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MFA | EDA student discusses distinction project on ectodermal dysplasia

Jacob Moss spent last summer traveling across American and photographing individuals, like the man pictured above, with ectodermal dysplasia, a rare genetic condition he also has.
Jacob Moss spent last summer traveling across American and photographing individuals, like the man pictured above, with ectodermal dysplasia, a rare genetic condition he also has.

Duke established the two-year MFA | EDA program in 2011, drawing in a diverse range of photographers, videographers and other artists. The program's annual thesis exhibition, celebrating the work of the 2019 class, is on display now from March 18 to April 13 around Duke and Durham. It features exhibits at the Power Plant Gallery, the Jameson Gallery and the Rubenstein Arts Center, among other venues. The Chronicle sat down to talk with Jacob Moss, a member of the 2019 cohort, about his project "One Arm Dove Hunt," which highlights individuals with ectodermal dysplasia, which involves defects of the hair, nails, teeth, skin or glands. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

TC: Why did you decide to pursue the MFA | EDA program at Duke? 

JM: After undergrad, I worked for a commercial production company in Santa Monica for a while and then did more of the same stuff on a freelance basis. Those experiences gave me professional and technical skills, but left me wanting more in terms of how to tell a story. I wanted to dive deeper and make work for the sake of the story rather than for a client. One isn’t better than the other; I just needed a change. 

Duke was one of two programs I found that had a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary work. It’s not a film program, it's not a photo program. It’s a program that places value in asking ourselves who are we as creators and how can we, or should we, tell stories? I really appreciated that. I visited, and after sitting in on some classes and meeting everyone, it became clear this was the right place for me. 

TC: What is your work generally centered around? 

JM: My work at first was a mix of moving image and still photography. I came here very interested in large format film photography. I kind of dove head first into that and began working with MFA | EDA director Tom Rankin and Rachel Jessen, MFA | EDA class of 2018, on my large format chops. My second year has been pretty much exclusively analog photography. 

My thesis project, “One Arm Dove Hunt,” is shot completely on 4x5 and 120mm film. I have a rare genetic condition called ectodermal dysplasia. “One Arm Dove Hunt” is a way for me to explore not only my experience living with ectodermal dysplasia, but also others’ experiences.

TC: What is unique about "One Arm Dove Hunt?" 

JM: I’m in an interesting position because I am the person behind the camera, which is inherently a position of power, but I’m also someone with ectodermal dysplasia. This allowed me as a photographer to establish a strong level of trust with folks I photographed. Taking off the photographer hat, it allowed me to create meaningful and lasting relationships with everyone I photographed, a few of whom have traveled great distances to come to see the show. That's been really unexpected and amazing.

TC: What was the process of making it like? 

JM: It has been an adventure. I traveled to my participants. Last summer I spent a month in my truck driving over 8,000 miles from person to person. I went through over 25 states. I would connect via email and eventually show up at their homes. I was struck by how willing folks were to participate and let a stranger with a weird camera into their homes. Typically after arriving, we would have a conversation and get to know each other. I found that having conversations before photographing loosened everyone up. I recorded the conversations, but I'm very hesitant to call them interviews. That feels impersonal. After talking, we would take photos and then I would be on my way. I've stayed in touch with most everyone I have photographed so far. Throughout the project, I met some truly amazing people and grew immensely as a person and an artist, which is a thing I have begrudgingly learned to call myself. 

I consider this the first iteration of “One Arm Dove Hunt.” I will continue meeting and photographing for the project after I leave the MFA | EDA program. My goal is to show the work in as many places as possible and eventually make a photo book. 

TC: What do you hope your work communicates?

JM: I pursued this project to examine not only my experience with ectodermal dysplasia, but the experiences of others with it as well. I wanted to explore areas of intersection, differences, the way we view ourselves and the way we think of ourselves in relation to other people. 

The project is about a group of people with a specific and rare medical condition, but I believe the questions the work asks are universal.  

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