Sue Reynolds' striking photographs show a riot of bright colors and beads, regalia and feathers. A young boy peers past the camera as his grandmother secures his headdress. A group of men sit around a drum, hands a blur. A fancy dancer whirls. For the past eight summers, the California-based photographer has traveled throughout the Northern Rockies and Great Plains documenting powwows and Native American gatherings. In many ways, her photos look like those of any other photographer interested in traditional Native celebrations. And she could easily do what many other photographers have done: arrive at a powwow, snap hundreds of photos, and then disappear back to the big city to profit from her images, with never a backward glance to the people or traditions they have just captured with their lens.
But Reynolds is different. "Ever since I started this project in 2005, my goal has been to create understanding and respect between Native and non-Native groups," she says. She has spent days and weeks with the people she photographs, returning year after year to the same gatherings, and building lifelong friendships in places and with people often overlooked by non-Natives.
During her travels, she has asked one specific question, over and over again. "I ask my Native friends, 'What do you want non-Native people to know about you?'" She says the answer is almost always the same: "Tell them we're still here." The second most-common answer? "Tell them we don't live in tipis."
These comments were, in part, what inspired Reynolds to compile her new book, appropriately titled Still Here: Not Living in Tipis. This collaborative effort showcases Reynolds' photography alongside selected poems by Salish poet Victor Charlo. Having been friends for several years, the partnership made sense even if, from the outside, it appeared to be an uncommon alliance. "He brings his Native perspective, and I bring my white, urban photographer's perspective, and we manage to bring those two worlds together," Reynolds says.
Charlo wanted to be part of the project because he didn't see a lot of information or art about contemporary Native Americans, aside from negative news. He stresses the power of genuine alliances and understanding between Native and non-Native peoples. "Sue is very honest and sincere, she gets to know everyone," he says. "And I think it's really important to have people like that, who are on our side but not Native. We have to stick together."
This desire to stick togetherto be a participant and advocate, rather than simply an observeris where Reynolds' intent diverges from other urban, white photographers. The past few years have seen a rash of photo essays in mainstream newspapers depicting only the worst aspects of certain reservations: poverty, substance abuse, violence. While these brutal realities are just thatbrutal and realthere's a pitfall to that kind of focus. The jarring term "poverty porn" has become a common way to describe photographs meant to elicit a confused mixture of pity, guilt and, perhaps worse, distance, whether taken on a reservation, in an inner city slum or in a desolate African village. The abundance of imagery can also miss the larger picture, one which may contain a more complicatedand less bleakreality. The dark, negative perception of a people or place that results effectively blots out whatever hopefulness may exist.
Reynolds and Charlo admit that reservations can be a hard place to live, but the book is meant to highlight resilient and resurrected cultures. Reynolds says she has been asked why she doesn't focus on things like poverty and despair, and she has a ready answer. "That's not where I want non-Native people to start, if they're just beginning to learn about Native Americans today."
Focusing her lens away from the negative and seeking out bright pockets in the Native American landscape is something she learned from the people she's photographed. They've helped her learn "not to dwell on the darkness that's out there," she says. "There's a really good part of this culture that can strengthen not only Native people that come together to reclaim their traditions and renew their own ways, but non-Native people too."
Charlo acknowledges that there's always risk involved when trying to decide what to portray and what not to portray. But he says Reynolds has gathered together an honest depiction of the parts of Native American life that he writes about. In his poem "Put Sey (Good Enough)," which is showcased in the book, tradition and pride feature prominently:
What's in your heart?
What's the news?
Watch over us
We are the chosen
We are the chosen
That is our guide
We sing these songs
And we are happy
Alongside his poem appears Reynolds' stunning photo of a powwow grand entry in Wallowa, Ore., where a long line of dancers snakes its way into a sunlit tent. The pairing of words and image feels triumphant, celebratory and beguiling.
"It's more than just poems and photography," Charlo says about the project. "It's getting to know people, and I think that's really important. That's where we need to be going."