I returned home to wade through plenty of my own personal baggage that I encountered during my time at Standing Rock. It's been heavy and not at all comfortable witnessing this unfolding of events. I went there with questions, seeking answers--and came back with more questions. I have a few more posts that I am working on which will extrapolate the details of the time I spent there and show you the images I made--but right now, I want to share something seemingly unrelated that has helped me find my center in the midst of all this tension: gratitude for film photography.
My emotional baggage wasn't the only thing that was waiting for me when I arrived home. I had sent a years worth of film in to be developed before I left for North Dakota and just as I had done while shooting it--I let it slip from my mind. As I was in the process of unpacking my bags and cleaning up my camera gear I got an email with a link to the scanned negatives. Clicking through these "lost" moments from the preceding months was like a reprieve from the inexorable passage of time. It filled me with gratitude for everything I've been able to experience and share--and that feeling of gratitude lifted the burden of baggage. It's enough of a privilege to live my life enjoying technology and travel--adventure and photography--it's even more of a gift to have the opportunity to create little time capsules that distill the journey. It's also a complete privilege to have you reading this because as I've said before, no one is entitled to an audience.
As I clicked through, I found pictures of my friends Rob and Chris--just being themselves. I found pictures of Lilo from when she was much smaller. I found pictures of Stefanie from little moments that had held no great significance other than the fact that they'd never come again. I found the last photographs of my friend Pittman before he took his life. Looking at each image I was taken back to a moment in the past that I felt something worth capturing--usually a sense of tension and finality as I pushed the shutter button. I didn't know what I'd make or how the photograph would turn out. Once you push that button it's too late to edit or second guess. It's done. I was afraid of trying to capture something intangible and just barely missing it--tasting the success just enough to make the failure that much more sour.
I know that people are afraid of a lot of things in these uncertain days. I am too, I guess. Regardless of your social or political views, things are pretty dark out there. That's something we can all agree on. I don't know that pointing a camera at things will make anything better objectively. I don't even know what is better objectively. I do know that I have a lot to be thankful for and that fear and ignorance are not good enough reasons to stop creating and exploring. Diabetes taught me over the years that life is what we make it and that creation is the opposite of destruction. That is, and will always be the truth that drives me to keep creating even if I miss the mark by miles. It's not the mark that matters in the end--goals, targets and objectives always change. It's the willingness to take aim and try that I'm thankful for.
Film photography isn't about perfection. It's simply not the best way to make the most technically precise photographs. There is too much left to chance and variables that are difficult, if not impossible to predict with regularity. Still, the process of letting go and eventually getting a return is incredibly satisfying. Maybe it's because there are no guarantees or do-overs. You get one chance to get it right and when you do, it feels that much better.
by Steve Richert
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.
I'm not political but I'll give it a whirl for a moment.
I don't rant incessantly about who is ruining the country or who should fix it. I'm pretty sure that's what voting is for--a place to contribute a meaningful impact (as opposed to berating people on social media who disagree with you for seeing the world differently). The truth is that your opinion doesn't matter--only your actions do. This wildly unpopular view is the only hope have we have as a society of self-rescue--because the worst leadership wouldn't be able to capsize a nation of people who were humble enough to link arms across various lines of race, ethnicity and politics.
Ok, now that's out of my system:
A few days ago I felt like I should go to Standing Rock in North Dakota to do a photo-project documenting the protest about the Dakota Access Pipeline there. I don't have an axe to grind. I'm not a protester. I'm a photographer who believes that pretty images aren't necessarily the most important. For those of you joining me in the Ugly Camera Challenge I wrote about recently--I absolutely will be continuing to participate in that (and I hope you will too!) It feels as though something deep and significant is under way in the Standing Rock conflict right now and for the last few weeks we've heard almost nothing about it in the media. Nothing from our political leaders who are selectively concerned about the dire implications of climate change but refuse to even acknowledge this debacle that is unfolding on our own soil.
You may agree or disagree with my decision to go to Standing Rock, North Dakota and point my camera at something that no one seems to want to deal with. I'm writing this to articulate my purpose in going. I'm not attempting to shame others who can't or won't join in this journey. I have the privilege of time and opportunity to travel. I have the freedom (risk) of no allegiance to a commercial sponsor or assignment other than my own self direction and those of you who are supporting me on Patreon (thank you!!!). I have a supportive family who is making it possible for me to step out and do this. I'm thankful for those gifts and I don't deserve them any more than anyone else does. I don't believe we are given gifts in life to squirrel the benefits away away while turmoil engulfs others who have drawn a different card.
I have no idea what I will find out at Standing Rock. I'm not going with any opinion other than this: my opinion doesn't matter. What matters is that there is not a public and transparent discussion of a militaristic-type of force being used on civilians who are peacefully protesting corporate development that directly impacts their land. I suspect that as with most conflicts in life there is a combination of people doing the right things for the wrong reasons--and people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
One of the cop-outs of the photographer is that the camera doesn't have an opinion. It's not biased. It accepts us as we are--the good and the bad. The humanity. I'd like to think that I will return with some images that may make us think about this conflict from a more personal standpoint. Because that's all any of us are, after all. We're just people. If we can only use our technology to start arguments rather than conversations then we have already failed, utterly. On some level that's the hurdle that I now have to clear as I go out to photograph.
I feel a lot of creative tension around this. I don't know the outcome and I am fairly certain that this choice will alienate more than a few people who I consider important in my life. I feel real risk. Some fear. I don't know that I can do this without making an ass of myself or getting in the way of a cause that isn't my own. I know that this might not work.
I know that it still feels right to go and try.
I'm not sure what will come from this effort in terms of deliverables. My primary goal is still images. Interviews, stories, video assets and the like will be a bonus that I hope to capture as well. I'll update via LivingVertical social media channels as I can. Cell and data service are reputed to be lacking within a 20 mile radius of the reservation so I may be quiet for (the first time in my life) a while. If you'd like to support this work I'm doing, you can contribute via my Patreon page. If you'd like to tell me to go _______ myself, sound off in the comments below--or better yet do it in person.
It's nearly that time of year when all of our camera gear suddenly becomes too limited and obsolete--usually as a result of proximity to Black Friday sales. I've watched the #OptOutside initiative grow over the last year or so--with the goal of encouraging people to redefine the day after Thanksgiving in a less materialistic light by scheduling outdoor adventures in place of shopping. Being a bit of a skeptic, I think that this is likely just clever marketing meant to snag sales in early December but despite that, I appreciate the idea of doing more with less. The Ugly Camera Challenge is geared towards applying that same minimalism to our adventure and photography!
Full disclosure: I struggle with G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) as much as anyone else and my goal here is not to bare my soul to the world and repent of my love of cameras. I've accepted that it's part of who I am. Aesthetics of new gear entices and inspires new adventures. On the other hand, limitations are an absolute key to creativity. Thus, the Ugly Camera Challenge which can help us selectively limit ourselves while getting more mileage out of gear we might otherwise neglect.
The rules of the challenge are pretty simple:
A few notes about the challenge:
Buy a used camera from a person (ebay, yardsale, craigslist, barter) that is deplorably cheap. Let's say $50 or less. They are out there! Film or digital--let your mind wander a bit!
Give your ugly camera away to someone who doesn't have one-this could be a young person who only knows cell phones and has never gotten to experience simply shooting photographs, someone who is interested in photography but can't afford a "better" camera--you get the idea.
Get a friend, a child or a spouse involved--these kinds of things are more fun with group participation! This could easily create a pathway to mentorship. I'd love to see us getting more mileage out of gear that we would normally not even bother to pick out of a trash bin--and then passing it on to someone else along with whatever lessons taken from participating in this challenge!
This could easily be integrated with the OptOutside initiative--and I think it shares a lot of the same ideals of minimalism and prioritizing experience. Having a camera imposes the need to go somewhere, do something and shoot it. Plan adventures outside--small, local or whatever to document through this month!
Photography is a gift and the simpler we make the experience, the richer it becomes--to borrow the words of Steve House. I want to point out that this initiative was inspired by Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography--his video may help inspire you further!
With smartphone technology constantly improving, it may seem odd to say that 'you should carry a camera'. The camera, as a standalone device may soon become a relic in the world of unprofessional photography. The iPhone 7 recently came into our household and while I don't begrudge Stefanie's enthusiasm for her new toy--I have felt less desire to upgrade for the "benefit" of a better camera. I explained to her that I feel the value of the iPhone has plateaued and is now offering minor tweaks to incentivize upgrading. I don't need a better camera in my phone. I like having a separate device dedicated to creating.
Technology is a relationship. It has two sides. Inward facing and outward facing. What we see, hold, touch and lust after is almost entirely the outward facing side. It's the new operating system that lets you draw handwritten messages, the new camera that lets you choose the focal point of your image after shooting it--we can all imagine sending more clever messages or taking better photographs and how that will somehow make our life better. We want that and will do whatever it takes to get it.
Do we take an equal amount of time to consider how this technology changes us as we use it?
Conversely, do we stop to think about how the deliberate process of creating with a dedicated device may be preserving something special and rare? Simply put, I will always carry a camera not because I couldn't get good photos without it--but because I value the change that it brings about in my thinking. It changes the story that I'm telling myself as soon as it's in my hands.
The opposite of destruction is creation. I live every day with a body that is trying to destroy me. That's my resting state with type 1 diabetes. Being able to shift into the creative mindset allows me to directly challenge this disease--whether it's with a rope and harness or a camera. I'm particularly focused on using a camera these days because photography is much more available to me than climbing--and because the barrier of entry is so incredibly low. It's incredible therapy that has almost no downside.
My ultimate goal in the work I do here is to change the story of diabetes through adventure. That means that I'm constantly examining the process of storytelling. I first picked up a camera because I wanted to tell a story--not necessarily take attractive photographs. I learned by doing--poorly at first. If you want to unleash some creativity and change your perspective there is no need to spend thousands of dollars or wait for someone to give you permission to be a photographer. Find your reason why and then go take photographs.
One only needs to do a quick glance at social media to see that there is no shortage of people creating inspiring work and sharing inspiring stories. So what's missing? In the few years since I started LivingVertical the once sparsely populated landscape has grown a little crowded. Don't believe me? Go on Instagram and look at the #type1diabetes hashtag. Sure, there's still some okra water, cinnamon pills and some "woe" boaters floating about on that sea of virtual humanity--but my goal was never to eliminate those perspectives--merely to offer an alternative alongside them. Technology has allowed this community to grow to the point where I no longer feel like an outsider as an active and unrepentant type 1. I'm really thankful for that.
The question that I keep coming back to is what still is missing from the equation--because inspiration abounds and the net reality of life with type 1 diabetes seems largely unchanged for it.
I'm not waving a white flag--but trying to look critically at the premise of most of my work: we need stories and inspiration to change the narrative surrounding life with a chronic illness. Maybe I've been looking at it all wrong. It's only taken me 5 years to start figuring out what I'm doing here so it's good to have a jump start on the whole process.
Inspiration doesn't change lives. Initiative does. Action that overcomes the inertia--the paralysis of the static life. Climbing is how I connect to that. It's North on my compass and from climbing has come many other levers that I've used to keep from slowing down. Photography. Writing. Creating. Noticing. The make and model of the compass are not nearly as important as having your own idea of North and taking steps to navigate on a journey. The goal is not to possess a perfect, flawless compass that can be listed on eBay at the end of its service as "new or like new condition".
Inspiration is a by product of something that does change lives--and that's the simple act of showing up and doing the work. It's important not to confuse the two. Choosing to see the creative choice in our lives directly opposes destructive force in our lives. This is nothing short of transformational if we take the step to go beyond how we feel about doing the work and simply do the work. This means trying with no regard or concern for failure. Uncertainty is the space we need to occupy with pride. It's not safe and certainly not neat. Inspiration is not the foundation for change. It's the antecedent. It comes after making the change and doing the hard part.
We don't need inspiration to get started or show up consistently. We just need to get started and show up consistently.
I'm not going to try and post all of my photos from the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire here because that would leave us both with an improbable task; me of uploading and organizing everything and you of taking the time to go through them all! Nevertheless, the task of returning with images to share lies at the heart of adventure. It's not about having "fun" as such--nor is it about some existential quest that takes place in a vacuum. Certainly those elements arise in the process, but the result of it all boils down to something we create. That's our story and the photographs are an important part of it.
I am writing an eBook about this trip called "5 Minutes of Chaos that Changed my Life" and making a short film from it as well. Both will dig deeper in to the nitty and the gritty of that experience. I feel thankful to have had an experience so rich that I am left grappling to get my arms around it. If you would like to buy prints of these photos, please visit my print store. If you don't see the image you want, please contact me and I will make sure that it's available for you. Each photo print we sell supports the work we are doing to change the story of life with type 1 diabetes.
LivingVertical isn't for everyone. It's for YOU. That's why I am asking you for the opportunity to make this mission, this message my full-time priority by pledging support for our work via our recently launched Patreon campaign. It's loaded with exclusive rewards which you can see for yourself, including our first foray into print media--The AdventureRx Journal.
Over the past few years you've watched me attempt to juggle the disparate goals of supporting a family and creating revolutionary adventure media that can overthrow the limitations of type 1 diabetes.
I've decided to stop juggling.
I've committed to LivingVertical full time. That means sink or swim--a test that I've been able to protect LivingVertical from for years. I've worked many different jobs to support this effort myself and I don't regret keeping it on life support in order to get back to this point of giving it my full time focus. Now, the question is 'How long can I afford to maintain this commitment while supporting my family?'.
When I first began working to create empowering adventure films, blogs and photos in 2011 I had a sort of luxury of being free to live in the dirt. Literally. I took great pride in doing more with less. It felt rebellious to start taking a stand without asking for "permission" from corporate sponsors. Having basically no overhead made us hard to squash--like post apocalyptic cockroaches. I never anticipated success. When Project365 was completed there was too much momentum to just walk away from LivingVertical--but no pathway for sustaining a living from it either. I assumed that if LivingVertical was good enough some company would sweep me off my feet and give us the financial support required to ride off into the sunset creating inspiration and empowerment for the world at no cost.
I often have been told that "It would be great if (insert drug/device company name here) sponsored you! Seems like you would be a great fit. Have you ever looked into that?" I have had some great relationships with sponsors in the past--but we never rode off together into the sunset. Short term engagements left me searching for ways to attract the next short term engagements. My focus couldn't be the work and the message. The message mattered to me and my audience--but it wasn't what was supporting me financially.
The reason I am attempting to crowd-fund the backbone of our support is because I want to change that. I believe that my audience and the message come first. Having audience support is what allows that freedom to exist.
No one is entitled to having an audience, let alone support from that audience. The fact that you're here with me means that I've been given a wonderful gift already. I have no intention of putting my work behind a wall and making it pay-to-play. I'm asking you for the opportunity to make the free, public work of LivingVertical bigger, better and more impactful.
Creation is the opposite of destruction. If it were not for the destruction that type 1 diabetes threatened me with, I may never have seen the value in picking up a camera and creating something from the obstacles in my path. That's a big part of why climbing has always appealed to me as well. It's a process of creation, not just performance. It takes imagination and independence to solve physical problems.
You can't photograph what you haven't seen, a most poignant observation by one of my photographic mentors, David Duchemin- rings particularly true in a time when there are more photographs than ever. Perhaps the value is more in why we go to see these places rather than in the beauty of image alone. The meaning isn't just aesthetic. My vision is to be able to communicate that value with fewer and fewer words to assist the images.
Photographs are like a bank account where we store feelings and experiences for rainy days or to loan to others. They are an escape hatch from the present reality--a reminder that there is more out there to see and do. These particular images are from our time in Mono Lake and Devil's Postpile (California) as well as a few from Oregon and Washington. I look forward to opening this escape hatch wider in the future. It will be a long road to El Capitan and I expect to see many things along the way.
I was recently asked on Instagram: "How do you deal with the emotional burden and sadness of living with type 1 diabetes?" This question is almost always presented in terms of how can we stop the suffering. I want to look at this differently: how can we use the suffering to build something bigger than the pain. I've been thinking about that question in the context of my own recent loss. I think the answers are the same regardless of the specific source of the suffering.
Acceptance: This is the missing link. Trying to substitute avoidance in its place is just kicking the can down the road. If you wake up each day wondering why you have to struggle with diabetes it's because it hasn't become normal. Yet. Some part deep down is expecting or wishing that the struggle is a bad dream and that you will wake up one day and return to an easier normal. That fantasy is often cultivated on social media and it's the surest path to misery and feeling every bump in this road that we are unable to exit. Once the battle is accepted type 1 diabetes stops being special. It stops standing alone, out of reach of all the solutions that seem to work for everything else. My diabetes isn't it's own thing. It's a facet of my climbing. My travel. My photography.
You have to fully let it in so that you can let it out. Struggle needs an outlet. Accepting diabetes fully allows it to access and permeate the conduits that inspire us--and we are no longer left playing the good against the bad. The hardship adds value to what we create, if we can recognize the need to let our adversary out to play.
Influence: I know that the term "control" in relationship to diabetes is inelegant because it sets us up for an unrealistic outcome. I don't intend to get into the technical aspects of managing blood sugar here. Still there is tremendous psychological value in exerting all possible influence over our health. Diet matters. Exercise matters. Lifestyle and happiness matter too. There is much we can't control and that is much more bearable if we are making the best use of the variables that we can control. It won't solve all your problems but you will certainly learn something and even if it improves one small facet of your life it's a win. Small wins add up.
Investment: As I wrote in an earlier blog, the only thing that endures beyond us is the way we make people feel. The "good shit" we create in our lives and the lives of others that they can hang onto when times are tough. The truth is that sadness is inevitable. There's no way to be happy all the time. There's no way to have stable blood sugar all the time. I'm meticulous with my diet and exercise and lifestyle and I can tell you that the sadness and "burden" is always there. The trick is that I don't expect it to be otherwise, so I make sure to set that burden aside at times so that I'm not buried beneath it. I fully feel the low points in order to move beyond them. I've given myself permission to be vulnerable but not to wallow.
This understanding of alternating periods can guide the way we invest the time we have. Between the waves of sadness we start to see opportunity and hope. We exploit those moments and expand them. The alternative is waiting for the undertow to return, cringing at the knowledge that we are powerless to stop its inexorable onslaught. We use that harsh truth as motivation to invest the moments between and put good things in the bank--because the inevitability of suffering will certainly make it worthwhile.
The whole world is trying to remove burdens. Remove suffering. We are told to think of that as a solution. I don't believe that's the case. Burdens are the foundations for the monuments we are building that will carry the legacy of what we stand for, long after we have fallen by the way. I don't climb things because it keeps me from being sad. I climb things because I know that I can't help but be sad at times--and when those times arrive, I need to look back at the photos of the joy and times spent in the mountains and they become windows beyond my current sadness. They are an outlet for my diabetes and an escape hatch for my soul; reminding me that there is a reason to go on because sadness is just a middle, not the end.