Atlanta Photographer Ross Oscar Knight knows what it’s like to be a stranger in a new place; some would say a resident abroad — even – if you’re as serious about seeing the world as he is. His language, his craft spoken through the lens of a camera. And so it stands to reason that he would jump at the opportunity to work with Emory University students through the Ethics and Servant Leadership program.
EASL, under the guidance of Edward Queen, director, and Carlton Mackey, assistant director, is designed to inspire, and support all members of the Emory community in developing the skills to lead for the common good.
Knight was intrigued when contacted to oversee a group of students’ participation in Global Growers.
“The Emory Center for Ethics, in partnership with Southwest Airlines, contacted me based on work I have done in the community to help students produce and learn about socially engaged art,” he explained. “Truly, I was attracted to this project because I feel a sincere responsibility to use my photography as a voice to highlight social issues.”
Knight met with eight students throughout the fall semester to shape and produce an art project with the Atlanta-based nonprofit that connects refugees and immigrants who were farmers in their home countries to local agriculture opportunities. The goal: to challenge the stereotypes of refugees in Georgia. “I helped the students write a creative brief and then taught them about cultural understanding, messaging, safety, location research, lighting and equipment.”
The group visited Umurima Wa and Decatur Kitchen Gardens to meet with farmers and decide how best to tell their stories, with Knight assigning individual roles like who would serve as the project’s videographers, photographer assistants, editors, location scouts, translators and interviewers.
In the process of learning more about the work of community-based organizations, students are challenged to examine the role of art in social change and to create artwork that can influence pressing social issues.
The rising political discourse around immigration and international refugees made this project particularly poignant for Knight who travels extensively abroad.
“I am actually glad that the immigration policy and immigrant rights are being discussed instead of ignored. At the same time, I am saddened to hear some of the anger and frustration expressed by leadership in our country. I feel that we should be looking for ways to strengthen these communities that add so much to our economy and the diversity of our nation. Are there problems with individuals coming to the US illegally? Sure. People risk their lives for the opportunity to make a better life for their families. Having a family now myself, I understand the drive to keep my family safe and make life better for the next generation. My true feeling is that our leaders need to act with more cultural sensitivity with their language and their actions. Through my photography commissions, I visit countries all around the world and meet people from all walks of life. We cannot treat immigrants as objects. They are real. They have feelings. Their lives matter.”
To date, Knight has trekked to six different continents to observe, participate in, and photograph cultural ceremonies and commercial work that fulfill his passion to understand and communicate the beauty of the human story unfolding. Knight’s interest in photography began in grade school when a teacher gave him a disposable film camera as a way to communicate differently because of his childhood stutter – something he has dubbed the transformative power of photography.
His work has appeared on CNN, Oprah Winfrey, HGTV, the NBA, and in Forbes and ESSENCE magazines, and he is Co-director of the global diversity platform Beautiful in Every Shade.
The resulting photographic exhibit from his collaboration with Emory’s students, “Reframing Refugees,” was among three final projects recently unveiled as a part of “Art and Social Engagement,” a course offered through Emory’s Center for Ethics with support from Southwest Airlines.
“I believe the role of the photographer is really the role of a historian. Our images will live on to give future generations a glimpse into our past. And sometimes that’s the unwritten past. At the same time, photographers have the power to shape our current media narrative. Images captured can be just as subjective to the photographer’s beliefs as objective. In the black community our responsibility is to challenge persisting stereotypes and present the diversity our culture in a positive light.”
Knight continued, “I find inspiration on a daily basis all around me. My influences as an artist are everyday people that I observe walking down the street. I love to witness the energy of their emotions and to find a way to capture it with my lens. I am not as passionate about photography as I am about meeting people and learning their stories. With my camera I am able to recount these stories and share with the world.”