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Grown Up West

Thursday February 7th, 2013

by Maria Luci

Over the past decade, Washington, DC-based photographer Rebecca Drobis has been dedicating her summers to photographing the people of Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation. The series’ main focus is the children, the challenges they face day-to-day living on the Reservation—and the sense of unity that comes from these challenges. Through Rebecca’s portraits and daily life photographs, a unique story of poverty and richesse unfolds. Moved by these “Grown Up West” photographs, and her dedication to the project, I got in touch with Rebecca to learn more…

When did you first visit the Blackfeet Reservation?

I actually wound up on there on a meandering road trip when I was working at the Santa Fe Photo Workshops in New Mexico in 2003. The photo assistants had long periods between workshop seasons, so I hopped in the car with another assistant and headed north.

Rebecca Drobis

What inspired you to create this project?

I really just knew this was a place I wanted to photograph—I was quite determined to gain access, get permission and work from a very intimate perspective. I am very sensitive to the negative perceptions of white people and outsiders in general in this community. For obviously justified reasons—the historical mistreatment of Native Americans by whites—it is a long legacy of betrayal. I wanted to build relationships and trust, and gain access with permission, not by stealing or sneaking.

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What did you aim to accomplish through your photographs?

I was hoping to capture intimate photos that conveyed the experience of growing up in such a powerful place—especially to show the connection with the natural world. Like vignettes of play, joy, and raw childhood experience in a place that is like no other.

Also, something that’s very important that I have come to understand, and have been trying to communicate is that reservations are diverse communities. There are other races living there—white, mixed tribes, black, Asian. There is a very specific visual stereotype of “the rez” that has been perpetuated in other visual portrayals (documentary essays and movies). The Blackfeet Reservation is filled with different types of people. I was surprised at first, but it is a wonderful community and for the most part there is great respect and interdependence.

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Why focus on the children?

I have always photographed children—it is what I enjoy most in photography. Children are filled with a quirkiness and spontaneity that leads to unselfconscious thoughts and actions. Once the self-doubt sets in, it snuffs out much of that raw emotion. I also wanted to focus on the positive and not take advantage of the trust that this community had in me. Anglo-america has a disgraceful history of taking advantage and betraying trust, I absolutely wanted to break from that.

What is the reaction of those living at the Reservation to your project?

My priority was to create intimate portraits, so at first it was very hard for me to get access. But the key was that I was very persistent and patient—I just kept returning, time after time, year after year, and gradually I was just a recognized character in the community. In fact, when I am out shooting, people ask, “Who is that?” and then I hear, “You know, that white lady with the the camera…”

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I also need to mention that I always get permission from a parent or guardian—my subjects are young and I am very respectful of that. I don’t just walk around doing street shooting. I have been working with a couple of parents and teachers who have introduced me to families, or connected me with subjects. It’s such a small place that while it was hard to penetrate, once the trust is established, it’s there to stay.

How do the kids feel about being photographed?

The kids either love being photographed, or are so into their play that they could care less. Just like all children, short attention spans, so after a minute or two of noticing me, they get bored and go back to whatever they were doing and forget about me.

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One thing I will say though is that I once brought back a book I made of photographs from this project, and the kids all looked at the book, and that was really thrilling for them. All of them knew somebody in that book, and because it looked professionally printed, it made them feel excited and important.

What has the reaction been to the images so far?

I have gotten some great reactions to the body of work, and honestly the most important opinions are those of my subjects and their parents. I am very grateful for that trust and want to make sure to portray their lives accurately.

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Do you have any plans for the photos? Do you plan on continue shooting at the Reservation?

Right now I am working on a book project as well as a gallery show with some large prints—pairing the direct portraits with the large landscapes to show the scale of the subjects in their land.

But my absolute priority is to add a collaborative element with the kids. I have shot a lot of video, b-roll of the kids, and interviews with parents. It has been really tough to interview and get a cohesive narrative out of the younger subjects. I am looking to partner or expand this aspect of the story telling beyond the medium of photography and video. So I am open to ideas! That is the future of this project—to engage the subjects and allow them to tell their own stories. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say!

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Have you learned anything through the creation of this series?

I have learned that the longer you spend on something, the more you have to learn. It is the opposite of what I expected. This has been a very rich and rewarding process for me as a photographer and a human. I really feel so grateful to have chosen this great profession—without the camera, there is no way I would have been able to access and explore this topic in such depth.

View more of Rebecca’s work at rebeccadrobis.com and check out her entire Grown Up West series.

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