Josué Rivas, Standing Strong

JTF (just the facts): Published 2018 by FotoEvidence (here). Embossed hardcover, 140 pages, with 44 black-and-white photographs, 12 x 8.5 inches. Includes artwork by Wakeah Jhane, an afterword by Winona LaDuke and texts by Josué Rivas. Edited by Régina Monfort and David Stuart. Designed by Bonnie Briant. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Standing Rock is the name of the sixth largest reservation in the United States. Located in North and South Dakota, it is home to the Sioux people – members of the Lakota and Dakota nations – and as such, one of the country’s three hundred twenty-six reminders that “the land of the free” was built on a land that was stolen. Most people, though, including myself, first learned about Standing Rock through images of the mainstream media, when it became the synonym for the #NODAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) movement, in the autumn of 2016.

Images impact by yielding emotions, positive or negative, they create narratives in their own right. The prevalent images emerging from Standing Rock, such as Ryan Vizzion’s “Defending the Sacred” or Alessandra Sanguinetti’s Vogue series “Portraits of Protest: The Women of Standing Rock”, presented the movement within the visual tropes of protest photography, that is, covering the hardships of makeshift settlements, the strength and sacrifices of resistance, as well as the clashes between the police and pipeline opponents. If you look at these well-intended images carefully, you realize that they lack the lived experience; they are images of somebody standing outside trying to look in.

Photographer Josué Rivas turned his camera towards something more complex, less corporeal, and, therefore often overlooked at Standing Rock: the spirit within. Rivas arrived with his wife and his seven-month-old son at Standing Rock in August 2016, after his uncle, a medicine man from the reservation, had asked him to come and document the resistance from an indigenous perspective. Intending to stay for only a few days, he ended up living in the camp until law enforcement shut it down in February 2017.

Portraying its people not as protesters, but honoring them as Water Protectors, Standing Strong is as much homage as it is an offering of ritual and welcome. Organized within four chapters, the journey begins with the herbal-green cover, where an embossed wreath of sweet grass awaits to be traced by your fingers, and is echoed by the Circle of Life symbol on the back. As you enter the book, two adjacent spreads open from the center.  The paper is white, thick, yet malleable – and even before unfolding the title page, you intuit that Standing Strong is an object that claims space, literally as well as emotionally.

Each chapter revolves around a different notion and intention of prayer, which is indicated by a respective title – “Giving Thanks”, “Praying for The People”, “Praying for Healing”, and “Praying for Oneself”. If you follow the pages in their alternative order (that is, one left, one right), each chapter title is paired with a delicate drawing by the ledger-artist Wakeah Jhane. In conjunction, text and drawing, word and image, set the muted, deliberate tone for the book’s main body: Rivas’s black-and-white photographs, taken throughout the seven months he spent embedded within the main Oceti Sakowin resistance camp.

One to a page, with occasional blank pages in between, the photographs range from landscapes, to close-ups of tents, to animals (dead and alive), to people: portraits, from behind, and group shots. All of them portray moments of the camp’s spiritual daily life, whether it is a man braiding his hair, the placement of a buffalo skull, women cleansing their feet by the river, “prayer ties” on a tree, or a young man warming his hands by a fire. As opposed to many non-Native photographers, who often equate First Nation People and their cultures with tipis, feathers, and horses, to Rivas, his people – his relatives – are not be seen “as peoples of the past or as marginalized peoples of the present.” In place of tropes or themes, Rivas’s pictures speak with rigorous respect and an unfailing gentleness that cannot be described, only experienced. You do not have to know the protocol to understand that you are looking at something sacred.

The Dakota Access Pipeline transports 570,000 barrels of shale-oil per day through four states, running beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe, close to the Standing Rock Reservation. The pipeline’s intended crossing threatens ancient burial grounds as well as water supplies, not only for the Lakota and Dakota nations, but the entire region. As such, Standing Rock was not only a movement to protect water, but their right to live. It was the first time in the history of the United States that representatives of two hundred seventy First Nation tribes came together in one territory – and were joined by non-Native allies. What Rivas saw and experienced at Standing Rock changed his sense of belonging and feeling, for the first time, part of a majority; it also shaped his understanding of photography, which is tangible in his language and vocabulary. For him photographs are not taken, they are made – and as such, giving always precedes receiving.

Rivas, from the Mexica and Otomi nations in central Mexico, raised in Los Angeles, and therefore, despite being of indigenous decent, was “an outsider” at Standing Rock. “I was blessed,” he wrote me, “to be able to practice Lakota ceremonies with some relatives from Standing Rock years before the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline happened.” Before asking permission to photograph, he offered tobacco and participated in ceremonies to clear his intention on why he wanted to be part of them. “My approach with the Lakota people has been one that comes from a place of respect – and that’s why I’m trusted,” something that is, perhaps, most beautifully captured in one of the book’s final images – of two children, a girl galloping on a pony while a boy runs ahead, holding on to the bridle’s rope, smiling into the camera.

However, there are also images of people in pain – standing in the freezing Missouri River while being tear gassed and sprayed with water cannons, a young woman gasping for air, a man being held while caring hands pour water over his face. For Rivas, in fact, the most difficult part of the project was “not sourcing the conflict images”, but instead focusing on the spirit of resistance. He left Standing Rock with several thousand photographs. Encouraged by his mentor Larry Towell (who he met at the camp), Rivas applied for – and was awarded – a Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice Fellowship in 2017, and continued his work on the project. Then, after winning the 2018 FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo, Standing Strong became a book.

The power of ritual and community found at Standing Rock, as well as reclaiming their narrative and empowering indigenous people to tell their own stories, especially in regards to its youth, lies at the heart of Standing Strong. Rivas describes this experience as an awakening, both archaic and new, and as such it cannot be understood within a traditional narrative of beginning, middle, and end. Instead it is circular, which is reflected in the sequencing of the images as well as the book’s beautiful design. Among the many things that I have been given from Standing Strong – its photographs, drawings, and two evocative texts by activist and writer and Winona LaDuke and by Rivas himself – is a different understanding of the word “relative”, and the responsibilities it bears; something that goes beyond blood bonds, names, and resemblance. A spark that leaps beyond the numbing concepts of “us” and “them” of the present.

Collector’s POV: Josué Rivas appears to have no gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should contact the photographer directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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