As a photographer it’s my job not just to re-create what I see in the world around me but to take some responsibility for my interpretation of it. This fact made the task of remaining unbiased while photographing at Standing Rock–exceedingly difficult. The inherent tension between accuracy and interpretation is something that thrills and terrifies me. It’s a tenuous balance of being entrusted with a sensitive story–wanting to do it justice while avoiding being swept away by my own raw emotion gathered through the experience.
If you have no idea what is going on at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation or why I went there, I urge you to do a little digging to find sources who have reported on this conflict and its background context. The story is almost invisible in the mainstream media and I am not a reporter as such. My hope is that my sliver of shared experience and photographs from the Oceti Sakowin camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation this past week will help create enough tension that you may look into the facts and form your own opinions. It’s an historic moment in our history, with over 200 tribes from all over the United States represented–the largest such gathering in modern times, catalyzed in response to the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL) which is slated to run through treaty land, just upstream from the reservation water supply. The pipeline also will run through sacred native burial sites. These are the facts–not my opinion about them.
Speaking of opinions.
I hadn’t really encountered a situation in my photography where I was pointing my camera at something so socially charged without the security of knowing how and why I felt about it. My previous work in diabetes advocacy is something I live daily so my work was my opinion in that context. I knew where I fit in.
How could I form a valid opinion on the Standing Rock situation? It’s barely a hiccup in the mainstream media and furthermore it has deep racial implications. I’m on the outside. I’m white. I’ve never lived on a reservation. I don’t know what it’s like living in a community with 80% unemployment where the Dollar Store is literally the only grocery store for miles around. Growing up, colonization to me, simply meant the process through which we got here. To many indigenous people it means an ongoing process through which their culture was largely decimated and the lever by which they were displaced from their homeland.
There is an obvious chasm between my world, which is largely insulated from this struggle, and the perspectives I encountered at the Oceti Sakowin camp. I will be wrestling with this disparity for a long time to come–possibly without any clear resolution. Not looking away from difficult realities is where I can begin. I don’t make apologies for who I was born or where my ancestors originated. During my time at Standing Rock I didn’t feel as though I was expected to do that. I was accepted as a guest and often greeted kindly as a non-native relative. Receiving respect in the face of so many generations of sadness and injustice made me want to find a way to just make it all better. Staunch the bleeding. It also made me more determined to not let my feelings interfere with my photographs. Still, those feelings are what drove me to travel from Massachusetts to North Dakota over 3 days to make those photographs.
Clear as mud, yes?
I’ve had some people take offense at the fact that I’ve even been willing to look at this story in the first place–as if recognizing that the situation exists is tantamount to taking sides. There are certainly others who feel as if anything other than explicit activism for the NoDAPL cause is irresponsible or exploitative. I don’t share either of those views–but still, they aren’t wrong.
The presentation of lethal force against peaceful, prayerful demonstrations that I experienced is not business as usual. I learned as a child that you never point a loaded weapon at something (or someone) unless you fully intended to pull the trigger. Yet, at one point, I stood at the police blockade with two other journalists and a Marine combat veteran–only four people armed with questions and cameras–who asked respectfully to speak with the commanding officer. We were met with mockery, a drone hovering overhead and more than 10 heavily armored men watching us through the scopes on their weapons. I still don’t know if they were police or military. No one would identify the agency under whose authority they were operating. I made their photograph as I am certain they made mine. I would have greatly appreciated a chance to tell the other side of the story, but all I saw of the other side was armored vehicles and the business end of a lot of big guns. I wouldn’t say I took sides in that moment–more like I was forcibly relegated to a side.
I was walking back into camp after this incident took place and I was confronted by a young woman with a camera of her own. She asked me who I was reporting for and I explained to her that I ran my own website and was out there on a self-directed project to document the situation. I shared that a lot of this was a learning experience for me because I felt strangely trapped between two worlds. It didn’t take her a long time to explain that unless I had plans to report on every oil pipeline on native lands–not just the one that was trending on Twitter that I was just a looky loo. Part of the problem. Another tourist out on a camping trip taking snapshots. Perpetuating genocide, she said. Maybe she was just being overly sensitive towards a competing photographer.
I still worry that somehow I was actually taking more from the native community than I could give back despite my best efforts and she unwittingly put her finger on the truth.
Hello, uncomfortable tension.
I went to Standing Rock without a fully formed opinion, knowing that I would begin to assemble one through my experience–which would ultimately not even scratch the surface. I went there and saw things. I felt things that impacted my views. I’m human, flawed and willing to empathize with people I don’t agree with or understand. I don’t know if it’s possible to look at people suffering with dignity and feel nothing. My purpose in breaking up these posts on the blog is to compartmentalize some of these competing reactions that I had internally. I don’t intend for the sum of my opinions to be the ultimate takeaway so it’s important to give my feelings some outlet that is distinctly separate from the photographs themselves. Dealing with this tension through the creative process–that’s the takeaway.
If all this duality makes you uncomfortable–I assure you it only gets worse from here. Or better.