Based in Washington, D.C., Susana Raab received an MA degree in visual communications from Ohio University in Athens and a BA in English literature from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She is a documentary fine art photographer who also works as a photographer for the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. Among other honors, Raab has been the recipient of the White House News Photographers Project Grant. Her series Consumed was nominated for the Prix Pictet (2013). Raab’s fine art and documentary work is in the collections of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, New Haven, Connecticut, as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C.
In her personal work Raab has pursued a series of topics related to the South, documenting contemporary nostalgia for the antebellum elite, kitschy Southern entertainment, and the backbreaking labor of migrant workers. Each of these subjects include unique Southern characters who usually live out their lives on separate socioeconomic planes. Southbound brings together examples from these distinct series to highlight some of the unique myths and realities that circulate in contemporary Southern experience.
From the Migrants in Immokalee series, Untitled (2006) shows a woman smiling as she walks past a church carrying a large bag of goods on top of her head. Immokalee is an agricultural town whose poor conditions for its African American agricultural laborers were documented by Edward R. Murrow in the 1960 television program Harvest of Shame. The majority of the laborers in the town today originate from Caribbean and Latin American countries and represent an increasingly important demographic in the South. The small, presumably Spanish-speaking church in the background also suggests the rising significance of Hispanics to the Christian population of the South. The importance of religion within the Southern Hispanic community is also suggested in Delfino (2006), depicting an undocumented Mexican tomato picker admiring a small white crucifix while lying in bed on top of an American flag blanket in a trailer that he shares with eight other migrant workers. Presumably back from a hard day of work, Delfino rests in his meager quarters accompanied by these two inspiring icons. Though increasingly essential to the Southern economy, migrant workers have not yet entered into the mythic images of the South, remaining largely invisible on its sidelines. Raab’s photographs shed light on their importance as new images for the New South.
In her Consumed: Fast Food in the United States series, Raab goes in a completely different direction to illustrate entrenched kitschy icons of Southern culture. Finger-Lickin’ Good (2007), presents three Colonel Sanders look-alike contestants waiting for the competition to begin. Raab captures them in a moment of casual conviviality, presenting the competition as a light-hearted embrace of the Southern tradition of fried chicken peddled by a stately Southern gentleman. John T. Edge expands on the deeper symbolism behind this photograph in his essay, “Cloaking and Costuming the South,” written for the Southbound project. Sleeping Elvis (2005), shows the closing ceremonies of an Elvis Presley fan club dinner. The guests seem oblivious to Raab’s presence, and one small Elvis impersonator even sleeps through the main event.
Raab has also documented antebellum nostalgia in Natchez, Mississippi. In The Old Guard (2013) the matriarch of an old Natchez family, dressed in a hoop skirt, stands on her porch during Pilgrimage, an annual event celebrating the region’s antebellum mansions. Her dress, home, furnishings—even the oak tree draped in Spanish moss in the front yard—all reflect an attempt to hold onto the fantasy of a peaceful, prosperous Southern life before the Civil War that obscures that era’s violence, conflict, and suffering. Raab’s photographs also demonstrate how the antebellum myth continues to be passed down to future generations. Untitled (2009) from the Natchez series shows the matriarch’s young granddaughter at home in period dress; on the wall we can see a gilt-framed portrait of a male member of the family dressed in a historic Confederate uniform posed next to a Confederate flag: thus, three generations continue the nostalgia for a Confederate South. Raab’s keen eye captures key sociological moments like these to showcase the South’s changing demographics, socioeconomic inequalities, and the perpetuation of new and old traditions. Her photographs implicitly pose the question of how these competing narratives of Southern histories and values can be reconciled, or at least made to coexist, as the New South moves forward.