Storytellers Conference Speaker Series: Ryan Christopher Jones

As part of Confluence Magazine’s sponsorship of the inaugural Storytellers Conference, we are proud to bring you a series of interviews by the keynote speakers and teachers headlining this year’s Conference. In keeping with Confluence Magazine’s focus on long term projects, editor Katie Jett Walls asked each of the keynote speakers about the personal work that they shoot. Our first interview is with freelance photojournalist Ryan Christopher Jones.

Katie Jett Walls: Can you tell us about a long-term personal project you’ve worked on - either finished or still in process, and how long have you worked on it? 

Ryan: For the last two years I've been working on a story called No Estuve Aquí (“I Was Not Here”) that is a personal project on my relationship with Mexico. I suppose I can say it’s still in-progress, but it’s not even a project I officially started, so it’s rather transient in both idea and execution.

Katie: Why is the project important to you personally, and who else might find the project meaningful? 

Ryan: Most of the work I do as a journalist is tangible and narrative, but this story is bit more interpretive and nonlinear. I grew up as Mexican-American in California who couldn’t speak Spanish because my grandmother assimilated to the United States by not teaching Spanish to her kids for fear of discrimination. Without knowing the language to talk about how Mexico lives within my family’s history, the idea of Mexico remained a distant one for me until my late twenties (I am now 36.) I am lucky enough to work in Mexico a few times a year, so whenever I go back I try to find pictures just for me; pictures that will speak to how I see Mexico and how it sees me. 

At its core it’s an identity project — and regardless of one’s background — how we situate and understand ourselves within the world is something we can all relate to. I think it could be especially revealing to people stuck between two big ideas: two cultures, two races, two countries, two classes, two religions. I hope the photos and words can transcend whether or not you’re Mexican or American, but can instead speak to the idea of being accepted within two social spheres.

Katie: How did the project challenge you and help you grow as a photographer? 

Ryan: The first chapter of this story was published by the Washington Post last year, and I was amazed at the response I received from people from all over the country. Identity is usually something we think of or talk about privately—by ourselves and within the confines of our own thoughts. But it was reassuring to hear from people that felt the same way I did, and to know that a lot of people struggle with justifying the discrepancy between how we see ourselves versus how the world sees us. Trying to visualize that struggle has been an important motivation in continuing the project. More importantly, it showed me that this specific viewpoint is a part of all the work I make as a journalist, and that it’s not neatly contained within the boundaries of the personal project. A good personal project, done with the most honest and curious of intentions, should naturally and organically bleed into everything we make as photographers. It should inform how we see and what we hear. It should let us know that we’re on the right path in exploring our curiosities and making sense of the world around us. 

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Ryan Christopher Jones is a Mexican-American photojournalist originally from California’s Central Valley and currently based in New York City. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times as both a photographer and writer, and he has recently covered the U.S./Mexico border, the American opioid crisis and the Annapolis newsroom shooting. Ryan is currently a student of American History at Harvard University, and he’s a lot more fun in person than he sounds in this bio. 

Katie Jett Walls is editor of Confluence Magazine, and a documentary photographer, creating visual stories for families in the Washington DC area, as well shooting documentary projects that give voice to those in marginalized communities and witness to the human experience.