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The Algonquins of Barriere Lake: Interview with Photojournalist Charles Mostoller

by: Charles Mostoller, Tomasz Neugebauer

May 2010

published online May 2010. Charles Mostoller is a Freelance Photojournalist and Multimedia Reporter - www.charlesmostoller.com

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When did you start taking photographs?

I started taking photos as a child, on family vacations. But I really fell in love with photography at age 15, when my father gave me an old 70's era Nikkormat film camera and a few hundred dollars to build a darkroom. The local photo store had a bunch of used darkroom equipment and myself and a childhood friend bought some lumber, studied some darkroom designs, and built one in my basement. Soon after, I traveled to the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands with my Nikkormat on a language exchange, and came home with dozens of rolls of Tri-X. I took a few photography classes at my high school, which to my luck had both excellent professors and brand-new, modern darkrooms. By my junior year in high school, I already dreamed of becoming a globe-trotting photographer. I've retreated a bit from that notion since, as I think there are many important stories to be told in our own backyards, but curiosity and a desire to travel are traits I would say most photographers share.

Can you describe some of the projects that you have worked on?

When I was studying in Mexico, I did a story on the influx of genetically-modified corn into Mexico and a story on a international gathering hosted by the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Since being here in New York City, I've worked on stories on homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, young Latino musicians in Brooklyn, as well as shooting weekly assignments for the daily newspaper Metro.

algonquin home
"The old federally-built houses are in disrepair, and some have been condemned by Health Canada. Some new-born babies and their mother have not been allowed to return to the reserve due to mold in their houses. Despite being a responsibility of the Government of Canada, the Algonquins of Barriere lake have been spurned due to their political activism."
youth of barriere lake
"The youth of Barriere Lake have few prospects in life. Few people have a high-school education, and unemployment hovers around 85% on the reserve"

How did you get involved with the Algonquins of Barriere Lake?  

I graduated from McGill University in Montreal, but in my third year left to spend two years at the Universidad de las Americas, in Puebla, Mexico. The two years were mostly spent learning Spanish, taking anthropology classes, taking photographs, and in the second year writing a few long magazine length articles with photos. These were published back in Montreal at a wonderfully photo-friendly student paper, The McGill Daily, where I had worked during my first years in college.

I was introduced to the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in my final year at McGill, through a friend and former co-worker at the Daily who was working with the community to help support their campaign to have a 20 year old treaty with the Canadian government enforced. They had this group in Montreal and Ottawa called Barriere Lake Solidarity (BLS), and so that’s how I found out about the community.

I actually initiated a project with a few of the BLS people--some of whom worked at a community radio station in Montreal--to build a small radio station in Barriere Lake for the community to use to communicate with itself. We raised money for equipment, taught some of the youth how to use it, and to this day, it’s still there and used at least occasionally to broadcast information about community events and to play music. The whole process earned the trust of the community, who could see that we wanted to help them by enabling, and empowering--rather than by dictating--and thanks to that trust I was allowed to wander, enter homes, and take photos of pretty much anything. I didn’t plan on taking photos when we started the radio project, rather I wanted to do something non-photographic and of use to the community. I had seen the success of community radio among indigenous people in Mexico, and so I proposed the idea to the community. It wasn’t until later when they started to do protests that I started to take pictures.

shadows
"The Surete du Quebec sent a riot squad from Montreal to clear the highway."

You made some symbolic images in this series.  For example, the images of the Surete du Quebec riot squad, “clearing” the highway during a protest  - casting long shadows.   Can you comment on your approach towards composition?

Composition is something that's hard to talk about, and I've found is easiest to learn by simply looking at and studying good photographs. I think that in order to be a good photographer, you need to voraciously consume the work of other photographers.
That being said, I compose my shots very consciously, like almost all photographers. At the same time, it is also quite instinctive--scanning the scene to look for interesting visual elements, and composing them in a way that "feels" right. And experimenting. I've found that to make good photos you have to take a lot of bad photos. However, in the heat of the moment, such as the violent confrontation between armed riot police and a group of Algonquin protesters--including children and elders--sometimes you have to rely a lot more on instinct and experience and hope it all works out.

Interestingly, the shot you mention was actually taken at a rare moment of calm after the police had cleared the Algonquin demonstrators from the highway with tear gas and batons. The police lingered in formation after pushing the group up the side road that leads to their reserve, hoping that the community would get back in their trucks and drive home. In the ten minutes or so before some of the youth chopped down some trees and set them alight in front of the police--sparking another advance by the riot squad--I had the chance to experiment a bit.

It was late afternoon and the police had their backs to the sun. It was very harsh light and was hard to work with. I got close a few times and used the police's helmets to block the sun, shot from the side down the row of officers and then turned to shoot the crowd. The group of about 100 or so people had moved about 10 meters away from the police and I saw the long shadows on the ground. I lined the shadows up with the corners, and intentionally chopped off the cop's heads so as not to have any sky showing, and snapped off a few frames. It wasn't until I looked at the photos later that I realized the ominous quality of the shadows and the police in the photo. Sometimes you realize in the moment that you captured a great moment, but sometimes you realize it after the fact.


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