Chief Mathews Black Eagle Man, Long Plane First Nation, Canada. This was shot minutes after the permit to deny the pipeline was announced.
This is Amanda. She’s about to head to the front line. There are no weapons allowed. Even a gas mask or bullet proof vest can be construed as a threat to the police. She’s brining a mirror with her to reflect light back onto the police as defense.
Rick Warrington, Menominee Tribe, Wisconsin. He drove from the midwest to deliver wood.
Rob McHaney came in from Reno, Nevada. He’s a veteran who stood at the front line at Standing Rock with his flag held proud.
Heidi: What called you to do this?
J.R.: Maybe it was Thanksgiving weekend, sharing an ironic celebration in a warm home while Water Protectors were shot by rubber bullets and water hosed in freezing temperatures. Maybe it was after my heart shattered when the Dakota Access Pipeline illegally bulldozed sacred Lakota barrel sites or my deep connection to nature, my love for the land and the people who protect it. Maybe it was my own spirituality pulling at my soul. A force greater than that which I could understand at the time. All at once I was swept off my feet with haste, in immediate motion, towards Standing Rock.
What was it like there?
I’m often asked how Standing Rock was. What was my experience there? Knowing full well this is a loaded question, people often offer an adjective or two about what they have indirectly experienced from it and project that on to me: “Interesting, intense, powerful, cold?”… The truth is I was experiencing all emotions at once. Sadness, empathy, anger, love. They were all there. At times I felt love stronger than anything else. At times I wept from sadness. All my emotions were present, not dormant, interacting with themselves every moment I was there. Standing Rock brought them forth and challenged myself to face them, appreciate them, and grow with them.
Tell us about the space between hesitation and action for you with this project.
Over 700 indigenous tribes were represented at Standing Rock. The largest gathering of indigenous people ever known and I needed time to acclimate before picking up my camera. I took part in a sweat lodge, I helped chop wood, I walked the camps and talked with the people there.
Photography is powerful, opinionated and can shape public opinion. I felt a strong responsibility to use this tool for good. Portraiture in particular involves trust. Trust is one thing the Native Americans do not share easily, for it has been broken time and time again. I was once asked after taking a portrait, “are you going to exploit me?”
I’ve come to Standing Rock as a photographer and compassionate caring human, yet I felt as if my press pass separates the two sides which I know are one and the same. I understand how important the media is to fighting this cause, yet I couldn’t help but feel intrusive. Many of the Indigenous people there do not want to be photographed and it is a delicate balance for me between shooting and picking up an axe to cut some more wood.
How many times did you visit the camp, and how long did you stay? ( and where did you stay?)
I’ve been twice so far. The first time I slept in my small station wagon. I had become sick around day ten from a severe blizzard that came through and most of camp evacuated. I slept on the floor in a large auditorium that evening with one thousand or so camp refuges at the local casino while we waited for the blizzard to pass. The following trip, I decided to stay at the casino. This trip was also cut short by a blizzard. I stayed ten days again.
I developed a close relationship with Jumping Buffalo, one of the last direct descendants of Sitting Bull. I cried a lot on that trip back home while processing everything. I didn’t feel I had helped enough. During this drive home, Jumping Buffalo called me and asked if I would sweat with him. I felt so torn. I was half way home and I needed to take care of my health. I told him I would be back and asked him if there was any way I could help. He told me they desperately need firewood. It heats their homes, cooks their foods and centers their ceremonies. I started my gofundme that day.
Was it difficult shooting in this weather? It’s far, far away from sunny So Cal.
There was a moment in a blizzard when a woman wearing a bear walked towards me out of the white abyss. I stopped her and she offered to dance for me. I took my hands out of my mittens, the autofocus kept focusing on the snow so I had to manual focus my camera while shooting her dancing at a shallow (f1.8) depth of field. The winds were nearing mph and it was -7 degrees out. It was the hardest shooting i’ve ever done.
Jackie Andrew, Lil’wat Nation, Canada performing a St’at’imc Bear Dance for me.
How is your experience coming home from Standing Rock and whats next?
All I think about is Standing Rock. I’ve been back home for a few days and really enjoying being social and around people. I realize now that time alone and observing heightens me. It heightens my spiritual and observation side. My senses are amplified and awakened. I am listening. I hear and see clearly. I smell better. I feel better.
Spirituality has a muscle memory. Observation has a muscle memory. At Standing Rock I was in tune with them, using them daily: Praying at the sacred fires. Observing. You can learn a lot from observation and these type of experiences build onto themselves. The more I practice, the more connected I am. If I take a break from it, it fades. I’ll get rusty, but the foundations will still be there. The foundations build upon themselves, they shape who I am.
There has been a lot of journalism on Standing Rock, mostly from small news outlets. These organizations have helped put the word out. People are coming to me feel a personal experience, they are looking to connect. I want to share everything with them and it’s tiring giving of myself and my experiences to each person. I’m working on building an emotion experience, a book that will best express this journey. It’s exciting for me and feels right to create something from a true passion. It is lifting me, lightening me and fulfilling me.
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