2020-21 Do Good Fund Artist-in-Residence project, made with additional grants by The Magnum Foundation, The Aftermath Project, and Alabama State Council on the Arts, and support from Columbus State University, Wiregrass Museum of Art, Coleman Center for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Arts.

From Indigenous genocide to slavery and secession, and from the fight for civil rights to the championing of MAGA ideology, the national history written on, in, and by the people and landscapes of Alabama reveal problematic patterns at the nexus of our larger American identity.

Now in a critical moment of pandemic, protest, and political polarization, What Has Been Will Be Again has led me across more than 25,000 miles and into each of Alabama's 67 counties to survey my home state's cultural and physical landscape.

Social isolation is both a phrase and experience that has defined the recent past, and What Has Been Will Be Again  expressly evokes the alienation that has characterized the moment. Yet the work features sites for which isolation and violence is nothing new––places where extracted labor and environmental exploitation have exacted heavy tolls. Such isolation is less accidental or temporal, and more a product of decades of willful neglect by a mainstream America only now starting to visualize what––and who––has been pushed out of our collective frame of vision.

By tracing historic colonial routes including the Old Federal Road and Hernando de Soto’s 1540 expedition and traveling the Trail of Tears and final passage of the slave ship, Clotilda, What Has Been Will Be Again uses a Southern Gothic sensibility to visually contend with Alabama’s centuries-long past, its present-day issues, and the perpetuated use of segregation and sequestration in service of the white supremacist myths of American exceptionalism.

See the project reading list here, and the project t
ravelogue here.

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Photographic Meditations on Marginalization in a Pandemic Year
Catherine Wilkins, Ph.D.
Study the South, December 8, 2021

Social isolation is both a phrase and an experience that has defined the past year in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The images in photographer Jared Ragland’s ongoing body of work, What Has Been Will Be Again, expressly evoke the loneliness that has characterized this period; solitary subjects inhabit these frames, and many images in the series are devoid of people altogether. One can imagine the photographer, alone, navigating deserted landscapes with only a camera as his companion, documenting the recent ravaging of the public sphere. Yet, while the theme is certainly au courant, What Has Been... features subjects for whom social isolation is nothing new. This body of photographs, instead, makes a case for a long history of isolation and alienation in the artist’s home state – one that has exacted a costly human toll.

In this photographic survey that began in Fall 2020, Ragland has been working his way across Alabama following historical routes from America’s colonial era, documenting individuals and communities whose existence has been practically defined by economic and geographic isolation. The series features landscapes shot in tiny rural towns plagued by generational poverty and the exploitation of the environment, as evidenced by dispossessed storefronts, homes, and infrastructure. Ragland also makes visible the often-overlooked inhabitants of these neglected places by producing powerful portraits of lone individuals. While we can provide little assistance or solace Ragland seems to insist that the simple act of bearing witness to the loneliness is important. As the viewer travels alongside the photographer, moving through his weeks on the road and simultaneously through deep time, a creeping realization sets in – that these subjects and spaces have been deliberately left to their own devices, to deteriorate or decay. Their isolation seems less accidental or temporal, and more a product of decades of willful neglect by a mainstream America only now starting to visualize what – and who – has been pushed out of our collective frame of vision.

The great paradox of What Has Been... is that it visualizes the very real social isolation that has had tangible consequences on the individuals and communities photographed, while simultaneously revealing connections across space, place, people, and time. In images subtly subversive to the overall aesthetic of loneliness, tree branches organically entwine, messages are exchanged via layers of marks on the landscape, power lines run alongside roads that stretch out toward the horizon. More overtly, by tying together events in Alabama’s centuries-long past with present-day issues, Ragland insists that it is impossible to view our current period outside of history. The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, and seditious domestic terrorism marks our times as significant, but Ragland’s body of work shows that the isolation, socioeconomic inequalities, racism, and marginalization we’ve witnessed is not unprecedented.

What Has Been... speaks specifically to the mood of our moment while also asserting the timelessness of its themes of isolation by illustrating the perpetuated use of segregation and sequestration in service of the white supremacist myths of American individualism and exceptionalism. As viewers prepare to emerge from quarantine and rejoin “post-pandemic” society, Ragland asks us to bear witness to the people and places who cannot so easily shrug off the mantle of social isolation.


What Has Been Will Be Again: An Expedition Through Alabama’s Troubled Legacies
Alexis Okeowo
VQR, Spring 2021

Not too long ago, the sky down South was dimming, turning down from the lemony warmth of the day, deepening into gold and rose and then lavender and gray, poking through the thick moss of the weeping willow trees all around the neighborhood where I was staying. I was in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, mostly there for work but partly there, as always, for a chance to gather myself. Every evening felt the same—lazy light, heavy air, a languorousness that never fails to feel decadent to someone who is not a resident. For some of those people—the ones, like myself, who grew up in Alabama and then moved elsewhere—we are doomed to forever being of two minds about our home state. The ugly often appears to be its most dominant feature, the history and present of willful exclusion and oppression; but the tenderness, the land and people that make so many choose to call it home, is right there alongside it.

In a non-plague year, I go to Alabama more than anywhere else—at least five or six times a year—which I explain to people by saying that I started writing a book about the state almost three years ago, but the truth is I traveled nearly as often even before that. It went like this: I would get on a plane from New York to Atlanta, then wait around the Atlanta airport for a while before boarding a much smaller plane to Montgomery; and then, after landing, meet my dad at baggage claim to drive the half hour to my parents’ house. Along the way, we’re greeted by everyone from an airport custodian to a guy in camouflage who’s likely carrying. The same thing happens when I’m running around town and encountering people: We greet, talk, try to find out who we are, what matters to us—a regional custom of connecting to each other.

In these photos, photographer Jared Ragland returns home to Alabama in order to, as he said, “critically explore Southern identity, marginalized communities, and the history of place”—big ideas that feel smaller when you start meeting people on the road. The state becomes increasingly intimate and hard to define, starting with stories from the southern tip of Alabama, a place of both Indian reservations and vividly-remembered Civil War battles, to its northern reaches, where working-class white folks and Latino immigrants live side by side. Ragland takes another look at the state’s psychic and geographical landscape in a time of crisis: health-wise, politically, ecologically, and economically.

Part of his visual journey had him follow the Spanish explorer and colonialist Hernando de Soto’s trail through Alabama in 1540, as a way to document the ghosts and people that now reside on its most holy lands: sites of American Indian removal, battlegrounds of the civil rights movement, old coal mines where one of his ancestors worked, places of ongoing economic and environmental strife. The land is haunted, true, but the people living and working on it are determined to forge their own paths.

There are the things we all tend to know about Alabama. As Ragland told me, “From Native American genocide to slavery and secession, and from the fight for civil rights to the championing of Trumpist ideology, Alabama has stood at the nexus of American identity.” But there are also the things that only some of us know, and those truths about the tenderness of our home will take time to convince others of—through photos, writing, and however else we can make our experiences known. Because, as Ragland says, “it’s a complicated place, simultaneously beautiful and horrifying—full of instances where the abject and beautiful mysteriously intersect.” And importantly, it’s home, to Ragland, me, and a whole host of motley people—and that in itself makes it worthy of exploration, again and again.