Review by Melanie Chapman •
Notes: As many photo-book collectors may agree, each book has its own personality. Some are small and intimate, some large and comprehensive. Some offer confection for the eyes, some serve to feed the mind. The more one spends time with STANDING STRONG, the new book of black and white photographs by Josue Rivas, the more one can appreciate how special it is. Both personal and with the potential to educate, STANDING STRONG is a compelling opportunity to not only view documentary images of the Water Protectors fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but if one is so inclined, to open oneself to an alternative understanding of humanity’s relationship to the earth.
STANDING STRONG is the 2018 publication of the FotoEvidence Book Award in partnership with World Press Photo. For those not already familiar with FotoEvidence, it is “a platform for documentary photographers whose work focuses on human rights and social justice.” Documenting the David vs. Goliath dynamic of the 2016-17 protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built on First Nations land (South Dakota) and under essential sources of fresh water, STANDING STRONG is a worthy choice for this year’s selection.
The small but impactful book feels good to hold in your hands, and certainly makes the case for presenting work in a physical form rather than scrolling through images on a computer screen.As an object, perhaps the first thing you will discover is the unique use of Swiss binding. Rather than a traditionally bound book which starts at page one and progresses in a linear fashion from front to back cover, STANDING STRONG opens at the center and the pages turn outward on both the left and right sides. Thus the experience of STANDING STRONG feels more interactive.
While there is clear correlation to how one page relates to the next, the binding allows the reader to experience the spirit of interconnectedness that Rivas describes on the final pages of the book: ” Many tribes in Turtle Island (North America) believe in the interconnectedness of the natural world, the cosmos, the four legged and the two legged…I would like to acknowledge those that came before me and the land that I’m standing on. I pray that they receive this book as an offering and my words as a testimony to the resilience of my ancestors. I acknowledge you, the reader, and want to thank you for taking the time to explore these images and opening your heart to the movement to protect the water.”
Divided into sections such as WELCOME HOME, GIVING THANKS, PRAYING FOR THE PEOPLE, PRAYING FOR HEALING, the viewer is invited to experience the risks taken by the Water Protectors, from their point of view. Through his straight-forward shooting style, Rivas offers a tangible sense of being on the land, among people who are OF the land. The first image, a painterly vista of canoes paddling under dramatic white clouds, provides context. This is followed by a more heartbreaking landscape intersected by barbed wire, thus the viewer is immediately pulled in and held back simultaneously. Finely observed detail shots reveal muddy ankles at the river’s edge, as well as a tribal Elder facing the sun in prayer, his feather headdress and beaded fringe jacket intrinsically linked to the plains on which he sits. Close-ups of Tipi poles and Indigenous Resistance flags intermingle with wide-angle views of burning barricades. In an interesting reversal of old Western movie tropes, First Nation protesters cross the river toward rows of armed Federal guards silhouetted on the ridge-top. Fire-smoke arising from Tipis in winter, and a dark-clothed figure bundled up against the falling snow, help the viewer feel how harsh the elements became and how strong the commitment was among the hundreds and then thousands of First Nation people and their supporters.
As the months progressed, the Standing Rock protests became more dangerous following the environmental policy reversal of the new Trump Administration. Government forces sent in to protect corporate interests grew substantially in size and degree of weaponry. In a particularly telling progression of images, the grimace of Federal trooper as he sprays tear gas at protesters crossing the river is followed by the pained expression of a young woman who has just been gassed.
In the final months of transition from the Obama Administration to that of an even more Fossil-Fuel friendly Trump Administration, the Dakota Access protests briefly captured the country’s interest and risked becoming a trendy cause celebre, a scenic backdrop to an on-going power struggle over rights and resources. Though some images hint at the growing mass of supporters from elsewhere who preferred/required the warmth of a trailers and RVs, there are no photographs of the celebrities and public figures who came to Standing Rock, to show their support and draw necessary media attention with their presence. Thankfully, STANDING STRONG does not feel like the work of an outsider looking in, and thus avoids the risk of cultural appropriation. One can easily sense Rivas’ familiarity with and deep appreciation for the subject he documents. His focus throughout remains on the people for whom this land is and always will be sacred.
Though STANDING STRONG as a book is light in weight, the body of work is anything but lightweight, particularly if one knows that ultimately the pipeline was approved, the protesters evicted, and oil began flowing under the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and through ancient burial grounds in May of 2017.
In addition to the photographs, STANDING STRONG includes a few intimate drawings, and occasional blank white pages which allow the viewer to breathe between images, and again enjoy the unconventional manner in which they are presented. Additionally, text by Winona Laduke offers context on what it means “TO BE A WATER PROTECTOR”.
As described on his website, Josue Rivas “is a visual storyteller and educator working at the intersection of art, journalism, and social justice. His work aims to challenge the mainstream narrative about Indigenous peoples, build awareness about issues affecting Native communities across Turtle Island, and be a visual messenger for those in the shadows of our society.”
With the well-deserved recognition of FotoEvidence, Josue Rivas has succeeded in his mission. Whether you find this to be a heartbreaking story or reflective of a dignified people’s valiant efforts, STANDING STRONG is indeed an offering in a time of reckoning. Very worth seeking out and adding to your collection.
Photographer: Josue Rivas (born Mexico, residing in Portland, Oregon)
Publisher: FotoEvidence Press, Brooklyn NY, Copyright 2018
Afterword: Winona LaDuke
Stiff Cover, Swiss Binding on Left and Right Sides, open at center, 56 images, 74 pages, Printed by Ofset Yapimevi, Istanbul, Turkey
Design: Bonnie Briant Design, NYC