Did you know you wanted to be a photographer the first time you picked up a camera? Not really. I grew up with an interesting relationship to photography to say the least. My father is a photographer, and I grew up watching him do his thing with the camera. He was also an alcoholic. As I grew older, I came to realize that people with cameras have this door to other people—a way to connect. In my early twenties, I picked up one of my dad’s cameras and started using film. I was able to connect with many people, especially those in the shadows of our society—the abandoned, the disregarded, the forgotten. In retrospect, I see how the camera was always calling me, but my anger towards my father kept me from it. Now I use it to heal myself and help others on their journeys. I want my images to be a vehicle for bringing our dignity back as human beings.
You spent seven months living at Standing Rock. What did you learn from your experience there? Standing Rock is still hard to talk about, but I can say that one of the lessons from the time I spent there was to understand that the real frontlines are within ourselves. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself, and if you are blessed to have privileges above others, then use them to challenge the larger system. To me, Standing Rock was an epicenter of an awakening of humanity—an ancestral and futuristic prayer.
What was the process of making your book Standing Strong like? Making a book was new to me. I was in New York for the Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Social Justice Fellowship when I got the news that I had won the FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo; I got to work with the publisher right away. I had thousands of images. Thankfully, my editor, Régina Monfort, had seen my work before, so we had a good selection to work with. It was important to me that the book honors the beauty of what I experienced at Standing Rock and not only imagery of conflict, so Régina’s gentle way of working with me was a perfect match.
You cofounded Natives Photograph, a database of Native American photographers from North America. What were some of the important things that had to be considered in order to build the platform? Natives Photograph is a reaction to the way we have been telling stories of Indigenous peoples, especially in North America. When you ask an average person what Native Americans look like, that person will most likely think they wear headdresses and ride horses or live in teepees. Unfortunately, imagery by non-Natives has shaped the way we see Native Americans. From poverty porn at Pine Ridge to documenting “the last of a peoples,” our narrative has been dominated by the Western lens. Natives Photograph was founded on the intention to reclaim our narratives and decolonize the way we are seen by others and how we see ourselves. We are peoples of the present and not only the past.
What response has Natives Photograph had from photo editors and other media professionals who hire photographers? So far, the response from the industry has been great. We recently had a story about reclaiming our narrative in National Geographic, and many of our members have been assigned to photograph for major publications. Our database has been a bridge that many photo editors use to find something more than your average story about Indigenous peoples. Our members are close to their stories and have invaluable knowledge when it comes to producing work that has an impact in their communities. I also know the industry gets a little uncomfortable with the fact that we have a database with only Indigenous photographers, and that’s OK. We understand that sometimes we won’t have a place at the table, so we just build our own.
Now that Natives Photograph is up and running, what is the biggest challenge that must be overcome in order to keep growing the database? Getting through hard conversations we need to face in the industry as Indigenous peoples. For example, when I speak to photo editors and people in the industry about the importance of Indigenous peoples telling their own story, the response is often that we also need outsiders to tell the story. In a way, this makes sense, but I also think we are out of balance when it comes to stories about Native folks. In order to have a balance, we need to acknowledge the white supremacy embedded in the media industry and work together to evolve it so it works for everyone, especially Indigenous storytellers.
What is the most important thing that needs to happen in order to increase the opportunities for Indigenous creatives? Allowing stories to be unapologetic is a great first step. We should be able to challenge the preexisting structures without the fear of not getting published because our work is too political or it doesn’t fit into the realms of what is acceptable for an audience. I feel we are in a place where it is our responsibility to dive into narratives that might make us uncomfortable, in a way that is decolonization, but it can also be a place where we are unifying.
What are your concerns when a non-Native visual journalist works on stories about Indigenous peoples? My first instinct is to question it right away. Maybe that is just where I’m at in my process of healing and reconciliation. In my experience, most stories about Indigenous peoples lack spirit. They are not personal because in order for it to get to those realms, you need to feel it. I also understand that the majority of Western storytellers might have good intentions going into projects that are about Indigenous peoples; I think it is their responsibility to question themselves and try to understand why they are doing the work.
Are there certain steps you take when you’re approaching a subject for permission to take their image? Definitely. First, I like to think I’m not “taking” or “shooting” a “subject.” I see images as intimate interactions with all my relations and an opportunity to connect. To me, visual storytelling is a sacred act, and I try my best to step into the space of making images in a good way. People never forget how you make them feel, especially if you have a camera.
Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph? I’m constantly documenting my son Tonatiuh. He is half German/Irish and half Native, and I think that as he gets older, I will see a lot of powerful themes developing from the images. I’m in a place in my life where I realize that no story is more important than those that are real to you.