Ryan Debolski is a Detroit-based photographer, who studied photography at Cranbrook Academy of Art. His recent project, ‘Like’, published by Gnomic Book, explores the physical and digital relationships of the migrant workers who build the infrastructure of Oman, a rapidly modernizing country rich in oil and natural gas.
What were the key elements to your photographic education? I don’t just mean photographers—I’m thinking of key life experiences or other forms of art, such as cinema/painting/sculpture?
I didn’t seriously get into photography until after I graduated college. My early interests weren’t art-related, but I considered myself a visual person. I traveled a lot when I was younger and got exposed to many different cultures, so I’ve always been interested in global issues. Those experiences really left a lasting impression on me. I first became aware of photography as an art form after being introduced to work from the Düsseldorf School. I immediately wanted to learn how to use a 4×5 camera and try replicating the images I admired by artists like Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth, etc. Later, pursuing an MFA in photography at Cranbrook Academy of Art was a big turning point in my practice. I was pushed to look past my traditionalist views of photography and experiment with new ways to conceptualize my ideas.
What was the starting point of the series? What brought you to Oman?
I have family that has lived in the Gulf region for a while, so that brought me to the United Arab Emirates often to work on various photography projects. We would usually drive to Oman during my visit for a quick holiday. I remember being captivated by what seemed to me like otherworldly landscapes. Compared to a place like Dubai, Oman felt altogether different. I knew at some point I wanted to return to make a body of work there. After graduate school, I was awarded a grant to spend a year in Oman. My proposed project was entirely different; it was focused more on architecture. The work in my book, LIKE, came about completely by accident. I didn’t have any intentions of photographing migrant workers or telling a story about migrant labor. At a certain point, I realized I found something vastly more interesting, and I decided to change direction.
How did you approach the migrant workers? All these people look very intimate near you and your camera. How was your relationship?
I stumbled upon a group of migrant workers one day walking on a beach near my residence in Muscat. I didn’t approach anyone for a while, but I would return frequently and kept seeing these groups of men whenever I was there. I gathered the courage to finally speak up one day and started a conversation with a man from India, who told me his story. I had my camera with me, and that eventually led to taking some informal portraits. We exchanged WhatsApp numbers, and I offered to send the images to him. I kept coming back to the beach and was introduced to more and more groups of laborers over time. Eventually, I was invited to hang out and take part in their activities on the beach. I think the closeness developed organically over the course of my time there. We became friends. The book contains excerpts of our WhatsApp conversations that help contextualize the images and give some insight into the nature of our connection.
When and where did you get your political consciousness from?
I never set out to make political work, but it possibly comes from having a global perspective on things and being genuinely interested in the world. I come from a multi-ethnic family background that instilled a passion for history, language, and geography. Photography has given me opportunities to interact with and critique globalism in a direct way. Much of the artwork I like to look at fits in the intersection between geopolitics and art, so that influences my viewpoint as well.
In ‘Like’ we see a combination of vibrant colors and black & white photographs. Why do you choose this route?
I wanted to separate the beach from what was going on in the rest of the country. I liked how the empty mountain and desert landscapes looked rendered in black and white. The harsh, graphic tones also worked really well with construction sites and machinery details. The beach, on the other hand, represented a more humanistic side so keeping those images in color made sense. I think the contrasting tonalities play well off each either. There are instances in the book where those rules were broken though. It also happened to be a useful method for organizing my images. I had a massive amount of photos to sift through, and finding a way to categorize things helped me a great deal.
Could you share some thoughts on the decisions you made with the Gnomic Book publishing house for the book designing, binding, paper?
My designer and publisher, Jason Koxvold, was pivotal in shaping the look and feel of the book. We both agreed early on that we wanted something raw and less polished than traditional hardcover photo books. The cover and paper choice definitely factored into that decision. I was excited to experiment with the design, but not at the expense of sacrificing a semblance of structure to keep it reigned in and focused. One of the biggest challenges was trying to figure out how to make the text work in the book. There was a lot of trial and error, but I’m extremely pleased with the way it all came together.
What are the possible dynamics between photography and text – how and when do they enhance each other?
The interplay between text and imagery in LIKE is integral for the book’s narrative. Looking back, I can’t imagine making it without including the text excerpts. It wasn’t until years later, after I shot the photos, that I even toyed with the idea of including text. I feel lucky that I never deleted anything from my phone. My early book mockups with only photographs never felt right to me; something was always missing. Text added another dimension, and I think that made the images more poignant. Finding the right balance was increasingly important because it had to flow naturally with the photos to prevent the story from becoming disjointed and a little too abstract. We needed to have just the right amount, not too much to overwhelm the viewer, but enough to steer the narrative along.
More on his website