This year’s winner of the Michael P. Smith Memorial Award for Documentary Photography was awarded to LSU professor, Jeremiah Ariaz. As an awarded photographer, Ariaz has displayed his work nationally and internationally. As an artist committed to an authentic vision, Ariaz’s work explores Louisiana culture and history. His project, Louisiana Trail Riders, explores the traditions rooted in Creole culture through a black and white lens.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Ariaz where he opened up about his passion for humanities, his work, and what’s to come next:
As a documentary photographer, where do you get your inspiration for your work?
My inspiration comes from the world. In photography, I find real life more fascinating, complicated, and compelling than fabricated narratives. My work is a way for me to connect with people, but also the photographs allow me to tell stories that invite a viewer to comment with the world in a manner they might not otherwise have an opportunity to.
Have you always had a passion for the humanities?
I’ve always been passionate about what life has to offer – art, film, music, literature. I find it immensely rewarding to be interwoven in the fabric of life. I went to art school. I learned to create, but I also learned how to appreciate, how to reflect, how to communicate, how to problem solve. A liberal arts education can be immensely rewarding.
As a Louisiana based photographer working at Louisiana’s flagship university, what do you think makes our state so special?
The cultural life of Louisiana is incredibly rich. I’ve spent the last five years photographing Creole trail riding clubs, a culture I, and most people, know very little about. The natural landscape of the state is also very seductive. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to every state in the union and there is no place like Louisiana. After ten years in this state, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this deeply rich and complicated place.
As a professor at LSU you share your passion for the humanities with the students. How are you able to encourage students to take their passions for the humanities outside of the classroom and into the professional world?
Photography is the perfect vehicle for students to take their passions into the world. Through the medium of photography students can explore their interests and draw people’s attention to things that are of important to them. Lewis Hine, a photographer that worked to bring about positive social change said, “There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”
I think you create safe space in the classroom for students to articulate what is of value to them, then through the medium of photography you give students a powerful tool to engage with whatever that is. The photographs can celebrate what is valuable to them or fight for it. For example, I’ve had several students photographing Louisiana’s disappearing coast. Their work is deeply personal to them because of their family’s connection to it, but also an important record of a land that is nearly lost.
What made you want to start your blog, the Red Stick Rambler?
I wanted to create a space to share things that inspire me such as other photographers, artworks, design, music, as well as things that I collect such as vernacular photography. For example, last week on the 50th anniversary of the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King I created and shared a playlist reflecting on King’s legacy and the current state of the country. I also share photographs that are not my professional work, such as travel, etc. At first glance it might look eclectic, but everything is rooted in my personal experience. It’s both a place to reflect on the day and escape from it.
What is your next step (project, exhibition, ect..)?
Louisiana Trail Riders is a traveling exhibition with upcoming dates at Duke Center for Documentary Studies (2018), the Kansas State University Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art (2019), and the Acadiana Art Center (2020). Center for Louisiana Studies UL Press is releasing a monograph of the work this fall so I’ll be traveling to promote the book. As far as my artwork goes, my projects always unfold over several years -I’m interested in ‘time’ itself as subject -so I already have other works underway. Later this year I’ll be capping a decade-long project, Tucumcari documenting the small New Mexico town that I began around the time of the country’s largest economic decline since the Great Depression. I’m also a few years into a very biographical project, Plain Song that features photographs from my family’s ancestral farm in Russell County, my mother’s home in Great Bend, and friends and family in Kansas where I was raised.
What was your reaction when you were told that you were the winner of the Michael P. Smith Memorial Award for Documentary Photography presented by LEH?
It’s always a pleasant surprise to have one’s work recognized. I’m deeply honored by the award and pleased that it was the beginning of a series of awards for the Louisiana Trail Riders photographs. Since the announcement from LEH in January, I’ve been fortunate to be named the 2018 Louisiana State Fellow from SOUTH ARTS and just last week became the recipient of an ATLAS award. As an artist, these awards help me make work I feel is valuable, and hopefully, be valued by others in the world. Louisiana Trail Riders is a document of a fascinating and little-known culture; I hope the photographs and resulting book bring the trail riders greater visibility and recognition for their cultural contributions to this country.
Learn more about Jeremiah Ariaz and his work on his website, on his blog Red Stick Rambler, or on his Instagram page. You can also see him receive his Michael P. Smith Memorial Award for Documentary Photography at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Bright Lights Awards Dinner on May 10, 2018 in the Arbor Room at Popp Fountain in New Orleans, Louisiana.