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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 -

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"When the police arrested an elder who could not move quickly enough, some women tried to intervene on her behalf. Shortly afterwards, the police fired tear-gas into the crowd of elders, children, and adults. One man was hit in the chest by a tear-gas canister and had to be taken to hospital."

Was helping the Algonquin community struggle one of your motivations for this series? 

Of course. I am not only a photographer and journalist, but also a human being. I think you can reconcile all of these things, by seeking to tell the truth and being open to allowing reality to overcome your own preconceptions.

I have researched the history and current situation of the Algonquin people extensively, both in academic and journalistic settings, and I believe that they have suffered grave injustices. At the same time, they are a strong, well-grounded people, and a community that resists and counteracts the general stereotypes of Native peoples.

My goal with my photographs was to show people that Native peoples aren't just a bunch of lazy, substance-abusing victims of history, but rather dignified agents of change, albeit burdened by overwhelming poverty and illiteracy. That last part is where the injustice comes in. I could go on for a long time about the history, but it would be better to head to to find out more about the community. But in short, the Government of Canada has resisted all efforts to include the community in decisions made over ABL's federally-recognized territory and has fought bitterly against the community's outspoken traditional government. As a result, little development has occurred, despite millions earned from the territory on logging, hydro-electricity, and sport-hunting, all of which threatens the community's ability to continue to live off the land. Nowadays it has 85% unemployment, youth have few prospects for the future, and most of the government built houses are in disrepair, some even declared uninhabitable by Health Canada. 

protest on highway
"Over a hundred community members blocked a nearby highway in October 2008, only to be forced off the road by riot police."

More generally, can you comment on the role of photojournalism in native community issues? 

This is a tough question. I actually have seen very few photo stories on native communities in Canada. Not that they don't exist, but I just haven't seen them, so I can really only comment based on my own experiences. I think fundamentally, it is harder to gain the trust of native communities when you show up as an outsider with a camera. They have long suffered at the hands of outsiders who were dishonest, so you have to get past the initial distrust. Also, I think any photographer working in a native community needs to be aware of the negative stereotypes of native people that exist in society, and consciously try to dispel or confirm them, based on one's own view of how things are playing out in the community. For example, in my time with the Algonquin of Barriere Lake, there were numerous moments when parties would happen and people would get drunk. Many didn't want me to take photos when they were drinking, and I obliged. But other people let me shoot during these moments. However, I am very aware of the pervasive stereotype in mainstream society that labels native people as either alcoholics or prone to alcoholism. In my mind, poverty has more to do with alcoholism than genetics. So unless those photos really said something important about the community, publishing pictures of them drinking would only reinforce the negative and untrue stereotype that they are alcoholics. In my experience, they drank no more than people in any other poor community I have visited. So in the end I tried to focus on issues that I thought were important--such as land use, conflict with government, poverty, etc--rather than to go in and do an "exposé" on how screwed-up their community is. As photographers we have an obligation to consider the implications and consequences of our work.

"Clear-cut logging threatens Barriere Lake's traditional subsistence activities, like hunting, fishing, and the gathering of medicinal plants."

Which photo journalists and/or writers have influenced your work?

My dad had a huge collection of National Geographic's from 30 years of subscribing, so as a kid I poured though three decades of NatGeos. Later as I was first getting into photography, all the greats; Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Eugene Richards. More recently however I've been really motivated and inspired by the new generation of photographers out there. People like Lynsey Addario, Damon Winter, Todd Heisler, Moises Saman, Shaul Schwarz, Vincent LaForet. Sebastiao Salgado has probably been the most influential on me.

"A pilgrim arriving at a sacred site on the volcano Popocatepetl, some 3,000 meters above sea level, in central Mexico. March 31, 2007."

What do you think are some of the most important elements that go into the making of a good photojournalist? 

Reading is obviously essential, especially keeping current with the news. How can one tell stories if they don't know what's going on in the world? Reading the news gives your story ideas, and then extensive background research on a subject allows for a targeted approach to shooting and reporting.

As I mentioned earlier, I think a photographer must be a voracious consumer of photography. That's really key. Another is as simple as finding something you are interested in to take photos of, rather than what you think someone would like or would pay you for. Good photographers all care deeply about the things they photograph, in one way or another. Perseverance and dedication is key, as well. There are a lot of highly motivated people out there, and part of being a good photographer is having people see your work, and to do so you can't give up, you really have to push and give it your all. I say this as a young photographer learning these lessons as I go. Perhaps the most important thing is research, and reporting. You need to know a ton about the subject you are photographing, and this should be obtained by prior research to allow you to focus in on a story and by shoe-leather reporting to find out what the story actually is. And you need to spend as much time with the subject as you can (or as is possible), be it a person, a country, a type of photography (say, concert or crime), a city, etc. So that involves reading, exploring, talking to as many people as you can about anything and everything. Intense curiosity, I guess you could call it. And lastly, being human, being empathetic to your subjects. It's so important not to forget that they are human beings, not a means to an end in terms of photographs. But in sum, I would say the most important elements are curiosity, a hard work-ethic, and humanity. Those three will get you far.

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