Photo #1: Milky Way
For many people, photographs reflect a moment in time, but to photographers they often mean so much more. Those same photographs represent a journey and a story that culminate to that exact moment, connecting years of personal experience and training, struggles and victories, lessons and sacrifice. Through this personal blog, hopefully these photos become more than just an image, but also to understand the story behind them.
On the evening of September 3rd, 2016, much like the rest of America, I found myself sitting around the television, thumbing through social media when a disturbing video came across my timeline. First footage exploded across the internet of native protestors being attacked by security dogs in North Dakota. In the video produced by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, a group of Water Protectors are seen scrambling over a farming fence to put their bodies in front of construction equipment. The machines were seen digging up mounds of grass and dirt in a nearby field. The land in question had the day before been submitted with the state of North Dakota as significant cultural sights related to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The following day, on a weekend, employees for Dakota Access Pipeline jumped 20 miles of their construction path to dig up the exact location. As the video goes on, hired pipeline security, Frost Kennels, are seen with security dogs. The canines began to jump, jab and snap at people as they attempted to halt the equipment as it carved into the earth. The dogs, held at loose leash, would whip towards protestors before being yanked back. With blood dripping from their mouths, I, like millions of others were infuriated by what I saw.
The images echoed of the Civil Rights movement of 1963, when police used attack dogs on African Americans assembling for equality in Birmingham, Alabama. I wanted to learn more. I shared the link of the video across my Facebook feed with the comment “Anyone want to buy me a plane ticket to North Dakota? I want to learn more about what is taking place.” The comment was in jest, partially, as I didn’t expect anyone to actually take me up on the offer. I was working part-time at a restaurant and barely making ends meet. Much less did I have funds to hop on a flight to what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
A couple hours had passed as I sat on my phone researching more about Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline and any and all information I could find. Very little was found on the internet at the time, but I was soaking up everything possible. That’s when an unexpected message appeared. It was from a man name Neil.
[You know how you have some of those random friends on Facebook that you don’t actually know, or how you became friends, but there they are? Neil was one of those].
Neil supported my photography in Atlanta, and although we were friends on Facebook, we had never interacted before. In the message, Neil offered to buy me a ticket to North Dakota and he was serious. He had just witnessed the same shocking footage and wanted to also understand what was taking place. In the months leading up to this, I had documented various Black Lives Matters marches, vigils in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, as well as other community issues taking place in our hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Neil wanted me to go and show our community what was happening on the banks of the Missouri River.
Now, I found myself in one of those positions where you have to judge whether or not you are ACTUALLY about what you say you’re about. We all talk a big game on the internet, but when the situation is in front of our face, often we reconsider taking action. When the offer was made, every excuse ran through my head. I didn’t own camping equipment. I had a job I needed to be at, I had commitments back at home. Finally, after about 20 minutes of staring at the note, I thought “fuck it” and jumped in. I was on board. I was heading to North Dakota.
The next 24 hours became mad scramble of calling everyone I know. Trying to borrow camping equipment from this friend, a tent from that friend, camera gear I thought would be useful and most importantly; trying to figure out how the heck I was going to find a way to the camps. The resistance on the banks of the Cannonball River was a good 45 minutes south of Bismarck. I didn’t know a soul on the ground and did not have the funds to hail a cab all that distance. Three days later, on the morning of September 6th, I was on my way.
I say “on my way” lightly, because until minutes before landing in Bismarck, I still had no realistic idea how I was going to actually make it to the Standing Rock reservation, or back home in 3 days. I had roughly $150 to my name and a prayer in the wind on how it was all going to pan out. I remember sitting at a layover airport, calling my boss to let him know I wasn’t going to be making it into work for the rest of the week thinking to myself “WTF am I doing? This is crazy.”.
About half an hour before landing, I met Didi on the small flight connecting from Denver, I believe. Didi was from Toronto, but already had her mother and sister at camp. We spoke softly about what was happening on the flight as not to have too many itchy ears listening to our conversation. Her mother and sister were on their way to meet her at the airport when we landed. I humbly asked if they may possibly have room for one more in their car. Didi instantly insisted there was room and within 30 minutes we were jam packing the small car with all of our gear and rations we had picked up at the local market.
It was all coming together.
I’ll never forget the first time I set sights on Oceti Sakowin camp. Over the course of 6 months standing with the movement, I would see the camp transform many times, but nothing like this. As we made our way north on highway 1806 from 24, crossing over the Cannonball River, a camp began to form from behind the hills on the roadside. Hundreds of small, 3 season tents sprawled across knee high, green grass like a kaleidoscope. Dozens of tipis towering over them like an eclipse. Flag row was a distant resemblance of the monolith it would later become with only a few flags flying along its route, blowing in the winds. The paths through camp were still soft and covered in flattened grass. The land was still fresh with new settlement. The air was crisp and the clouds cut through the blue sky, reaching as far as the eye could see. In the distance sat the Missouri River. The focal point of protection. As we pulled onto flag row, we heard it for the first time. “Welcome home” we were greeted from security at Echo 1. It really was one of those moments you never forget.
Traveling from Atlanta, Georgia, we were and still are quite ignorant when it comes to the topic of indigenous history in this country in regards to community conversation. Atlanta, being a stronghold of civil rights and land along the trail of tears, native discussions are rarely, if ever mentioned within our social climate of issues. Most people in Atlanta, when they hear the term “Native American”, they think of the Atlanta Braves or a community that some may even believe doesn’t exist anymore. In hindsight, looking back at the last few years, This is actually a really upsetting topic, but I may explain that at a later time.
During our ride towards camp, I got a crash course on what was taking place and what the Lakota and Dakota were standing for. I learned about various bands of the tribes, sun dances, ghost dances, etc. A full conglomerate of information foreign to my middle class, white, male world. I learned about the Lakota, and Custer’s “last stand” at The Battle of Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee and more. Recognizing I was in a world I had never seen before, by the time we pulled into camp, I was having another one of those “WTF am I doing?!” moments. I rode into camp humbled and intimidated, scared and cautious of offending anyone with my camera. I was a wasichu or ‘taker of the fat’ in many eyes. I kindly asked Didi, and her mother if they minded if I set up camp next to them. Once again, they insisted. We rolled towards the back of camp and staked our spot in the green grass located directly in front of Red Warrior camp. Great.
After setting up my tent, I stayed close my camp. Still intimidated by the thought of wandering around camp, I didn’t want to offend anyone walking around shooting like a tourist. At one point, while sitting on a cooler, I began to fiddle with my camera, trying to work up the courage to use it. Thats when someone from Red Warrior shouted “NO PHOTOS!”. They later explained they were referring to the Red Warrior camp specifically, but in the moment, that was enough jolt to curb my picture taker for the rest of the day. I spent much of the first evening just looking into the distance of Oceti Sakowin camp and eating my sandwhiches, staring at a tipi directly across the path from my dwarfed, 2 person tent. I probably stared at that tipi for a good couple hours, soaking up everything happening around me. I watched children run past, horses roaming freely through the camp, listening to the drums and war hoops echo across the plains. As the sun began to set, it was replaced by dozens of fires in all directions, glowing like fireflies in the night. As the night got darker, and the air chilled, I decided it was about time to call it in. I climbed into my sleeping bag around 10pm, trying to fall asleep to all the song and prayers surrounding us in the nights sky.
Around 2 AM, I woke up to the chill of the night cutting through my sleeping bag like a blade. Coming from the deep south, the previous months of my life had been accompanied by sweltering southern humidity and hot, blistering heat. I shot awake, the toes of my feet frozen from the Dakotas. After a few minutes of laying in silence, listening to distant drums, I decided to to peek my head out and investigate.
There it was.
The tipi I had spent many of hours gazing at earlier in the evening was now staring back at me. The inside of its canvas lined with a blue tarp. With light illuminating from inside, the structure became a beacon in the Dakota darkness. I climbed out of my sleeping bag still fully dressed in the clothing I had shown up to camp with. Slowly, I gathered my equipment and proceeded into the autumn night to attempt to take a photo of what I was witnessing. With the cloak of darkness, I felt comfortable nerding around with my camera, hidden by anyones possible judgement.
I set up the tripod 30 feet away from the tipi. Too far. I moved closer, too close. All the meanwhile my eyes began to adjust to the darkness. Slowly, right above the poles of the tipi the Milky Way began to form in the sky. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
It felt like fate. Like somehow, through all the stress and uncertainty, it all led to this moment. Just me, this tipi, the Milky Way, and millions of stars in the sky. It was just us, alone, in synchronicity.
Still trying to find my footing as to where to take the photo, I used the small light on my cell phone to try and focus a manual controlled lens a friend had lent me. Shining the light for seconds at a time, trying to get the focus as close as possible, I was so afraid of waking up someone in tipi and being caught looking like a creep in the dark. After a few practice shots to find the exposure time and ISO needed, I took it. My first photograph at NODAPL.
I crawled back into my tent, wrapped myself up with Bhargava’s loaned sleeping bag, and went back to sleep. It wouldn’t be for 3 more days, when I arrived back in Atlanta, until I was able to truly view what I had capture, that night but I knew I caught something beautiful. A piece of Standing Rock itself.
-Ryan Vizzions (Redhawk)
(If you enjoyed reading this, please consider purchasing No Spiritual Surrender: A Dedication to the Standing Rock Movement, my book honoring those who stood for the water. You can purchase the book here.)