Ryan Christopher Jones, a freelance photojournalist and former Fresno State philosophy student, is a recipient of the 2022 American Mosaic Journalism Prize for a collection of work he produced in 2019-20 covering underserved American communities. Among these works is his New York Times multimedia article “Underground Lives: The Sunless World of Immigrants in Queens.” According to their website, the American Mosaic Journalism Prizes are awarded each year for excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting on stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape.
“Jones’ photography deftly illuminates the complex lives of people whom the news rarely centers, including a photo essay about a man living in an underground apartment in Queens, New York, and the great sacrifices he goes through to provide a better life for his family in Coatzingo, Mexico,” the judges said.
Now a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Harvard University, his path has been anything but ordinary.
Jones earned his high school diploma from Clovis High School in 2000. After spending three years at Fresno City College, he went to Fresno State and declared philosophy-religious studies as his major. He studied at Fresno State for two years and needed just a few classes to graduate, but his life then took him in another direction.
“I feel very fortunate to have had a complicated academic and professional trajectory,” Jones said. “It took me 22 years for everything to come together but Fresno State was where it first happened.”
Looking back, Jones says Fresno State was a place where he developed into a person. Through his courses, he began to examine ideas and topics differently.
“Ideas started to percolate on how I found and understood myself in the world.,” he said. “Fresno State fostered these ideas, and it’s where I began to see the value in higher education.”
After Fresno State, Jones was developing photos at a Longs Drugs store and became interested in photography. In 2008, he left his job and began to pursue photography full-time. He did some weddings and commercial work till he “accidentally” discovered journalism when a friend at The Fresno Bee asked him to shoot a couple of assignments.
“I loved documenting my community.”
His early assignments were to take just photographs, mostly illustrating someone else’s words. He did that for a while before moving to New York, where he lived for ten years. Initially, he worked for Newsday, a local paper on Long Island. Later, he started picking up bigger assignments for national and international publications. For the last eight years, he has been working as a freelance photojournalist, primarily for New York Times.
Jones’s photography and reporting address various topics, including the complicated connection between Mexico and the United States and the overlapping identities of immigrant and farmworker communities in Central California. Other recent work also includes in-depth reporting during the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City and Boston, the overdose crisis, NYC housing crisis, and economic mobility. He also served as a Pulitzer Prize jury member in 2022.
His interest in cultural history piqued while covering stories near the border of Mexico and Mexican-American people in the United States. That prompted him to take a class exploring the cultural history of Mexico and the United States at Harvard Extension School, and he immediately fell in love.
“Anthropology seemed like a place to do a little more digging into the subject,” he said.
The part of philosophy that he ultimately began to question was its connection to a lived experience that he found in photography and further in anthropology.
“I feel super fortunate to have that background in philosophy and to find a way to connect those big ideas in a way that feels more tangible for me,” he said.
He found the subjects he pursued as a journalist in his anthropology courses, but the questions and understanding were far deeper.
“Instead of just reporting what is happening right now as news, it was asking how are these different societies and countries structured and what kind conflict emerges from those different structures,” Jones said. “You can’t really ask those kinds of questions in journalism.”
After taking a few classes at Harvard Extension School, he transferred his Fresno State units and was able to graduate with a B.A. in Anthropology in May 2022. Taking the advice of one of his professors, he skipped the master’s and went straight to the Harvard Anthropology Ph.D. program this fall.
His plans for the future include teaching students at the university level and continuing with his visual research through photography.
“Photography has been kind of a prism that I see my entire life through, to make sense of the world visually,” he said.
Benjamin Kirk contributed to this story.