Photographer Sue Reynolds was recently honored by U.S. Congressman George Miller for the photography of Still Here: Not Living in Tipis, a book she has produced in collaboration with Salish poet Victor Charlo. Images from the book and Charlo's writings have been on display at Photo Central in Hayward, California, since November 1, in an exhibit of the same name; Reynolds will be giving a closing gallery talk on Sunday, January 12. Here, Reynolds shares a wealth of photos, as well as some thoughts on her work, with ICTMN. (To learn more about the book, and for buying information, visit susanreynoldsphotography.com.)
Your book, as you make clear, is a "photo-poetry collaboration between a white urban observer and reservation Indian" — was it important for you to collaborate with a Native on it, and why?
I collaborate with Native Americans on my photo projects because as a non-Native I'm always learning about First Nations people. My goal is to create understanding and respect between non-Native and Native people. That starts with me. Who is this person I'm asking to photograph? Who is this poet, what's his experience that comes through in his poems?
My collaboration begins with listening to people I'd like to photograph, before I make a picture. I want that connection between us to be felt in my images. So I want to know what's important to this person. What's it like living on this reservation? How is it to be one of just a few Mandans, for example, or to be an Ohlone (local) Indian in the urban San Francisco Bay Area where I, too, make my home? The more I listen, the more I'm able to share seldom-seen Native realities with a wider world that's stuck in stereotypes. People respond emotionally to my images. They start to care.
Collaborating allows us to share our common humanity and doing so, we inspire others.
What was your relationship to or familiarity with Victor Charlo and his work prior to doing this book?
I met Victor Charlo on Montana's Flathead Reservation in 2007 through mutual friends. I was just getting started with my Native American work then, and I really liked Vic as a person and an artist. He's been through amazing ups and downs, and he's stuck with his writing through everything. Every time I'm in Montana, we get together and share our creative life, our struggles. Vic's perseverance when life threw a bunch of roadblocks his way reminds me I have to keep going, too. He shows me the Salish idea of "just enough," that even when it looks like not much is happening with my projects, it's always ok.
Vic gave me a copy of his book "Put Sey (Good Enough)" which is a collection of his poems, a few years ago. When I got the idea for this new "Still Here: Not Living in Tipis" photo-poetry book, I began to read those poems really deeply. I was looking for how Vic's experience and my mine could come together, how my photographs and his poems could become something more when they dance together on the pages. That way of reading, of seeing, helped me remember that despite our coming from two different worlds, we are more alike than we are different.
Last summer, I audio-recorded Vic in St. Ignatius, Montana while he read his poems that appear in the new book and exhibit. We did several takes for many poems, and something even more beautiful was created as Vic spoke. His words were living, moving. In November he came to California for the book launch and exhibit opening, and he read those poems for the crowd. When he finished up with an old Chippewa Cree song that left us breathless, I felt the gift and power of a good collaboration.
As a "white urban observer," you are probably aware of the issues surrounding non-Natives shooting Native subjects. How do you navigate that?
Yes, there can be lots of issues around non-Natives photographing Native American people. For me, it's about creating relationships first. I often keep my camera in the bag for a while because we're getting to know each other as people. We're learning to trust each other. I'm aware of the weight of the past, the challenges of the present and of what people may bring to the conversation. I listen to and meet Native people on their terms, at their gatherings, often on reservation land.
I hear their stories, including ones about starvation winters at the hands of dishonest Indian agents, the role their family's ancestors played in Indian Wars, and how current policies and hard realities such as poverty and racism affect youth, elders and communities now. I also witness the tremendous resilience of Native people. Sometimes I share the story of my great-grandfather's fighting the Modoc Indians in the 1872 war.
Once in a while, a Native person will say "No" or be angry that I want to photograph. Sometimes there's the misperception that I'm doing this to culturally exploit that person, that I'm only out to make a fast buck because they've experienced that with other photographers. I respect their right to be angry, and I don't photograph without permission. If we aren't able to have a conversation, it's ok. Sometimes it's hard not to take Native anger personally, but I know it's not personal. It's something bigger, and it's that bigger thing that I work to help mend as I go about my projects.
What is the nature of the personal connection you feel to Native culture and subjects you photograph?
Around the time I was beginning this work, many family members died, and I found Native celebrations incredibly healing for me. I wrapped myself in the power of the drum and singers, in the dancers' beauty, in the way the prayers made me feel whole. I felt at home and happy among Native people, and I still do.
Traveling on that road of grief and discovering the powwow trail, there was a profound bond I shared with Native people, who accepted my grief more fully than many of my own race. Out of those many deaths, I began a new life that puts Spirit at the center, and this is something else I have in common with most Native people.
I am grateful for what is given to me through Native people's kindness and generosity. Showing their beauty and humanity within their traditions feels like the way I am meant to honor Native America. It is the way I am meant to give the world the truth it needs.
What did the recognition from Congressman Miller mean to you as an artist? Have you received any feedback from Natives on the book or your work in general that you'd like to share?
The Congressman's recognition means more Americans everywhere are becoming interested in Native Americans, beyond preconceived notions. More people are getting the book in their hands and having their own experience of this collaboration between a white city-bred photographer and a reservation Indian poet. Maybe that will lead them to get to know the Native people in their own communities.
Congressman Miller's recognition is opening new doors for my art and its message to reach more people, including an upcoming project with college students. It feels really good that more people are eager to connect with Native Americans through my art.
Native people have been really excited about this book, and about my work with them from the beginning. Whether it's friends or people I've just met, they tell me they love seeing themselves, their families and Indians in general portrayed in a positive light. I was recently told by an Ohlone Indian, "You have a good heart." That mutual respect gives me strength. It keeps me on this good road.