The Algonquins of Barriere Lake: Interview with Photojournalist Charles Mostoller
Charles Mostoller, Tomasz Neugebauer
published online May 2010. Charles Mostoller is a Freelance Photojournalist and Multimedia Reporter - www.charlesmostoller.com
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.
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.
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.
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 barrierelakesolidarity.blogspot.com 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.
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.
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.
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.