A Cultural Mission
No story about the life of Kelly Ann Ramsey would be complete without taking time to acknowledge her decades of experience as an international photojournalist, and the cultural impact she is seeking to make through her artistic efforts.
Though she has earned some renown as of today, Ramsey’s development as a photographer had humble beginnings. Her father gave her her first camera, and from then on, wherever Ramsey traveled she kept it by her side.
“My father took me to the wilds of Canada, he took me into the middle of wilderness. It was beautiful. I’ve been surrounded by monuments, or the Grand Canyon, all of those places that you’re supposed to take children. I always went with my camera, and I always took photos.”
Many years ago, Ramsey’s daughter, Alexis, worked in Africa at a ‘TTC’, Teacher’s Training College. She went there with civil rights leader Leon Sullivan to teach teachers how to teach.
“She would go into the villages with their college graduates and help them with lesson plans, et cetera,” Ramsey says.
The first morning upon arriving in Africa, after a two-day flight, Ramsey got up and went to work with her daughter. “After I spent some time with her in the classroom, got her settled and looked at where she worked, I went on a little adventure of my own.”
Ramsey focuses her attention on a photo of a woman walking, carrying something on her head.
“My daughter lived in Africa for three years, and I made four trips to visit her. This is the first picture I took. This was the first shot and it is today, still, my favorite shot from Africa.”
The title of Ramsey’s first photo is A Long Walk Home. At first glance, it’s an obvious choice. But if one knows Ramsey’s story, her childhood and how she grew up, the indelible events which shaped her life, then one understands the subtle metaphor. Ramsey has had many long walks home of her own, both figuratively and literally.
“This woman has already walked the six miles into town, did her shopping, and is now six miles back and is walking toward her village. She’s already done twelve or maybe fifteen miles in those bare feet.” Ramsey points, “This, I guarantee you, on top of her head, is at least forty or fifty pounds.
When did Ramsey come to understand that she had a gift for photography?
“I guess I was always good, I just didn’t know it,” she offers.
“Most of my photography is just ‘click-click-click-click-click, done.’ I normally don’t plan my work. I just walk around and take shots.
“I didn’t realize that I was a good photographer until I met Jodi Burton.”
Jodi Burton would become a close family friend.
“I was having my photographs developed at Ritz Camera, and Jodi was a technician there. All of a sudden, she was my favorite. I’d call and ask for her schedule, and would only drop off my film when she was working.”
Why all the fuss over who processes Ramsey’s photos?
“When I was in Africa, I was shooting film. This is 35-millimeter. It’s not as easy as dumping it into your computer and printing it out yourself.”
Burton met Ramsey over ten years ago when she was a photo student. “I was working at a camera shop where [Ramsey] used to drop off her film,” Burton says. “One day I was in the lab and heard a woman’s voice over my shoulder, ‘Excuse me! Are you the young woman who develops my film?’ I swung around, startled, because no one ever yelled into the lab unless they had an issue with the images they were getting back. Instead, Ramsey exclaimed how pleased she was with the photos and didn’t want anyone else to work on [her film] but me.”
Ramsey recalls Burton being persistent.
“Jodi would ask me over and over who I was shooting for. I told her that I was just snapping pictures during my trips to Africa to visit my daughter.
“I don’t think she believed me,” Ramsey suggests.
“I was so curious and a little intimidated by this woman. ‘Who are you? Do you work for National Geographic or something?’, I finally asked after years of processing her photos. ‘Hah!’ she laughed. ‘No, no, I am a juvenile referee for Wayne County!’ I was speechless and had so many questions. I was so fascinated by the images she was capturing,” Burton remembers.
“I have a ‘perfect problem’,” Ramsey admits, “everything has to be perfect.”
When asked to describe the feeling of capturing a perfect photo, Ramsey says that when she sees it she becomes so moved that her eyes fill with tears.
She becomes impassioned when she sees the photos she’s taken over more than thirty years, because preservation of culture is Ramsey’s mission as a photojournalist.
Burton sees the beauty and importance in Ramsey’s work, and has helped with her photography for many years.
“I have gotten to know her and her family,” Burton says. “She became a mentor to me. To see how much she truly cares about people has been something that I admire about her. She donates all her art to raise money for her foundation For The Seventh Generation, which gives to children in need.”
Lorraine Weber, Executive Director of For The Seventh Generation, says about Ramsey’s photography, “Each photo reveals aspects of both the [outer] and inner life of the subject through a clear and compassionate lens. Each child’s face reminds us of the importance of each generation to our future.
“[Ramsey’s] photographs,” Weber continues, “reflect the common dignity of children of different races, nationalities and circumstances. She seeks to bring the special and unique personality of each child to our attention. She wants us to recognize and appreciate each child’s worth.”
Burton adds to her praise of Ramsey, “I’ve seen her go out of her way many of times to help people, including myself. She has more energy and passion for humanity than anyone I’ve ever met. I have known Kelly almost my entire adult life, she has become [not only] a mentor, but someone who has inspired me, a great friend, someone I look up to and consider family.”
“I’m not advertising ‘Photos by Kelly Ramsey’,” Ramsey declares. “I’m trying to make a point, here.
“This is my work. It says something.”
An Oceanic Feeling
Ramsey has captured photos in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Guatemala, Egypt, the wilds of Canada, and many more places around the world, including her home state of Michigan.
Of all the places Ramsey has photographed, which impacted her the most?
“Africa,” she says without hesitation. “There’s nothing quite like Africa.”
Ramsey gestures at her photo Fishing For Life, which depicts three young boys standing on rocks in a body of water at dusk, fishing poles in hand.
“That’s Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi,” she explains. “Malawi is very close to the Equator, so it’s six A.M. light, six P.M. dark, twelve months out of the year. Getting to Malawi is not easy because you’ve got to go into Nairobi first, and then you go to a very tiny plane to get into Malawi. It’s a two-day flight.”
Fishing For Life would end up being accepted as part of the 2010 Peace Project.
The Peace Project is a non-profit which solicits artists working in any type of medium to submit a work which can be reduced to a 12”x12” square. They then take numerous squares from the tens of thousands of submissions and create a collage which travels to New York, Los Angeles, and goes to other countries around the world. People can purchase individual squares and the proceeds benefit war-torn countries through providing medical supplies, education for children, housing and more.
“Most years, I submit a piece,” Ramsey says. “Twice, I got in.”
The Peace Project requires the artist to write something in addition to their work as to why the art represents peace.
“I wrote a piece on [Fishing For Life] that these boys are fishing for their life. What are we doing in our world by polluting the water? I mean, look at those whales that were recently found dead, and they had plastic and auto parts in their gut. What are we doing? How we’re living our life over here is destroying this culture over there. That’s the point.”
Ramsey’s attention turns to China.
“Following three years in Africa, my daughter moved to Beijing. My favorite place in Beijing,” she beams, “is the Temple of Heaven, and when I’d visit Alexis I would try to get there a few times during my stay. It is my favorite park in Beijing. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful park that is filled with people who enjoy themselves, and take a stroll.
“I went there once a week because I liked to walk down the Long Corridor, which probably goes for a mile, maybe less. People bring their crickets, and their birds, and they dance…”
Ramsey points at a picture of an elderly man doing the splits on a rail, “…and this guy sits and that guy does yoga, and people sing, and there’s a guy dipping a long brush into water and writing and drawing in the dust on the floor, and people play cards, and, oh my goodness, they socialize.”
Ramsey emphasizes the word socialize because, based on her numerous years of experience, many children and families in the United States aren’t communicating with each other on a deep enough level for strong emotional development and character reinforcement.
Sherry Turkle supports this position of Ramsey’s in her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. As a “preeminent media researcher, Turkle has been studying digital culture and communication” for over three decades.
“Face-to-face conversation,” Turkle writes, “is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.”
Ramsey next holds up a picture of a little girl kneeling in a village in Africa.
“Look at her. Everyone would think she’s poor,” she states, “but I don’t think she’s mainlining heroin. Perhaps it’s because she and her family eat dinner together every night and have conversations instead of withdrawing into their phones.”
As a juvenile court referee, Ramsey used her photography to help her respondents and litigants see the light.
“There was a time when I had panels of pictures in my courtroom, all the way around the room, to remind people what we’re dealing with. When I’m elected, the first thing I’m gonna do is take those panels back out and remind people of what we’re doing.
“I think that it’s important for some of the children in our communities,” she continues, “who consider themselves poor, to understand that this is poor, you’re not. Even the most socio-economically strained individuals in this country are not poor by world standards. This is poor.
“But are these children concerned about what they have on? Do they even have shoes on their feet? This is poor. This child is living in this house. Our children aren’t poor. Even the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit are not poor by world standards.”
Ramsey always does her best to change the perspectives of the people who end up in her courtroom, to get them to experience what bestselling author Robert Greene calls “an oceanic feeling” in his book The 50th Law, a collaboration with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
From The 50th Law: “We share the same fate with everyone; we all deserve the same degree of compassion. …This is what is known as an oceanic feeling — the sensation that we are not separated from the outside world but that we are a part of life in all its forms. Feeling this at moments inspires an ecstatic reaction…”
Ramsey recalls a morning waking up in Malawi.
“I was in a tent, and I wake up and I look out and there’s a [monkey] looking at me. And I’m looking at him. We connected for a moment.”
A Higher Paradigm
Of all the photos Ramsey has captured, if she could be remembered for only one, which would she choose?
“Probably my favorite little girl…”
She’s speaking of a girl she photographed in Sa Pa, a mountainous town in northwest Vietnam, home to many ethnic minority groups.
“I have been known to say that I breathe better when I am there,” she offers.
In 2012, Ramsey was fortunate to spend four days in Sa Pa, where she traveled through the region’s many hill villages, met many people, and observed firsthand their culture and daily activities.
“I have hundreds of pictures of stunning children. This is my favorite. This is the most favorite picture of a child I have…” As her voice cracks and trails off, Ramsey’s eyes begin to water.
“Let’s give her a steady dose of sex, drugs, money and violence, thong underwear at eight years old. How ridiculous, just utterly ridiculous, what we’re doing here.”
Sa Pa is a town unlike what most people experience every day, and by world standards, Ramsey suspects it is among the poorest.
“[This girl] lives in unbelievable…what we would define as poverty. She doesn’t have her hair cut, her outfit is tattered and torn. But there’s a richness to her culture that is far more valuable than a fancy house or a lofty bank statement,” Ramsey declares.
And the people weren’t buried in their respective technological devices, ignoring each other.
“Nobody had a smartphone there, nobody had a computer. They were sitting and making beautiful clothing, and handmade earrings, and they were communicating with one another.
“They cared about one another,” Ramsey finishes.
Sa Pa is known for both its stunning scenery and its cultural diversity.
“When it comes to natural beauty, the people of Sa Pa see it. Our children walk right by it. They’re not going in the woods anymore.”
Ramsey directs her attention to multiple photos of children from China.
“Look at these children. These children are happy. They’re happy. Their clothes are tattered and torn, but they aren’t sex objects, they’re not climbing over each other to get ahead in life. They…I’m sorry…”
Ramsey pauses a moment to collect her emotions, to keep from weeping.
“They’re happy. They are worth saving. We’re destroying these people, and in doing so, we’re destroying ourselves. We’re destroying us.”
The conversation turns back to the lessons she does her best to impart in her courtroom.
“Our kids aren’t poor. They simply don’t take advantage of what’s offered to them today.” Ramsey gestures to her photos from Africa, “What’s the suicide rate here?”
She brings up a good point, as there are many people in the world who are unable to comprehend the idea of doing harm to one’s self. It’s just not a thought which occurs to them (“Why would I hurt myself on purpose?”).
And yet, according to the November 2016 TIME Magazine article “The Kids Are Not All Right”, we live in a country in which “a spectrum of angst that plagues 21st century teens” is resulting in many of them resorting to cutting themselves as a “compulsive manifestation of the depression and anxiety that…millions of teenagers in the U.S. are struggling with.”
The article continues, “In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys — totaling 6.3 million teens — have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.”
In regard to the villages depicted in her photographs, Ramsey posits, “So many people in our communities would say ‘Oh, we’ve gotta bring technology here, and we’ve gotta bring them the internet, and high-speed computers.’ But these people are happier here.
“Why can’t I leave a nightclub in Detroit without someone coming up to me and whispering ‘I need to talk to you about my granddaughter. She’s living in a car with four kids, there’s something wrong with her…?’ This woman told me she had to shave her great-grandkids’ heads because their hair was so matted down, it couldn’t be brushed out.
“I hear stories like hers constantly.”
What does Ramsey think the big difference is between kids’ cultural inputs over there and back here at home?
“I think that the focus on education in this country doesn’t have the weight [it does in other countries],” she affirms. “My daughter has taught in Asia for around fifteen years now. It’s cool to be smart there. It’s a huge part of their culture. That’s the philosophy of the children whom my daughter teaches. That’s why they’re not getting in trouble, not having school fights, not showing up late. They understand that those things would bring dishonor to their families.”
It is evident that the children in many of Ramsey’s photos, even at their young ages, have somewhat of a skill set to do something in their village which is needed or necessary.
“We don’t have that heightened responsibility of being the best that we’re capable of being, which I see culturally when I leave this country and go back to the schools at which my daughter teaches to speak to the children.”
Ramsey believes we need to bring some of that culture back here, and she does so by way of her photojournalism. She believes we need more simplicity, more understanding, more compassion. Less violence.
She recounts turning her respondents’ attention to her photography in her courtroom.
“‘You won’t do your homework, you won’t go to school. You’re out on the street corner trying to look tough and cool, selling drugs, idolizing that lifestyle.'” Ramsey would then point to the panels of her photography circling around her courtroom, “‘This is what you should be thinking about instead.’”
As she cycles through photos on her computer, hundreds of photos of children and families and nature, Ramsey asks one question, out loud, over and over.
“What are we doing? What are we doing?”
Ramsey’s photography is another way for her to reprogram the brains of the families of Wayne County, to get individuals to perceive things differently, to embrace a higher paradigm regarding what life is really all about.
“I just don’t understand why people don’t see what’s happening to our children.”
You don’t have to go to Africa, or China, or Vietnam, to see beauty. You can see it in your own community, in your own backyard, in your own life…
You just have to decide to look through the lens of compassion, through the lens of reality…
As Kelly Ann Ramsey does.
“When I find myself on the road less traveled, or in a place where one lives his or her life harmonious with nature, I am more at peace and feel more fulfilled.
“I have often wondered whether or not people are happier in a less connected world.”
This is an addendum to the seven-part story Kelly Ann Ramsey: The Love Wayne County Needs Now.