Josué Rivas Uses His Fujifilm GFX 100 to Tell Stories of Indigenous Folks

All images by Josué Rivas. Used with permission.

“Making images has allowed me to see people as full people,” says Josué Rivas in our interview. “We all carry light and also darkness, I’m always curious about the shadows in our stories. In my experience, when we are able to be vulnerable, then we see the light in ourselves and others.” These are some of Josué’s sources of inspiration. Beyond that, our interview with him delved into the necessity for diverse representation–an element he often explores. He also shared more details with us about how he uses his camera to further this endeavor, and how he found his way into photography.

Hunt. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Phoblographer: How did you initially find your way into photography?

JR: ​My dad is a photographer so I was around cameras most of my childhood. Later when I turned 20, I found that a camera is a tool for connecting with others and build relations with the world around me. At the time I was spending a lot of my energy getting to know homeless folks in my town in Southern California, I used the camera to make images with them and help them see themselves.

Phoblographer: What was it about the medium that spoke to you so powerfully?

JR: ​When the camera opens people up, at first most people are not comfortable with the medium, but when they reveal themselves and collaborate with you in making an image, that’s when the magic happens.

Resistance. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

A woman walks in the snow during a blizzard. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Police mace Water protectors. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

People peacefully leave the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. February, 2017.

Last stand at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. February, 2017.

Diné walker. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Phoblographer: In your mind, how do you identify yourself as a photographer and a creator?

JR: ​We live in a world where we are often told to be one thing or another so I feel we are entering a space, especially in image-making, where intersectionality is going to be the norm. I’m a visual storyteller and a messenger for those in the shadows of society. As of now.

Phoblographer: In your video, you talk about using photography as a tool to bring things into the light. Where does that desire come from? What things do you hope to highlight and illuminate?

JR: ​​Making images has allowed me to see people as full people. We all carry light and also darkness, I’m always curious about the shadows in our stories. In my experience, when we are able to be vulnerable, then we see the light in ourselves and others. That’s the light doing its work. I feel that as a collective, humanity is ready to re-program itself and return to being one with all living things. That’s what drives a lot of this desire to bring us to the light. My hope is that we are able to heal, reconcile and then reach the point of oneness we deserve. Images can do that.

Thanksgiving ceremony. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Phoblographer: You refer to photography as sacred and an intimate collaboration of making. How do you approach that collaborative energy? ​

JR: ​The energy is new every time. Each person I collaborate with has a distinct vibration and ways of communicating, I’m learning how to read their needs and create a safe space for them to reveal their image. As I develop the Standing Strong Project, the biggest challenge is reading what you can’t see and translating that into the sessions. I think that’s where a lot of the power comes from, the intention of why we do this work.

Phoblographer: How do you create space for the voices you’re trying to elevate? ​This is your photographic vision of course, and you’re the conduit for these folks.

JR: ​It’s a learning process but in my experience so far, the most important factor for creating a space for someone else is listening to them. Not just hear them out but fully being present and taking in what they need to share with you. Once we connect at that level, then the session takes off and beautiful things happen. People allow themselves to be vulnerable and dig deep, then they make their image.

Fancy dancer. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. September, 2016.

Warrior woman. Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. August, 2016.

Phoblographer: You mention others trying to control the narrative; what have those narratives been, and how are you now actively correcting them to be more accurate and representative of the truth?

JR: ​​Since the first contact with Europeans, Indigenous peoples have been subjected to the needs and desires of the colonial worldview. Images shape our reality and Indigenous peoples have not been included in the conversation about their image so far. From Edward S. Curti’s “Vanishing Race”to Jimmy Nelson’s “Before They Pass Away”, we’ve been pushed to believe and follow the narrative of mainstream society tells about us. We are often seen as peoples of the past or romanticized versions of ourselves. Or even worse, we are seen as marginalized and broken. Thankfully we are able to use the same tools that are constantly being used against us and reclaim our narrative. That’s what this whole project is about. How do we make something that can last for the next seven generations and at the same time challenge the stereotypes about Indigenous peoples we’ve adopted as truth and been programmed with.

Phoblographer: You say, “the time will come where you reveal yourself to yourself” Are you aware of when your subjects reach this point? How do you help them get there, and how do you recognize when they’ve arrived there?

JR: ​It’s all a big mystery

A man gets treated with a solution made of half liquid antacid and half water after being sprayed with mace. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Phoblographer: What are the biggest challenges and issues indigenous people face right now? How do you use your imagery to help bring these issues to light?

JR: ​In my experience, the biggest challenge we face as Indigenous peoples is the lack of visibility in society and dealing with the effects of intergenerational trauma. The public art portion of the project aims to remedy the visibility aspect, it’s definitely a reclamation and invasion of space. My hope is that when people put up their image and see themselves and get to be honored by their community, at that moment I think healing can happen. We shall see.

Phoblographer: Have you ever measured the effects of the work you do? What are some ways you feel it’s been positive? How do you feel you (and all of us) can do an even better job?

JR: ​​If the people in the images feel great about the project then we are successful. That’s my priority. Once that’s our foundation then everything else falls in place. People seeing themselves has been something positive that’s coming out of this project. For me, it’s all about the process of how we make the image, the result will show up if we collaborate and put all the good we can into it. For a long time, we’ve been thinking about photography as this linear thing that has to be a certain way or be labeled. As we enter a new age in humanity we also will need to update the way we use tools like photography and video. I see healthy collaborations as the work I need to learn the most (and maybe all of us) because that’s where our power comes from, working together on something.

Matriarch. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Canoe ceremony at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. August, 2016.

Buffalo and deer hide. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Men setting up an altar. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. August, 2016.

Sunset at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. October, 2016.

Young man putting down tobacco. Fort Yates, North Dakota, USA. September, 2017.

Shadow of a dancer. San Rafael,CA , USA. October, 2016.

Phoblographer: As a culture, we struggle to comprehend the concept of representation matters. You touch on it in your video, could you please speak to that idea a little more? What effect does having exposure to your own community cause in your own sense of self?

JR: ​If you are invisible to society then you most likely to be controlled, subjected and eventually, erased. Often, underrepresented communities have one or two people at the table of making decisions and for many, they don’t get to have a choice. Representation is holistic and it requires us to break down the systems that lead us to almost erasure in society and build a new paradigm where equity is at the forefront.

Phoblographer: What do you hope will shift from the development of this multi-city project? What do you hope people will walk away with?

JR: ​My hope is that this project opens the conversation about Indigenous representation in society and how we can all educate ourselves about the diversity and resilience of natives peoples of the western hemisphere.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse sits near the Dakota Access Pipeline during a prayer. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Phoblographer: How was the idea formulated, and how did you bring that vision to life? ​

JR: ​In 2017 I was part of the Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Social Justice Fellowship. This program was pivotal for the way I saw storytelling. One of my mentors, Fred Ritchin inspired me to look at my work differently and encourage me to explore deeper into the impact my work could produce. A few months after the fellowship ended I started to write down the basics of the “Standing Strong Method”, a journey to telling your own story. I started to play around with different ways to create a space where people saw themselves. I used Ipads, cellphones and even mirrors to achieve the proper vibe for the sessions. Finally, when the Fujifilm folks reached to support the project, we decided to go with a monitor and their medium format camera. The whole process is still developing as I continue to collaborate with more people to make their own images.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear you use, please. How does it help you mold your creative vision? ​

JR: ​The gear was super helpful and definitely made things easier. The Fujifilm GFX 100 was key in the process, especially the print quality of the image.

A man puts down tobacco on a dead buffalo. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. October, 2016.

Phoblographer: You talk about using your tools to reprogram humanity, clearly in reference to your photography, and the power of art in general. How would you like to see your work reprogram our society? What shifts would you like to see?

JR: ​​I want my work to be a reminder of our humanity and how we can connect with each other and learn from each other. I think what makes this project strong is the space we create to re-learn, question and heal the stories we’ve accepted about ourselves. Art can do that, images can do that.

Phoblographer: How can folks such as myself (non-indiginous people) be better allies and better support for the members of these communities you’re helping to elevate? Where can we improve? ​

JR: ​I think we all can learn how to listen to each other a little more. One great way to support Indigenous storytelling is by bringing balance to who gets to tell our stories. In mainstream media, the majority of stories about Indigenous peoples are told by outsiders. Storytellers can make space for us to tell those stories and bring a completely new perceptive to the narrative, it’s ours after all.

People stand near a handcrafted bridge. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016.

Phoblographer: This is part of Build Your Legacy, and as such, I’m curious to know, what is the legacy you hope to leave behind as a photographer? How will you gauge your success as an artist? ​

JR: ​I don’t know yet, we shall see what the legacy looks like. One thing I know for sure is that I want my son and daughter in a more just world where they are accepted for who they are. If my art can do that then I can transition happily.

This work is part of the Fujifilm Create Forever campaign. Editor in Chief Chris Gampat contributed to this piece.