Fresno native and former Fresno State student Ryan Christopher Jones received the 2022 American Mosaic Journalism Prize for his work as a freelance photojournalist.
On Feb. 10, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the organization that launched the award, announced in a press release that Jones and Julian Brave NoiseCat were this year’s winners for their “excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the United States.”
“I was blown away that I could be nominated for something so momentous… I’m honestly still struggling to find words to express my gratitude and my feelings for everything. But, I mean, I’m just so thankful,” Jones said.
This award nominates freelance journalists confidentially, so the winners have no knowledge of it, and 10 judges – “including journalists from NPR, NBC News, ProPublica/Texas Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among others” – select them, according to the release.
Jones enrolled in Fresno State’s philosophy program in 2003. That same year, he picked up a camera for the first time and started shooting photos.
Jones left Fresno State a few years later to start working, covering weddings in 2006 and 2007, but he didn’t get his first news assignment until 2012 for the Fresno Bee. It was at that point he found his passion for photojournalism, Jones said.
“That kind of changed everything for me. I really found that I loved documenting my community. I loved the idea of storytelling, so that’s when I decided to pursue it further,” Jones said.
After years of working as a freelance photojournalist, with regular contributions to The New York Times and featured works in other publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Guardian, Jones is one of two recipients of the 2022 American Mosaic Journalism Prize.
Along with joining a distinguished group of freelance journalists who previously won, the news release also said the winners of the award receive an unrestricted cash prize of $100,000 each.
Jones said he found out he won on Jan. 5 after a meeting was set up with the foundation, which then broke the news about the award. He said he was shocked because he had no knowledge of it.
The news release praised Jones’ photography and reporting work on multiple issues, including the overdose crisis, agriculture politics in the Central Valley and the coverage of “intersecting identities of immigrant and farmworker communities.”
It also highlighted Jones’ advocacy for ethical photojournalism, as shown in his New York Times articles like “The Deja Vu of Mass Shootings.”
In his August 2018 New York Times article “How Photography Exploits the Vulnerable”, Jones wrote about how a photojournalist’s job is to display reality but also “to maintain the humanity of the people we photograph.”
“Photojournalism hasn’t done a great job at maintaining the dignity and humanity of people,” Jones said.
He said he tries to focus his work on the community by covering humans as actual people rather than a political symbol of conflict. He sees this issue in a lot of the work he covers like immigration and the overdose crisis.
“You can do a quick Google search of ‘addiction photojournalism’ and all the pictures look exactly the same. They’re all gritty. They’re usually black and white… They don’t identify people by name. It looks like they’re just suffering,” Jones said.
He acknowledged that if people are suffering, it’s photojournalists’ job to display it but “people don’t just suffer.”
When he is taking photos of someone, he tries to make a connection to the person in the frame beyond just a victim, Jones said. It’s about telling these hard stories with a “little bit more grace.”
For his entire career, Jones has been a freelance photographer, and for the last 10 years, he’s been in New York. He said it’s nice having the “freedom and flexibility” that comes working freelance, but it’s also paired with “inconsistencies and unreliability.”
Working freelance, he doesn’t get a paycheck, so his income depends on the amount of work he is able to find and his connection with other editors.
“It’s a hustle to do freelance work, and I’m thankful for it. It really has given me the freedom to do the kind of stuff that I want to do. But I would love to find a little bit more security at some point in the near future,” Jones said.
Although the American Mosaic Journalism Prize awards freelance journalists, Jones said it’s also special to receive this award for his work as a photojournalist.
He said he is proud because it’s a “journalism award. This is not a photojournalism award.” Jones said it means everything to him that he’s getting his merits for journalistic integrities rather than a good-looking picture.
“I’ve taken a ton of risks to do this work. I’ve made a lot of compromises to work as a freelance journalist in New York and in the United States… An award like this means that all those decisions are validated in a way,” Jones said. “The recognition is one thing but the validation of my risk-taking is another.”
Jones said people think of photojournalists as people who just take photos and often ignore the “journalist” part of the occupation. Photojournalists also spend time with people and must build connections, trust and sources like every other journalist, Jones emphasized.
“I hope that this prize shows other photographers that, yeah, we’re capable reporters. We’re journalists. Like, I interview people in the exact same way that reporters and writers and other journalists do,” Jones said.
“We are doing a lot of the same type of work, but we do a lot of it with a camera.”
Jones said he never thought he’d receive an award like this with that kind of a cash prize, and noted that people who work in his field don’t do it because it pays a lot of money but because “it’s necessary to tell these stories.”
Jones said he’s thankful for those people who shared their stories with him.
“None of this could have ever been done without their trust and without their willingness to share with me their own stories and their own lives,” Jones said.
Jones also credits the Central Valley and Fresno State for his “upbringing.”
Jones said studying philosophy at Fresno State helped him ask bigger questions about the world; the same questions he asks in his stories in relation to how he uses his camera.
Although there isn’t a direct connection with his work in photojournalism to Fresno State, Jones said his work is all about asking questions, so in many ways, his time at the university is directly responsible for how he works today.
He said his education took a “crazy path” after leaving in 2005, because it wasn’t until years later that he continued his education through the Harvard Extension School in 2017. He said he is entering its doctorate program in anthropology in the upcoming fall. Despite making the ivy leagues, Jones said he still has Bulldog pride.
Jones said he still wears his Bulldog sweatshirt, goes to football games when he’s home and credits Fresno State as an important part of his life.
“Fresno State and the Central Valley [were] a huge part of my upbringing. It was a huge part of who I’ve turned into and a lot of my work is based in Fresno so I’m still like in Fresno… I’m incredibly thankful for all of my experiences, including the ones at Fresno State,” Jones said.
When asked about why he returns to the Central Valley every year and continues to cover different topics in the area, Jones said that Fresno is “fascinating” to study and is often misrepresented in the media.
“It’s because it’s my home. It’s the place that I feel most connected to in the whole world,’ Jones said
“I think it’s important for me to come in and tell these more complicated stories. But to do it, again, with the grace that shows [that] Fresno was more than just a punchline.”