FaraHNHeight Fine Art, Taos
August 4 – October 31, 2017
Tom Harjo’s Portraits from Standing Rock provide insight into an event that was difficult to see. Using still photography, he portrays the people, the emotions, the interactions, and the violence that law enforcement in South Dakota tried to shield from public view in 2016. Harjo’s portraits include police officers bedecked in ammunition, men and women gathered in prayer, and men and women in fatigues, their faces covered. He composes shots that give a sense of scale to Oceti Sakowin, the largest camp, and how it withstood the harsh winter. He captures droplets from water cannons frozen on barbed wire as the Water Protectors were doused in the middle of the night. His photos demand that the viewer stop for a moment and consider how little she knows about Standing Rock, the people who were there, what they experienced, and how they were fighting.
He went out knowing no-one, not even sure where Standing Rock was located. After seeing footage of the dogs and the tear gas turned on the camps, Harjo, who identifies as Muscogee/Creek, Seminole, Shawnee, Quapaw, Delaware, and Cherokee, imagined it as “a microcosm of the history of US/Native relations.” He told me, “In a country where money trumps all, Indians acting in defense of their traditions and their homeland are labelled as seditionists worthy of such inhumane treatment.” When he arrived at the camp, as an independent photographer rather than a journalist, he was able to photograph “whatever and wherever” he was allowed. He stayed out of ceremonies and events in camp that were “off-limits” and “refrained from posting headshots,” having heard “rumors of law enforcement using social media to identify individuals for arrest.” Photographing at Standing Rock meant navigating the need to document and represent fraught moments while also maintaining the sanctity and anonymity of participants under continuous threat from police.
At FaraHNHeight Fine Art in Taos, his portraits of police officers hang at the top of several columns of photos of the camp and the Water Protectors on the left-hand wall. The portraits are menacing. Harjo writes that “there was just one rule for taking photos of police: don’t get close enough to be arrested.” When he encountered police at Direct Actions wearing Go-Pro cameras to record the Water Protectors, he says he “had no qualms about documenting them. I just tried to do it as quickly as possible and then move on… Some looked away; some tried to stare me down. Most were clearly uncomfortable.” After photographing them, Harjo would thank them before hurrying away.
I was aware that authorities in South Dakota suppressed images and footage coming out of Standing Rock, but it was never clear to me how this censorship occurred or to what extent. Harjo describes “weird things” happening to his phone and computer while at the Camp: his phone signal disappearing, battery suddenly depleting, his computer resetting itself to its manufacture date. “During certain actions,” he explains, “like the night at the Backwater Bridge, it was impossible to connect to the Internet.” He was one of many campers who noticed similar malfunctions, making it difficult to record and share the events as they happened. I can’t help but notice the echoes of battlefield language in Harjo’s titles and descriptions. Red Warriors, Backwater Bridge, Water Cannon #2. His recollections of the camp and the groups that populated it reflect the militant postures and paramilitary dress of both law enforcement and some of the activists. He photographed the helicopters and drones that circled the camps 24/7, surveilling the surveillants.
On his second trip to Standing Rock, in icy December, Harjo was more aware of the type of images—mostly cell phone and drone video footage—making their way into the media and felt a desire to make and share high-resolution still photographs that were missing from coverage of the events. “With a still photo,” he writes, “one can take the time to study an image in detail, something that is impossible to do with video.” A year on, these photographs are chilling artifacts of the events they document, and they also present the people at Standing Rock with powerful depth and empathy not seen elsewhere.
This month, Judge James Boasberg is scheduled to issue his ruling on whether the Corps’ illegal failure to evaluate DAPL’s environmental impact warrants a shutdown of pipeline operations. For Harjo, Standing Rock was a success that carries beyond the pipeline itself, no matter the outcome of the lawsuit. “Standing Rock demonstrated to the world the power of unity and community… [T]he Water Protectors are taking their experience and knowledge back to their communities and protest camps are now popping up across the country. The struggle for clean water continues.” His admirable sense of perspective and ability to see beyond the immediate results of the protests and the pipeline itself are tied to what he refers to as “the Native vision of Seven Generations,” which in many narratives of the events he witnessed “is eclipsed by short-term gains.” I asked Harjo how he understands the relationship between his artwork and his activism, given that he was both a participant in and a photographer at Standing Rock. His answer attests to the fundamentally entwined projects of his life, his art, and his politics: “I have never labelled anything I do as ‘activist.’ And I’m not sure that any Indian who was raised within their culture and acts in defense of that culture and people is an ‘activist.’ We are just doing what our ancestors have done since first contact: we are insisting on our right to be who we are in our homeland.”
Tom Harjo’s Portraits from Standing Rock won first place in the Human Interest category at the New Mexico State Fair in 2017, and they are on display as part of the traveling exhibition Art of Indigenous Resistance in Vancouver.