Viewfinder: Alyssa Schukar
Alyssa Schukar is a Chicago-based photojournalist and teacher. In the past few weeks, she has photographed the people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota for Yahoo News and the New York Times. Her documentary pictures from the camp have been supplemented by a series of portraits of the people there to protect the site.
Daily Yonder: Where are you from, where are you now, and what do you do?
Alyssa Schukar: I am originally from Nebraska and I worked at the newspaper in Omaha for five years. One of the cool things about that job was that it was a statewide paper, so we’ve got to travel all over the state and I ended up doing a lot of work in more rural communities, which I really enjoyed and I feel very connected to.
Two years ago I moved to Chicago after my husband got a job here and [I] started freelancing. It’s a little bit harder to do stories on smaller communities here but it’s something that’s really of interest to me. And in particular I’ve been doing a fair amount of work looking at communities affected by the legacy of industry as well as as oil in America. So the story that we did in North Dakota kind of fit well with that too.
I teach at Columbia College. I do a photo and video class working on multimedia and a little bit more nontraditional storytelling, visual storytelling in particular. And then I do a fair amount of work for the New York Times here and a good bit of work for Chicago Magazine. I’ve thankfully been able to stay in he photojournalism world. As a freelancer you kind of you end up doing a wide variety of things, which actually works well with my newspaper background.
How did you get involved with documenting the pipeline story?
I actually was hired to go up there for Yahoo News. I was on an assignment to cover [Green Party presidential nominee] Jill Stein, who was visiting the Standing Rock camp. But I had been following the story for two or three weeks leading up to that. So I had a decent idea that I wanted to stay on a little bit longer. The assignment for Yahoo News was just for one day.
I had reached out to a couple of editors, but it was over Labor Day, so it was it was a little hard to connect with anybody. When I was at the camp that first day I posted a picture to Instagram and Twitter, hoping that one of my editors would see that and [an editor] at the New York Times did and snagged me that day.
What was it like covering the camp?
It was a very unique reporting situation for me. In a camp situation, it’s people’s homes. It’s where they’re staying, at least temporarily. So you have to be kind of sensitive to that. And also you know it’s technically public land but you are a guest there. So I definitely wanted to be considerate of that as well. And then, additionally, culturally it’s very rude to just take an image of someone and walk up to them and then ask their name and then walk away. Most of the images that I ended up using were the result of like a half hour long conversation with the person.
So there was a lot more required to even get to the point where I lifted the camera, which was a really unique experience and it actually ended up being such a fulfilling thing because I had some really amazing conversations and feel like I learned a great deal about myself, about America, about the state that I’m from, Nebraska, which has a long and admittedly pretty terrible history of relations with Native Americans.
That’s actually where the portrait series grew out of, not wanting to feel like I was coming in there and making pictures that would make people uncomfortable. It’s very important to me that I don’t take from people. I think that photojournalism is a beautiful thing because it can be something where it’s much more collaborative. If I’m going to ask someone to do such an intimate thing of letting me take their picture that I also need to give of myself. Trying to make those connections, trying to be a real person, talking to these people who were there for a very beautiful reason, to them a very life or death situation, they were there to save the world. That’s why they would call themselves water protectors rather than protesters. Going back to the portrait series, it was really born of that idea of wanting to be able to do it right, to come into the situation and document what these people were doing, why they were there, in a way that let them speak. And let their voices be amplified rather than mine or a more traditional story.
What were those conversations like with the folks you photographed?
It was kind of amazing. The conversations were all over the place. I mean, obviously we were centering around why people were there. There was this one guy that I walked up to after this really beautiful march. They marched two miles down a highway to a site that had been disturbed, a sacred burial ground site had been disturbed by the pipeline construction and they were going to do a ceremony there. Afterwards I wanted to talk to him. So I walked up to him and said, “I am with the New York Times. I’m taking some pictures of people here, and during the march I’ve gotten your picture. Would you mind if I have talked to you a little bit?” He said that was fine. So we’re going to walk back to the camp together. The first question I asked him was “why are you here?” His response was to tell me the creation story. [Laughs] And, you know what, I was kind of in a hurry and I was on deadline at that point. But we ended up having a 45 minute conversation because that’s just how it has to be. And I’m sure I could have extracted myself from the conversation if I really needed to, but I was glad that I stayed in it because it was a really beautiful moment.
And he taught me a lot. I learned a lot about what they believe and also why they’re there. It’s so intrinsically linked, what they believe and why they are there. A lot of them were remarkable … conversations … when somebody would tell me that they just quit their job to come stay here because they felt it was that important. And it was amazing, too, because people are from all over the world and coming together. It was just a beautiful thing because it’s genuinely was historic.
That’s also part of what brought the portrait series together was this idea that this many people, this many tribes and nations had never gathered in one place before.
When the story published the number that we had gotten at that point was 280 tribes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were bigger than that at this point.
Did you stay on-site, in the camp?
I did stay on site. I also stayed at the reservation casino and then the final couple of nights I stayed up at a nicer hotel.
You know staying overnight was really interesting because it was quiet, but in the morning you could start to hear people getting going and hearing some drums, hearing some singing, hearing some praying, and it was just kind of very peaceful way to wake up. And it’s beautiful country, really beautiful country.
What would spur another trip out there for you. Is there a change that needs to happen that would make you hop in a car or get on a bus or pick a flight.
That’s a good question. I am admittedly not much of a news photographer.
When I was there working for the Times there were no actions that happened, so I didn’t actually even get an opportunity to photograph people protesting.
So I don’t know how much I would be compelled by breaking news, but I think often that’s what gets published and that’s what gets attention.
This story is continuing. I’m continuing to watch it and see what’s going on. I think it’s an important moment in our in our history, and especially our environmental history. I think it makes us consider our dependence on oil in a lot of ways, which is why I’m so interested in doing this kind of work both in North Dakota and in the Chicago area. Especially our water. We saw from Flint; we see it here. It’s going to continue to be a really big issue, nationally and internationally, and so I hope that people do start to think a little bit more about the decisions we make and how we look at our relationship with land and oil and water.
So what you know from being in Nebraska. Were there any other any stories you shot in small towns that you that you think of her that come to mind are special or interesting to you.
If I have it up on my site. …
This table scene. That’s Monowi, Nebraska, which is the smallest town in the world. It’s just one person. It’s incorporated and everything. The woman in red, she owns the tavern there. She and her husband had opened it up decades ago. Her husband died about a decade ago and she just kept it going.
What’s interesting is that people from, like, a 60 mile radius come to visit her and drink beer and eat her food and play cards. Everybody always assumes that she is alone that she lives a very isolated life, but, honestly, she’s one of the most-connected people I know because she has those genuine face-to-face conversations. She has a phone but is not connected to the Internet. So if you want to talk to her, short of a phone conversation, you just show up. You just come by and spend some time with Elsie.