We end every year with the December Stories, a series of first-hand accounts of the ONA community’s work to leverage creativity for good. Earlier this year we met Brandon Ruffin—also known as @ruffdraft—an Oakland, CA-based photographer who combines portraiture and social media to build understanding, empathy, and connection. We asked Brandon to share what drives his work, and how moving home from Los Angeles, where he began his career, set him on his current path.
During my journey as a photographer I have become a true observer of human behavior and of life in its most spectacularly mundane moments. As I grew older and matured, I saw the world around me to be full of muted voices. When I returned to Richmond, California where I was raised, the harsh realities of life screamed at me louder than they ever had.
Injustice, inequality, socio-economic disparity, dreams deferred and dissolved. Families torn apart by the tragedies of homicides and substance abuse. So many things were happening inside the community I grew up in and communities like it all over the country, yet it seemed that no one was talking about it. It seemed as if the tragedies were looked at as just the norm, with no one to care. I decided that with the camera I had the power to bring stories into the light that often were overlooked. I began to find myself in those silent communities, talking to people. I found that the art of portraiture was allowing me to not just to be an observer of human stories but also the carrier of human stories.
What I discovered next truly helped me find purpose in photography. People wanted to know the stories behind my photos. People asked more questions about the life of the person in the photo than they did asking frivolous questions about technique and equipment. I discovered that people still wanted to get close to these stories about humanity even in a time when it seemed that technology was creating a wider gap of personal connection.
Through my pictures I seek to amplify those muted voices that so often come from places that the rest of the world looks past. The stories of lives being lived in silence. Portraits that aim to showcase the elegance of the beauty the prospers in even the most hostile of environments.
For me these photos help restore my humanity in a humbling way. It’s not always the photo itself but the story that led to the photo.
I hope that through my work I’m able to inspire others to be kind, empathetic, and take the time to genuinely interact with other people in a real way. I give lectures and workshops that focus in on building relationships with strangers and relating to another person as a human being who has value and is important.
I once took a photo of a man I had met who was suffering from schizophrenia. I captured a portrait of him and shared it on my social media. Later that day I received a message that brought gravity to the power of a photo.
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The man in the photo is schizophrenic and openly talked with me about his condition to the best of his ability. In return for his time he asked for a sandwich outside of the coffee shop we were standing in front of. I listened to him and shared a bit about myself. I never joined into any delusion or patronized him. I just listened and engaged with him naturally and authentically. (Oakland, Ca -2018) @fujifilmx_us #streetphotography #ruffdraftphotography • • • I recently wrote a article on my approach to street portraits and shared 7 tips that I think may help anyone looking to take portraits of strangers. Link in to the article is in my bio. Please feel free to share and leave feedback.
A woman explained how her son was schizophrenic, and she would go on to talk about how insanely hard his illness had been on her family and how the photo made her think of her son with pride in his strength. The sight of the man in my photo brought up strong emotions for her and she found it to be difficult to look at and beautiful all at the same time. It reaffirmed for me that photos contain power. They have the ability to talk to the viewer and truly tap in to the most intimate parts of the human spirit.