Someday I’ll Find the Sun
John-David Richardson is an artist and photographer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received his MFA from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and his BFA from Northern Kentucky University. He was named the Grand Prize Winner of PDN’s 2018 Student Photo Contest, Second Place Winner in the 2018 Lenscratch Student Prize, and a 2018 SPE Student Award Winner for Innovations in Imaging. His work has been shown nationally, internationally, and featured online including in VICE, The Wall Street Journal, Feature Shoot, FotoRoom, PHOTO–EMPHASIS, and PDNedu, among others.
I am a product of poverty. The atmosphere of my childhood prepared me for a world where economic and social worth is defined by class. I was raised by my mother and her countless male partners amidst a backdrop of violence and neglect. These men would come and go, each one exhibiting more violent and destructive behavior than the one before. My family fought to make ends meet, but their efforts constantly fell short due to addiction, domestic violence, and a lack of education. This unrelenting cycle shaped my worldview at an early age, and I came to understand family as a collision of love and hate.
Someday I’ll Find the Sun functions as a poetic reflection of my personal experiences growing up in the cycle of poverty. I ruminate on my family’s troubled history by building relationships with people that mirror members of my family, finding people that are simultaneously callous and tender. Through my images, I urge the viewer to understand the emotional and psychological weight of living in poverty on both an honest and human level.
What were your motivations for beginning this work?
I started Someday I’ll Find the Sun in graduate school at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Growing up, we were always struggling to have the things that a lot of people take for granted, basic things like running water, heat, food, and clothing. My mom raised my sister and me for a while when she and my dad separated, and after they split, our family was never the same. Not that I blame either of them, it was honestly for the best.
After my dad moved away, my mom dated several men that all shared a mixture of substance abuse, self-pity, and rage — each one taking out their insecurities on my mother, my sister, and myself. We experienced a lifetime of trauma in about five years. I iced my mom’s face one night with a cold beer can after she raised her voice to her boyfriend. He would spend the rest of the night eating pain killers and making his way through a case of Busch Lite he kept cold in a cooler by my dad's recliner.
I never really talked about my childhood with anyone before starting this project; I was always too afraid of being looked at like trash because of how I grew up. I believe that to make the best art that you can, you have to be honest with yourself and make art about what you know, and I know poverty.
Do you find influence for your work in things outside of photography? If so, what?
With this project, I'm pulling a lot from my childhood, and the time I spend with the people I photograph. Being from the South, storytelling has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, so naturally, I looked to writers for inspiration when working on this project. I’m influenced by my experiences and my memories, the stories of the people I photograph, and the stories of great writers. Appalachian writer, David Joy’s works, Where All Light Tends to Go and The Weight of This World, have been incredibly influential. They’re honest and difficult stories that are unflinchingly written. Along with Joy, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Rebecca Gayle Howell’s American Purgatory, and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City have all been frequent reads of mine as well.
How does social media play a role in engaging with yours and other people’s work?
Social media has changed the way we as artist share our work with the world. I think back to even five or so years ago, and the amount of work I was engaging with daily would have easily been cut in half. I think it’s honestly a wonderful thing that access to art has become more inclusive via the internet, especially for emerging artists, and artists that otherwise may not be viewed as widely because of racial, class, and social barriers.
As far as for my work, I try to use social media as a revolving portfolio for my work, my process, and influences. Through seeing my work on a more widely accessible platform via social media, I hope that more people are listening and engaging in some degree with an important conversation about class, stigma, and trauma.
What other photographers should people/we be paying attention to?
Gioncarlo Valentine’s work is stunning, and he’s really engaging via social media. I can't wait for Wig Heavier Than a Boot by David Johnson and poet Philip Matthews. It’s coming out in October through KGP projects. Miranda Barnes is doing great things as well; I love seeing her editorial work.
You use a really specific form of lighting in your work, a golden hour that really adds a form of intimacy with the subjects within your images. Can you explain why you choose to photograph in this light and how you feel it brings the viewer into the physical space you’re working with?
I’m always looking for beautiful light, but I would say that’s common among most photographers. With Someday I’ll Find the Sun, I wanted to use light as a part of the content of the work, almost as a secondary character in the image. I try to consider all of the ways light can engage the viewer, through temperature, projected shadows, or referencing a specific time of day. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I think my work is about searching for light in dark places, and I believe that’s why it’s become such an integral visual element of the work.
When making work with a subject matter as sensitive as yours, how do you make sure that your subjects are represented on yours and their terms simultaneously? Is this something you are conscious of when making your images or does this happen more so when you’re editing?
For me, I believe that it’s about continuously approaching the work with empathy and respect. As photographers, we hold the upper hand in the power dynamic between subject and photographer, and I believe that it’s critically important to have that at the forefront of our minds. People who live in poverty are so often shown from the gaze of an outsider, and I hope that my work can provide some degree of diversity within the subject.
This project is incredibly personal for myself, my family, and all the people who were gracious enough to welcome me into their lives. I never want to be the photographer that comes into a community just to get what they need and leave never to been seen again. I’m interested in a degree of connection and intimacy that can’t happen that quickly.
You’ve been the recipient of a few really prestigious awards, like the Lenscratch Student Prize, SPE Student Award for Innovations in Imaging, and the Grand Prize Winner of the PDN Student Photo Contest. How did these awards impact your development as an artist and what advice would you give to students/emerging artists trying to work towards the same awards?
As a student, I was incredibly fortunate in having received awards from SPE, PDN, and Lenscratch, and I’m touched that others saw strength in my work. These awards are such excellent opportunities for students to get their work out into the world on a such a large scale, and I think the biggest piece of advice I could give would be to keep applying. Be authentic in your writing and your work, and don’t be afraid to push your ideas out into the world. If you apply and you’re rejected, don't be discouraged, and be ready for the next round of calls.
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