someone’s final moments,” Jones said. “I still can’t look at these pictures properly. It’s still so visceral to me.”

Jones discovered his passion for photography in college, but struggled to narrow his focus during his coursework at Fresno State. “I was interested in architecture, music, philosophy, Latin, theology,” he said. “I was everywhere and I couldn’t really connect all those interests to the real world and that was the big problem.”

In the end, it was a camera lens that helped him see his passion clearly. A college job developing film sparked his interest in photography. Not long after, he was traveling the world as a wedding photographer. Then, in 2012, a friend asked Jones to freelance at The Fresno Bee, and things changed. “The idea of ​​documenting my community was really strong,” he said, “and I absolutely fell in love with it on the first few commissions.”

Jones closed his wedding photography business a year later and headed across the country to New York City hoping to make it as a photojournalist. Today he is a regular contributor to The Times, Washington Post and ProPublica. He is also the recipient of the $100,000 2022 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, awarded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, which recognizes “outstanding achievement in the detailed, narrative, or detailed reporting of stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in of the contemporary American landscape”. According to the jury, Jones’ photography “skillfully sheds light on the complex lives of people who rarely make the news.”

And now he’s planning a dissertation based on his work in the Central Valley and Mexican-American communities. “Anthropologically,” he said, “I am expanding my work as a journalist.

“Ultimately, I want to teach, I want to keep doing research,” Jones added, “and I want to keep using photography to explore anthropological ideas and really bring those ideas to the public.”

Ur said he looks forward to watching Jones take advantage of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory and his expertise in critical media practices, and to pursuing his promising career.

“After reading his work and getting to know him,” Ur said, “this guy is going to be a rock star.”

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