‘Taking’ a Picture (Pine Ridge Reflection)

As we prepared for the trip to Pine Ridge, I most likely experienced emotions and reservations that most members of the class shared.  I was excited.  This was an opportunity to get off a campus, where the strict academic community can often alienate the subjects of intellectual investigation.  We had the incredible gift of access to the Littleboy family.  I was excited for the intimate learning experiences that I was going to have and the conversations and dialogue that this type of close interaction affords. I was also nervous.  I did not want to offend any of the Lakota people with our intrusion into their day to day lives.  I hoped to be open to the experiences that we were to have, and respectful towards the limitations that might be imposed.

An aspect of the trip that I was especially concerned about was my role in the story/media group.  Our job was to record and document our experiences with the Lakota people.  Before departing our group discussed ways in which our job could be fulfilled. We talked about conducting interviews, recording discussions, taking photos and video, and possibly painting a mural with members of the community.  We discussed portions of the trip that may or may not be appropriate to document.  I fell upon a lot of gray area while pondering this.  What really was appropriate to capture and take back with us to CC, and what was more appropriate to simply experience and remember in our own minds and hearts?

During our discussion with little Mike on Tuesday morning we set up an audio recorder on the table.  I consider this an appropriate instance of documentation.  Although the discussion revealed many of Mike’s spiritual, cultural, and political sentiments the setting was not spiritual.  The discussion was not a ceremony.  The questions and answers had a lot of value, not only for the students and community members present but more importantly for those who were not present.  The recording has the ability to serve as a teaching tool for Neveah as she grows up, for members of the academic community who are interested in the Lakota way of life, and the IRT class.  We now have a recording of a conversation that might warrant further analysis and reflection, and that can educate and inform those ignorant of the Lakota way of life.  I still wonder how the physical presence of the recorder affected our discussion, and if the discussion can be considered less authentic because of the environment in which it was conducted.

The thought of bringing a recording device into sweat was out of the question.  Not only can the hot and humid environment degrade the equipment, but the experience is far too spiritual to be recorded.  The mere presence of such a device could change the experience from a spiritual ceremony into a spiritual performance.  Such an intimate instance of native cultural cannot be truly appreciated with a recording.  Physical presence of body and mind is integral for the ceremony’s effectiveness related to purification.  A recording device’s presence could be worthwhile for recording the songs and prayers of each “door”, to be used as a teaching tool for younger generations.  The sweat lodge is not an appropriate location for such a recording; a quiet room would be more appropriate for the quality of recording and intent of recording.

Photos captured of non-ceremonial events can be considered appropriate.  Photos can serve as documentation of experiences integral to the community aspect of the class: meals, discussions, and travel.  But what does it mean to ‘take’ a picture.  Is there truth in the verb chosen for such an act, that what we capture is now in our possession and distant from the actual event which has been captured? Do we take with us any of the significance of the person, place, or thing that we are capturing? Photos can provide extra evidence of the experiences that we had.  Do we really need further evidence of our time at Pine Ridge? For me, I was aware of our surroundings and my interactions with the people and places while at Pine Ridge.  Although nice, photos usually serve a superfluous purpose. Those who had brought cameras seemed to use them sparingly.

I noticed people capturing photos of the landscape, which some might argue cannot even do justice to the sights we saw.  One example of this could be documentation of the rainbow after our ceremony on Bear Butte.  The visual experience of the rainbow was powerful for me, and something that I won’t easily forget.  A photo might remind me of that instance, and might help previous emotions related to the event surface, but internal reflection on the event will almost always incite more powerful emotions for me. Mike also told us about how Crazy Horse felt about how pictures capture and remove a part of the soul, a sentiment that might still hold true among some Lakota individuals today.  Mike mentioned several times his unease about technology and how it can be abused with respect to surveillance.

In some ways it could be argued that as a whole the story/media group performed less than admirably while at Pine Ridge. Although we captured our first discussion with Mike, we lacked recordings of our other discussions. Although the first discussion was the most productive in my opinion, recordings of previous discussions could provide useful evidence of the topics we discussed. This productivity could be a result of higher energy among the participants, the presence of ‘burning’ questions, or perhaps even the presence of the recorder. We didn’t take any video.  I think that it can be agreed among members of the class that there were not many appropriate instances for video recording, especially relating to the ceremonies.  I wanted to take a time lapse video of the mural painting, for me this would have been powerful footage to share with those outside of Pine Ridge.

For me, the mere presence of recordings devices can have a profound impact on the things that are said, and how they are received.  Without a recording device present, I found myself engaging whole heartedly most of the time, knowing that my efforts to internalize the events would provide the only evidence to reflect upon.  I felt that without the constant presence of media, the experience was more organic and real.  Hopefully our decision to engage rather than record sent a message to the Lakota community that we went to Pine Ridge to internalize and understand rather than capture and disseminate our experiences to those who did not make the same effort to interact with the people sharing their wisdom.

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