Photographer shares photos, experiences from Dakota Access Pipeline protests

Story by Casey Smith, Ball State University
Photos by Allie Kirkman, Ball State University

From sleeping in tents to avoiding water cannons and rubber bullets, Richard Tsong-Taatarii was determined to capture the events taking place during the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline on camera, even if it meant facing serious challenges.

The staff photographer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who spent months taking photographs along the Missouri River during the protests, spoke about his experiences in North Dakota during the 2017 News Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.

Tsong-Taatarii’s journey began when he heard news that protestors – also referred to as water protectors – were being attacked for defending the land of their ancestors.

“I had flashbacks to the Civil Rights era, and I felt called to go,” he said. “I thought it was fascinating that these people had been here for generations and were being treated like outsiders. It was important to me, and that’s when I decided to go.”

Photo by Allie Kirkman, Ball State University

Tsong-Taatarii spent a great deal of his time in Pine Ridge, but he didn’t limit himself to that area alone. During his months spent with protestors, he said he wanted to go beyond the poverty and protests to show “the strength of the people” and “what their lives were like outside of the [protestor] camps.”

Tsong-Taatarii spent time with families who lived in close proximity to the water. He photographed important moments during their daily lives, including days spent playing in the Missouri River and traditional Lakota bison hunting expeditions.

“I thought it was important to meet some people there and visualize how they depend on this water. This water, the Missouri, is the main water source for the youngest to the oldest,” Tsong-Taatarii said. “We don’t always see land, water or air the same as we used to, but this issue is still very vital for the people living there.”

Photo by Allie Kirkman, Ball State University

While also capturing moments among protestors, Tsong-Taatarii said he photographed people from all around the world – even as far as New Zealand and Australia: “It was amazing how far people had come to be there.”

Working in a remote location with limited access to resources for communication, however, made Tsong-Taatarii’s job even more complex.

Spotty reception made it difficult to send pictures back to his editors, and many times, he found himself driving to a nearby casino to use Wi-Fi.

“In a lot of ways, I was experiencing this just like everyone else there,” Tsong-Taatarii said. “But even when things got rough, it was a chance for me to understand what the protestors were going though while they were there, too.”

A driving force behind Tsong-Taatarii’s work, he said, was support from his editors. Although Tsong-Taatarii originally spent time on his vacation days to cover what was happening at Dakota Access Pipeline protests, his editor — Deb Pastner, director of photo and video at the Star Tribune — said it was important that Tsong-Taatarii’s work be recognized.

Photo by Allie Kirkman, Ball State University

“We needed to own this – we needed to recognize the importance of this story,” said Deb Pastner, director of photo and video at the Star Tribune. “Rich did this great, necessary work … we valued that and valued his work and we pursued what was happening [at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests].”

Tsong-Taatarii agreed, adding that his experiences in North Dakota further influenced the work he does as a photographer.

“It’s important to work for people who recognize good stories and appreciate them,” Tsong-Taatarii said. “I think it’s also important journalists to step out of their comfort [zone] sometimes and pursue stories they’re really passionate about.”

Casey Smith is a senior at Ball State University. She graduates in May 2018. You can reach her smith.ann.casey@gmail.com.

Allie Kirkman is a junior at Ball State University. She graduates in December 2018. You can reach her aekirkman@bsu.edu.

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