I have been wanting to interview Ailecia Ruscin for quite some time, and as the owner of Oh Snap! Photography out of Lawrence, she is usually quite busy! Ruscin is one of those people everyone knows because she is always out and about, meeting and talking with people, and using her voice and photography talent in her activism. She is a volunteer with Lawrence Girls Rock Camp and has a great interest in music (she always seems to know where the hippest singers and bands are playing!). I am thrilled to have interviewed her for our March issue!
When we first met, you were a Ph.D. student in American Studies. What was your area of interest within American Studies?
I came to the field of American Studies with an interest in intersectional feminism, anti-racism, and the history of the civil rights movement. I saw American Studies as the perfect field from which to study the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality. My master’s thesis was an oral history project focused on white Southern activist women who were involved in the civil rights movement. My personal interest in the subject was as a Southern anti-racist woman myself.
In 1995, I finished high school in Auburn, Alabama, located close to many sites of the civil rights movement, and through public education, learned very little about the movement, much less the role of anti-racist white women in that movement. That became the focus of my thesis, in an attempt to write a history of anti-racist white activism in the South.
In high school, I was an anti-racist advocate, and when I was quoted in the local paper speaking out about a racist incident at our high school, my parents warned me that I could not publicly share these thoughts without the worry that there would be violence or economic repercussions against my family. At that moment, I decided I had to leave the South and put all of my energy into finding a scholarship that would give me the financial assistance I needed to leave the South. The college that gave me the most money was a liberal arts women’s college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Chatham College), where I found like-minded anti-racist women, came out as queer, and spent much of my college years advocating for racial justice.
You decided to take a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program and have never looked back. What prompted that decision?
I left graduate school in 2008 during the economic crash. Hiring freezes were everywhere in academia, and my dreams of finishing a Ph.D. and getting a full tenure-track position in a town I could stand to live in seemed like a pipe dream. Around me I saw fellow grad students struggling with debt and finding employment, so I decided to leave the program. At this time, my parents were losing their house to foreclosure and their vehicles were repossessed. Work had dried up for my father, the self-employed architect, and my mother, the real estate broker. I no longer saw them as a safety net, like many of my peers who moved into their parents’ houses to finish up dissertations and be on the job market. Instead I was bailing my parents out with some financial assistance and thinking about returning home only to get my things so they did not have to deal with them. Even in 2008, I had seen too many recent Ph.D.s struggling and taking crappy, low-paid, one-year post-docs in conservative cities and states and decided that I preferred to have control over the place I lived. I chose KU because of Lawrence’s reputation as a liberal haven – a blue dot in a sea of red. It was a place I could walk down the street holding the hand of my girlfriend and get nothing but smiles and comments about how cute we were. I couldn’t imagine living in some of the conservative places my friends were getting post-docs in, so I bailed out of a necessity to live in a liberal college town where I could be out and free.
You have a successful photography business. Has photography always been a hobby?
Photography has always been a hobby. I remember shooting 110 film and pink and blue Le Clic cameras. My father has always had a 35mm camera, so when he saw that his daughter seemed to love taking photos, he would let me borrow it on occasion. I took that camera into DIY living-room punk shows in Auburn, Alabama, in high school, and thus began my documentation of DIY life and culture. My father further helped me develop this love by buying me my own 35mm film camera and photography classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. In my senior year, I had a one-week solo exhibition showing my college body of work: DIY punk shows, anti-globalization protests, and feminist body-positive art projects.
What pushed you in that direction of photography as a business opportunity?
Poverty. When I left graduate school, I also left my job, which required me to be a student. On the local job market, I applied for all kinds of positions I was qualified for. But it was only when I took my MA off of my resume that I got an $8/hour position doing administrative work in admissions at KU. This 20-hour a week position was not enough to pay the bills; I used food stamps to make ends meet. This is when photography became a source of survival. I had been setting up photo booths at my own parties since the late ’90s, and suddenly this trend became a wedding trend. So, I started putting myself out there as a photo booth company and would continue to photograph portraits and weddings for friends.
It was in 2008 that I photographed my first wedding for people I did not know. They had gotten my name from the hair salon where a friend of mine worked and would occasionally hand out my card. I never made a decision to become a professional photographer. It’s kind of just what happened out of financial necessity. It is in 2010 that I officially opened Oh Snap! Photography as a business. Since then and before, I have always been supported by the generosity of my friends and the word-of-mouth referrals I get from past clients. These days, my work stands on its own outside of my reputation in town, and I get lots of Kansas City weddings with clients who have no personal connections to me.
Besides shooting weddings and portraits, you also now have a boudoir space. How is this addition to your business working out so far?
I love shooting in my boudoir studio. I have always shot boudoir sessions in hotel rooms or in people’s homes, but this was the first time I set up my studio as a bedroom. I love the space because it’s the perfect blank slate that works for any theme a client brings my way. I am a lifestyle photographer and not a studio photographer, so working in a bedroom environment is perfect for me in creating the types of images I like to create. My goal is not to make someone over into a pin-up girl – there are tons of amazing photographers in the area that do this type of boudoir. Instead, I prefer a lifestyle approach that channels each woman’s intrinsic beauty and personality. I give her a model experience. We use the natural details in the room like the antique radiator and the wall of windows as backdrop, rather than bring in fake backdrops and fake floor drops and using artificial light. The session is a true collaboration, I coach women on what types of clothes to bring to the session and we do fully clothed shots, casual shots (for example a woman dressed in a soft T-shirt and cute panties wearing leg warmers and snuggled up in a cute chair), as well as full on sexy shots, like you’d expect from a boudoir session.
Have any men expressed an interest in a boudoir session?
I have worked with women and gender non-binary folks, as well as lesbian couples, but I have not done a boudoir session for any cisgender men. I am not opposed to it, but my passion is certainly LGBT people, couples and women. Consent and comfort and creating authentic representations are more important to me than any glamor shot. As a queer person, I feel I am uniquely positioned to work with gender non-binary and masculine women in the context of boudoir. I would never insist that all clients wear a corset and fishnets, for example; if boyshorts and a tank top are you, let’s do it! My goal is to create authentic and beautiful images than channel your uniqueness, including your unique gender.
You are also an activist. How have you used photography in your activism?
I have been photographing protests since 1995 or so – the first was an anti-Klan protest in Columbus, Ohio, where the Klan had a permitted rally on the steps of the Capitol building. Anti-racist punks organized the protest, and I photographed through the fence that divided us from the Klan. In addition, I have been using photography as activism for quite some time. One such project was an opportunity for survivors to hold signs confronting their abusers and giving survivors an opportunity to tell their story to the larger public. An early feminist project was a group shoot of body-diverse women for a feminist collective I was involved in. We wanted to confront the public with images of women that might push the boundaries, including queer sexuality and radical fat acceptance. In addition, I have been photographing LGBT and female musicians since the mid-’90s. I see this body of work as activism in documenting women and LGBT people in music. My three biggest passions are activism, music, and photography.
What is the strangest thing that you have ever photographed? Please explain.
In college, I photographed a woman cutting herself. She asked me to do this for her, and it was something I have always felt strange about after the fact. For her, those images were an opportunity to be in control of her body and image. I helped her reach those goals in taking the photos and gifting her the negatives so only she would have access to those powerful images taken only for herself. It’s the only time I photographed someone engaging in self-harm, and so sometimes I think about the ethical dilemma of photographing someone in such a way. But I was 20 and wanted to give her the experience she wanted. Since I developed the film by hand, I was the only person to see these images, which I imagine have since never been circulated. While I respect the BDSM community, I have since turned down opportunities to do photography during suspensions and body modification rituals, while not condemning the practices.
I know that you also have a great interest in music. Who are you really into right now?
I am obsessed with Zion I, Nappy Roots, Black Mountain, The Black Angels, and Santigold. Their new and old albums are all really amazing and I listen to them regularly. Zion I is a socially conscious rapper from the Bay Area. Nappy Roots are a wonderful hip-hop collective with multiple viewpoints on every album as each of the four rappers gets an opportunity to deliver their own story. Black Mountain is a female-fronted psych band with droning long songs. The Black Angels is another psych band with long, complex, beautiful songs, and Santigold is one of the best and [most] under-acknowledged Black performing artists of the last decade. I am completely astounded at how little her work has circulated, given its greatness.
Which show have you enjoyed most in the past year and why?
This is such a “mom answer,” and I’m not a mom, but my favorite concert by far was the Girls Rock Camp showcase concert at Liberty Hall. I am a volunteer with Lawrence Girls Rock Camp, and in the course of the week, I get to be awed and inspired as I document teen girls and trans youth working in collaboration with each other while learning instruments and taking workshops which confront issues of consent, self-defense, cultural appropriation, and more. The final showcase is each band’s opportunity to play the song they wrote over the week. A fenced-off VIP area is created in front of the stage for campers and anyone under 18 to enjoy front-row seats while youth perform on stage. It is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my entire life to hear a girl belt out lyrics demanding radical acceptance and love from her family and friends.