Ryan Debolksi, LIKE

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Gnomic Book (here). Softcover, 136 pages, with 96 color and monochrome reproductions. Includes an essay by Jason Koxvold (in English/Arabic) and transcriptions of SMS exchanges. In an edition of 450. Design by Boast Design. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of the Detroit-based photographer Ryan Debolski gravitates towards the moods of architecture and landscapes. His images are characterized by warm tones, slight desaturation, and in some cases, deep darkness, exploring the built environment, but also the relationship between that environment and the broader socio-economic context. After finishing graduate school, Debolski received a Fulbright grant and chose Oman as the site of his next project. In this new effort, entitled LIKE, his approach has become more complex and multilayered, investigating the relationship between migrant workers, economic inequality, technology, and the human condition, all against the backdrop of the diverse desert landscapes of Oman. 

Migrant labor has often played a key role in capitalist development; the process of uprooting people, exploiting their physical labor, and then disposing of them once their use becomes unprofitable is a well documented recurring cycle. Oman is a particularly apt contemporary example, with construction sites around the country feeding on cheap imported workers from India and East Africa. The working conditions are far from favorable, the pay is low, and the men live in camps without much contact with the outside world. Technology provides a critical social lifeline for these workers, their smart phones becoming their primary mode of connecting with their families and other fellow workers. It is the lives of these migrant workers that has become the focal point of Debolski’s photographic investigation. 

The cover of LIKE features two images superimposed on top of each other – a serene monochrome landscape with endless mountains, and a headless equestrian statue on a raised platform with palm trees nearby. The meaning of the image seems to remain elusive, perhaps it is a way to reference the collision of natural and built environments; the landscape with decaying sculpture on top of it. The hybrid image is partially toned red, with black and white elements reaching upward, deliberately intermingling the manmade and the natural. The paper itself feels raw, recycled, and unpolished. 

Debolski mixes monochrome and color images freely in the book, and the first spread recreates the monochrome landscape on the cover, but without the extra red layering. In the next pages, this same image reappears again, this time with the word LIKE printed across the picture in blue; on the other side of the page, LIKE is printed in reverse in yellow. LIKE here evokes the way in which the word has been transformed by its use in social media – you hit “like” to show your approval of and relationship to a phenomena, with binary simplicity. Yet overuse of LIKE has also made it devoid of rich meaning, so much so that “likes”, like other commodities, can be bought and sold. Debolski wrestles with all of these ideas in his use of these graphic elements, and in fact, the first commodity we encounter is an image of an abandoned green plastic bottle left in the sand – another metaphorical reminder of what “modernization” has brought to this environment. Plastic is cheap and disposable, yet once discarded it is not easily recycled; just like the migrant workers who can be terminated or moved around once they fulfill their functions of providing cheap labor; no longer needed they vanish from the work sites.

The following pages introduce another element of LIKE – transcripts of Debolski’s SMS messages exchanged with the workers he befriended during his stay in Oman. These friendships developed during the photographer’s trips to the beach while he was working out the direction of the project. The beach has become an important place for these men, as it is the only place where they can be free, playful, and where they can find a sense of community. The beach also became an unlikely studio for Debolski – and his many portraits of men made there consistently reveal their vulnerability and humanity. A subtle yet persistent homoerotic element can be found in these portraits, and when read in conjunction with the somewhat simplistic “phone conversations”, the beach acquires a rather sexualized aura. Whether or not this is the actual reality hardly matters; what’s clear is that the beach is a necessary place for open companionship and human touch.

The SMS exchanges are reproduced in full, complete with time stamps, typos, abbreviations, and traces of photos marked by their digital footprint. i.e. “2015-04-07-PHOTO-00000134_JPG”. Yet, at first, we have no way of knowing what these conversations are and between whom they are taking place. Not until the end of the book do we find out that the exchange is between Debolski and the workers. The majority of the conversations revolve around making plans to meet at the beach, getting food, complaining about work and pay, and talking about women and families, and the tone and the content of some of these exchanges is rather low brow. Perhaps the fact that these are conducted in English (not the first language to many of the migrant workers) contributes to presenting them in a rather one-dimensional way. Or maybe it is just the nature of the medium – a simple exchange made possible by technology that allows us to communicate instantly.

The first portrait shows a man standing on a cliff, his hair wet, hands in his jeans pockets, boxers showing, no shirt on and his gaze is directed off camera; the water and the sky behind him merge into endless blue. On the opposite page is another portrait, but not of a human, it’s a stingray lying on his back in the sand, with what looks like a happy grin, a creature chilling at the beach. The relationship between the two images is playful, the seriousness of the man is offset by the “ecstatic” animal, its “arms” stretched out in the sand, happy and free – just like many of the subsequent portraits. 

Another image shows two men relaxing in the water, touching freely, one man’s head resting on the body of the other. Related pictures capture interlocked arms, loose embraces, and close up hands, and the level of intimacy in these images reveals tenderness but also the joy of being alive, being playful and careless. A number of portraits are shot from the back, often shirtless, and these images are hyper masculine, in contrast to the photographs of men playing, climbing on each other, falling into the water, and playing in the sand. The images of men engaging with each other, splashing in the water and acting like kids, are some of the strongest in the book; it feels as if they were unaware of the photographer’s presence. They are completely absorbed in the act of play, touching freely, embracing the closeness of each other in a way that is moving and almost sentimental.

The design of the book is elegant and raw. The sequencing of the images does not appear to follow any particular narrative structure; landscapes (both color and monochrome) are mixed with portraits (all in color) and there is in no uniform pattern/size in the way in which the images are arranged – some are full bleed, others very small with generous white space; the excerpts from the phone conversations are the only element formatted in a consistent way throughout the book. Yet, there is a certain rhythm to it all, the interplay between all of the elements creating a gentle flow. 

LIKE puts a human face on the invisible army of migrant workers in the Middle East, making an important contribution to our understanding of how these people are actually living. In exploring the ultimate humanity of the laborers who are indispensable to building the infrastructure of modern Oman, Debolski’s intimate portraits powerfully reveal their improvised solution to their unnatural isolation. Even far from home, these men search for connection, finding it in an expanse of sand and a few text messages. The juxtaposition of images of men we encounter in the book and the utterly impersonal character of the landscapes that surround them highlights the tension between the humanity and its environment; the two do not appear to be in a dialectical relationship; the stills provide the stage and the context where the human drama unfolds.

Collector’s POV: Ryan Debolski does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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