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Interview with Amber Bracken, photographer of 6 Degrees Toronto hero image

There is a lot to absorb in “Oceti Sakowin,” the hero image for this year’s 6 Degrees Toronto.

Your eye might be immediately drawn to the boy in the middle who seems to be coming towards you, or it might be the colourful words on the teepee that grab your attention.

At first, you may not even realize that the object the words are written on is a teepee.

The fact that the image invites repeated viewings is one of the reasons we selected it as our hero image. Another is how it focuses on an individual while evoking a collective.

“Oceti Sakowin” is part of Amber Bracken’s 10-image series, Standing Rock, which was awarded first prize in the Contemporary Issues category of the 2017 World Press Photo contest.

Bracken took the photos during four visits to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation where thousands of Indigenous and environmental activists had set up camp in protest of the then-proposed Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I was really compelled by the idea of unity and solidarity and the way that all these people were setting down their lives to help this important cause and this band in Dakota. I was looking for ways to represent that sense of solidarity and that sense of unity, but it’s not like 4000 people standing together and you can do a group photo,” says Bracken of how “Oceti Sakowin” came to be.

“I did a lot of different things looking for ways to represent that, but when I saw the teepee autographed by people from all over the world and tribes and bands across North America, that was something I was really interested in.”

Bracken’s focus on Indigenous people in her work began a few years ago when she began volunteering at a youth outreach centre in Edmonton and quickly realized that 80 to 90 per cent of the people that the centre was helping were indigenous youth that were displaced.

“I was simultaneously horrified by the number of invisible and unsupported Indigenous youth that were in the city and also really incredibly inspired by them in terms of their resilience and smarts and many talents,” she says.

“So, I got interested in photographing those young people and still have an ongoing project about them. But when you start spending time around them, it’s impossible not to become aware of the interconnected ways that colonialization has affected their lives and continues to affect their lives.”

While the actions of activists at Standing Rock ultimately failed to stop the pipeline from being built, Bracken says she doesn’t see this as a failed act of citizenship.

“The people at Standing Rock did not see what they were doing as protest, but as resistance through ceremony, and an exercise of their rights to the land that is promised to them in the Fort Laramie Treaties,” she says.  “Similarly, many do not see themselves fully as citizens, despite so many who serve in the military. And it is no surprise considering they have never been treated fully as citizens. . . . A democracy only works when power is distributed fairly and the Indigenous people of North America have been systemically disempowered from the beginning of European contact.”

One of the themes for this year’s 6 Degrees Toronto is inside/outside, specifically how power and privilege are changing as influence spreads to different places and to more and more hands.

Bracken says she sees these themes reflected in “Oceti Sakowin.”

“All of those things are things that I struggle with in my work and are absolutely present in that photo,” she says. “I have always been dealing with the dichotomy of [where] you have people who are oppressed because of some circumstance of birth, but they are not at the same time without power.

“And watching them build these movements and be vocal and the way that they are able to rally around each other—We can’t give in to old models of photojournalism where you think you are giving voice to the voiceless. These are powerful people, they are just struggling against some really difficult odds.”

“In some of the old ways of thinking, a common frame for the photojournalist/subject relationship was as savior/victim, which, however well-meaning in its time, preserved the status of the often-white photojournalist, while perpetuating the idea that the mainly [people of colour] being depicted were voiceless and without agency,” Bracken adds. “But what I’ve experienced in Indigenous communities is leadership, resilience, and resistance: they are neither helpless nor voiceless.”

Read more about the 2018 6 Degrees Toronto hero image