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BEST OF 2013, Rebecca Drobis
Washington, DC
Project: Personal project to document children growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Northwest Montana.

© Rebecca Drobis

© Rebecca Drobis


Rebecca Drobis has spent the past decade on a self-funded project about children on Northwest Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation.

“Both native and white children growing up on the reservation are challenged by underdeveloped infrastructure, substandard schools and a dearth of economic opportunities. Simultaneously, they are surrounded by the unspoiled and boundless natural world, and most are granted unlimited freedom to explore it,” says Drobis. “This project speaks to a universal childhood. Children do not dwell on what is not; they simply exult in the present.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Rebecca Drobis: Since 2007.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

RD: I joined ASMP in 2008.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

RD: Kids and all things youth-related: education, family and community issues.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

RD: Honestly I don’t think the gear is as valuable as getting great access and being a trust-worthy photographer (and human being).

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

RD: I think that my strength is my connection with young people. I really like getting deep into their imagination and space. I try to shoot with the same approach, as an insider to express a sliver of what they see and feel.

ASMP: How did you come to find yourself in Northwest Montana and what first inspired you to do this project?

RD: I wound up in Montana for the first time on a meandering road trip. 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.

Upon seeing it, I just knew this was a place I wanted to photograph — but I was quite determined to gain access, get permission and work from a highly intimate perspective. I am highly 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 — there is a long legacy of betrayal. I wanted to build relationships and trust and gain access with permission, not by stealing or sneaking around.

I was hoping to capture intimate photos that convey 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.

ASMP: Is Grown Up West an extension of the children and family work you do in Washington, DC or do you see this as being different? Please compare/contrast.

RD: The majority of my work is for editorial and commercial clients, but this project is very different because there is no client, and really no specific assignment. The shoots are self-assigned and this is a very deeply personal project. It has been really challenging both creatively and technically to return back to shoot the same subject in the same place year after year — but it has inspired me to go deeper and to try new approaches.

ASMP: How did you gain access to the Blackfeet Reservation and what did the process entail? Did you need permission from tribal leaders or other authorites?

RD: It took me the first four years to gain the type of access that I wanted and needed to actually begin shooting what had inspired me initially. I really wanted this project to be very intimate, and of course any parent is going to be protective of their children. I respect a child’s right to just live and be private, and a community’s right to exist without somebody poking and prodding at it from the outside. But I wanted to capture it from within. I didn’t want to take the shots from the window of the car or just walking around on the street, without engaging with my subjects and asking proper permission to capture moments of their lives.

It was difficult at first because there’s also a historical mistrust and mistreatment of Native Americans by white people. So being a white woman with a big camera showing up in a poor place, recalls that same imbalance of power, and I did everything possible to make sure they understood that I wanted this to be collaboration. But it took time to build up that trust. First one or two families come to trust you, and the word spreads that this girl is OK. Then I keep coming back and I bring pictures with me and show them. I built trust by returning again and again; I had to show that I was truly committed for the long term.

I didn’t specifically get permission from the tribal government or any type of official authorities besides the parents, guardians and educators connected with the children I was shooting at the time.

ASMP: How do you approach the issue of model releases? Have there been any families who decided not to let you photograph their children? If so, has this changed over time?

RD: Surprisingly, I have never been turned down or asked to leave. I credit this to having community assistance, support and trust that I built up over time. Whenever I have done any type of street shooting, I have always been with a member of the community, which has served as an important bridge. At this point, I know so many people and have photographed so many different families that I get recognized as “that white lady with a camera.”

I haven’t obtained model releases, but have IDs for most of the people I’ve photographed over the years, mostly so I can send prints back to them. I don’t intend to use these photographs commercially or sell them, so I don’t necessarily need releases. There have been a few instances where I have gone back obtain them, which hasn’t really been a problem, as I bring prints and try to be as specific and clear (whenever possible) about how the photo would be used.

ASMP: What, if anything, do your subjects, their families and the local community expect from this project? What are your expectations from this body of work?

RD: To my knowledge, I don’t think there is a specific expectation from the community or families other than to uphold my word as stated. I always bring back or send prints, which really is important to me, and to them.

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

ASMP: You specialize in photographing children as part of your photography business in Washington, DC. In what ways, if any, are your interactions with children on the Reservation different?

RD: There are obvious differences in the actual physical landscape, which create quite profound psychological and developmental differences between rural Western childhood (I am speaking more generally about rural NW Montana, not specially the reservation), and urban East-coast childhood.

I find that children in Montana have well developed physical strength; they have confidence that comes from riding bikes through their small town, from exploring the woods and surrounding forests, from spending weekday afternoons sledding in sub-zero temperatures.

Children on the east coast are oftentimes more fearful, cautious and reserved. While there are many more opportunities in cities for kids to participate in activities like martial arts, various sports, arts, dance and so on, the basic outdoor play and interaction between a child’s imagination and the natural world are often limited, or non-existent.

ASMP: On your Web site, you have photographs of the first Kool Breeze ice cream truck as well as the same man’s second, new van. What was it like to observe and photograph the evolution of this business and the related reactions of your subjects to this?

RD: I am so pleased you noticed this development! I have been thrilled to track the success of the Kool Breeze business.

The Webber family (owners of Kool Breeze) upgraded their truck and have also streamlined and overhauled their business since they first started in June 2012. Their profits have increased, they are offering more products beyond just ice cream, and they have implemented a range of practices to make their day-to-day activities more efficient.

These guys are working hard; they go out every single day while most of their friends are unemployed. The Webber Brothers’ Kool Breeze business is setting a strong example for children in the community.

Susan Webber (business manager/accountant of Kool Breeze and mother to Ian & Isaiah) is planning to use the multimedia piece I created for a Kickstarter Campaign to raise funds for this business expansion. Susan plans to add additional trucks to the fleet and upgrade their current vehicle with an espresso-maker and coffee machines. The Webbers intend to operate their vending business during the winter by selling coffee and espresso around the reservation.

ASMP: Your documentation from the Reservation includes images of children photographing with small digital cameras on a Boys & Girls Club Photography field trip. What kind of involvement do you have with this program or others like it out West?

RD: When I first started coming here, I wanted to bridge the gap between me as an outsider “white lady with a camera” and offer photography back to the children I was working with. So I started working with the coordinators at the Boys & Girls Club in Browning and volunteered to teach summer photography courses. The club had a few old cameras, so I sent emails and started calling up friends and past students and used my DC network to get more donated. I wanted all of the kids to be able to use their own camera.

We would organize trips into Glacier National Park and other outdoor activities where the kids could explore and also take photos. It allowed some of the less athletic, less social kids to get engaged and involved.

I believe in passing along photography to kids; it is so inspiring to see the excitement when a young child takes a photo that really excites him/her. It reminds me of how I felt when I saw my prints popping up in the developer. It was a sort of electric jolt, and I think that it is our duty to share that experience of the process of picture making with others.

ASMP: Please compare your experiences with these kinds of social services and educational programs on or around the Reservation and the photography instruction you offer to children in Washington, DC?

RD: This place, the reservation and northwestern Montana, is very unique. It is quite rural and remote. I find that everything is different here — honestly, I cannot compare it to anyplace else in the world.

It’s taken me a long time to understand it, but through spending time with the kids and their families and simply observing by hiking, walking, skiing, climbing around the mountains, swimming in the lakes and appreciating and respecting the land, I have gained a lot of insights. I am native in DC; out here I am foreign, so I had to first appreciate and understand those differences. Children have a lot of common traits across cultures, so that has helped me bridge the gap. The rest just came with time.

The kids here are really open and super curious about photographers, whereas in DC, that type of career is more understood.

ASMP: You’ve been working on Grown Up West for 10 years. Is this the longest project you’ve ever undertaken? What is it about this project that motivates you to continue returning to the Reservation year after year?

RD: Right now, I am in Montana for my 11th year. This project has spanned my entire photography career, and is absolutely the longest thing I have ever sustained in my life. I’ve learned that the longer you spend on something, the more you have to learn. This is the opposite of what I expected. It has been a very rich and rewarding process for me as a photographer and a person. 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.

However, when I am out here, I also shoot commercial work to be able to support myself, as well as spend a lot of time in the mountains in and around Glacier National Park. I have developed a passion for mountaineering and have climbed over 30 peaks.

After my second summer, I decided that I needed to start visiting in the winter. The winter months are truly spectacular — but the cold is incredibly intense. One day it hit -30, plus the winds can blow up to 100 miles per hour. It’s difficult to shoot in the winter, as you might imagine.

I have been able to spend about 10 weeks here (on average) during the summer and about three to four over the winter. The main criteria I use for planning my trips is gauging when my commercial business in D.C. slows down enough to allow me to escape without leaving my clients in a lurch.

ASMP: When did you start shooting video and how do you plan to incorporate motion into this body of work? What is the current ratio of video to still imagery?

RD: I started shooting video about two years ago, because I felt that so much of the richness and texture of this place, the feeling and sounds of it was missing from my photos. And the voices of the kids, there is something so raw and poignant about a child’s voice.

ASMP: Did you have experience in shooting video before using it for this project? What was your learning process and what has your learning curve for been like?

RD: I had no experience shooting video. I took a crash course with NPPA called Multimedia Immersion at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School for Photography in Syracuse NY. It was a four-day video intensive which just gave me the raw basics, and then I just came out here and started experimenting. I’ve had all sorts of technical screw-ups, but the biggest challenge has been just trying to figure out how to structure an interview for a child.

I am excited about video, but I’ve realized the hard way that you need to be very clear about your intentions and focused and well researched before you start shooting. There are neat surprises that come along the way — you can’t control what your subjects are going to say. It is so different from shooting stills. I love that.

ASMP: What types of relationships have you developed with your subjects and their families? How many of your subjects do you remain in touch with after heading back east?

RD:

I’ve developed great relationships with my subjects, and in many cases, I have observed and documented these children grow up. I feel so fortunate to have been accepted into the lives of many families. There are a few people I keep in touch with regularly all year. Funny enough, Facebook has become the primary vehicle for keeping up with the middle-schoolers and teenagers.

Because the community is small and I keep returning year after year, many people assume I live in Montana year-round. For my part, while I am not present on a day-to-day basis, I work on this project 12 months a year and am thinking about these children all of the time.

ASMP: With the growth and success of crowdfunding resources such as Kickstarter and Emphas.is, have you used these venues to seek funding for this or other projects?

RD: I received a grant to create and teach a photography program in the alternative high school on the reservation. The alternative school is where the students go if they’ve been kicked out of the main public high school for behavioral issues. It is a great option for the young mothers who cannot handle the typical high school schedule.

Besides that, I haven’t looked into crowd-funding, or grants in general, to fund this project because I have developed my own system of shooting enough client work to sustain my time out here. That said, I am going to look towards some collaboration or grant to help me produce and distribute the multimedia portion of this project.

ASMP: Overall, what are or have been the biggest challenges in working on Grown Up West and how have you overcome them? Do you always work alone on the Reservation or have you also worked with assistants?

RD: Well, access was the first big challenge. The second challenge has been for me to structure this set of images into a cohesive narrative. I’ve never intended this project to be a straight documentary essay on life on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. Rather, I wanted to shoot images that would express the feeling of navigating the world as a child in a beautiful yet very extreme place.

I’ve always shot this project alone. I have never used photo assistants. In many cases I work with people from the local community who might introduce me to a family or bring me to a gathering to bridge the initial gap.

ASMP: How much editing did you do while on the Reservation? When and how do you share images with the children and families featured in the project?

RD: Up until last year I didn’t even get cell phone service out here, and the internet connections are erratic and slow. Personally, I have a tough time motivated myself to stay in front of the computer once I catch a glimpse of the mountains in the morning. I normally wait until I get back to DC to do the editing and then I ship prints or just bring them back and hand deliver them to my subjects during the next trip.

ASMP: In April 2012, you hired a photo editor to cull your 10,000 images down to 100. What was it like to turn over that process to someone else? How did you decide on that specific photo editor?

RD: Last spring I hired freelance photo editor Caroline Couig. I chose her after discussing my project and explaining some of my challenges; she was just very pragmatic and understood exactly what I was looking for from her. She has been a terrific asset and supporter of the project. Initially the task was to look at the archive (almost 10 years of shooting, close to 10,000 images of backlog). She got it down to about 200, which was both humbling and cathartic.

This allowed me to see what types of stories, moments and situations I had already captured and what was missing from the greater body of work. Caroline encouraged me to stop shooting wider scenes and get closer, deeper and to focus on more intimate details. We also identified three sub-stories, which I am following as opposed to just the wide overview: the Ice Cream Truck success story, the Native American youth rodeo and a family story about Heather, a single mother who is turning her life around.

ASMP: How has Grown Up West affected your commercial photography business? You use some of these images for marketing materials targeting ad agencies and graphic design firms specializing in issues affecting youth, education, community and family. Were the images for this selected as part of the edit mentioned above? What kind of response have you received from prospective clients?

RD: To use this personal project as my marketing collateral and commercial portfolio seemed like a crazy proposition at first, and I was very reluctant to show something so personal and non-commercial to advertising agencies and graphic designers. My experience has been just the opposite — in fact when I show this work to prospective clients, I find that their response is very positive and they become extremely engaged and curious to hear more about this project.

Clients are highly skilled, visually literate professionals, who can make the leap from personal vision to commercial application. While my standard commercial portfolio has a lot of variety of lifestyle, portraits, tear sheets, and so on, I don’t get the same level of engagement when I show that work. I don’t expect that I’m going to get any commercial jobs to document childhood on an Indian Reservation, but hopefully I get remembered for being a photographer of community and childhood, which is more universal.

ASMP: The theme of photographing children and Native American Reservation communities in general has been extensively covered in recent years, with other projects by photographers such as Aaron Huey, John Willis and Emily Schiffer. How do you see your work in relation to projects such as these?

RD: Yes, I am very aware of other photographic work being done on Native American reservations. I have heard Aaron Huey speak on a few occasions about his work on the Pine Ridge Reservation and have learned so much from his passion and dedication and deep historical knowledge.

I am not trying to document Blackfeet life, culture, history or attempting to show the social and systemic challenges of life in general on the Blackfeet Reservation. This has never been my intention. Rather my focus has always been on the experience of children. I am connected and drawn to the location and the kids, and what I see and feel is hope and strength in spite of large challenges and limitations that are a product of the reservation. But so much of their strength and confidence comes from their land, the deep familial and community bonds, the fact that every child has an auntie or cousin looking out for him/her at every turn.

Another important thing that I’ve come to understand, and have been trying to communicate, is that this reservation is a diverse community. There are other races living on the Blackfeet reservation — white, mixed tribes, black, Asian and so on. There is a 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 from many backgrounds— which was a surprise to me.

I also wanted to focus on the positive and hopeful aspects of life here, 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 with this community — I absolutely wanted to break from that.

ASMP: What is the most rewarding aspect of this project for you? Do you have plans for future undertakings, either similar or different?

RD: Right now I’m 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 storytelling beyond the medium of photography and video.

I am currently shooting a short multimedia piece about the Kool Breeze Ice Cream Truck, which is a very positive story about two entrepreneurial brothers who started their own business when no other job possibilities were open to them. It’s a really positive and exciting success story about young people creating opportunities for themselves on the reservation. With stories like these, I’m hoping to provide an outlet/avenue to allow my subjects to speak for themselves.

ASMP: What are your expectations for the future of Grown Up West? Will you continue to photograph these same subjects or other children on the Blackfeet Reservation? How will you know when the project is complete?

RD: This place has really captured my heart, so in a certain respect, I don’t think I will ever be completely finished with the project.