Ryan Debolski spotlights the effects of immigration and globalisation in Oman

The photographer visited the country in 2014 and formed relationships with several migrant workers. The results of that trip have recently been published.

14 December 2020


“Photography, for me, is a way to interact with a specific place,” says Detroit-based photographer Ryan Debolski. “I like being an observer in the world and having a method of documenting it for myself.” Ryan isn’t, he continues, the type of person who always carries a camera around with him; he’s more methodical in that sense, having been drawn to the medium initially – and later than most – for its technical qualities.

“Early on, I especially enjoyed large-format film photography and the slow, methodical process it entails,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I was very much influenced by the Düsseldorf School. The clinical and objective way of documenting the world in the work by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Axel Hütte, and Thomas Struth is what initially drew me into photography as an art form.”

Having pursued an undergraduate degree in linguistics, it was only after attending university that Ryan considered a career in photography and he went on to to receive an MFA in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art. After completing this, he was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship and relocated to Oman from 2014-15 to work on a project which has just been released by Gnomic Book: Like.

Oman is rapidly modernising and has been for the past few decades. As such, it has attracted migrant workers looking to earn money working on construction sites, something that has come under scrutiny in recent years as abuse and exploitation have been unveiled. While Ryan was there back in 2014, he formed relationships with many of these workers who he met on the beaches adjacent to the worksites.

“One of the things that caught my eye was the prevalence of smartphones among the workers,” says Ryan. “The time we could spend together on the beach was limited by their gruelling work schedule, so our interactions primarily came from using WhatsApp to communicate.” As Ryan got to know the workers better and spent more time in Oman, he continued to photograph, resulting in a body of work that combines dramatic panoramas, details of urbanisation in motion and portraits of the workers being taken advantage of in making it happen, capturing a “timely social issue that speaks to the effects of immigration and globalisation”. Like also very much focuses on Ryan’s personal relationship with the workers, and the book includes transcripts of their text conversations.


Ryan Debolski: Like (Copyright © Ryan Debolski, 2020)

The project is striking in its depiction of the landscape of Oman; the expansive building sites and towering mountains appearing almost eerie in their stillness. But the inclusion of the portraits and text conversations gives the project an altogether different mood. They bring intimacy and humanity to Like and give a voice to those written out of the narrative of Oman’s success.

For Ryan, the editing process of a project is really important, as “a series of photographs can take on a whole other level of meaning through thoughtful editing. It adds depth to the work and allows for the interpretation of various narratives.” When organising and sifting through the images he’d taken in Oman, he realised most of the pictures fell into pre-defined categories, which proved helpful in bringing the book together. “I had so much material that I felt overwhelmed making sense of it all without some form of structure,” he says. “I wanted to make a clear separation between the beach scenes and places of work, so making the latter in black and white was an aesthetic decision.” Despite never planning to include the text conversations within the project, when reviewing the work, Ryan realised they would be vital in telling the story. “The interplay between the text and images is ultimately what drives the narrative of the book,” he says.

While he already understood that he prefers to work on long-term projects where things unfold slowly and organically, making Like only furthered Ryan’s understanding of his process. “One of the most important lessons I learned while making this work was to let things unfold in their own time,” he says. “I love accidents and what can result from them. I’m OK with completely changing the nature of my project if I don’t think it’s working. I’ve learned to not force an idea that doesn’t hold my interest. I’d rather redirect my energy and focus on better concepts.”

GalleryRyan Debolski: Like (Copyright © Ryan Debolski, 2020)

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Ryan Debolski: Like (Copyright © Ryan Debolski, 2020)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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