Angus Mordant captures the grim battle at Standing Rock
September 6th 2017
Augus Mordant, Standing Rock, Image 26, 2017 (detail)
Angus Mordant documented one of the most crushing defeats in environmental and Indigenous rights activist history.
By the end of 2016, fireworks lit up the night sky as protesters huddled in the snow at Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota, looking up at victory in sight; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had decided to halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and consider alternative routes. A month later President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking the Army Corps to “review and approve in an expedited manner” (1).
Protests began in April 2016 when LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, an elder member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and her grandchildren established the Sacred Stone Camp, asserting that DAPL threatened the upper Missouri River, the only water supply for the Standing Rock Reservation. It was the first time the seven bands of the Sioux had come together since the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 — which they won.
What followed was a long summer of protests including a group of young activists who ran from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to present a petition to the White House (2), three federal agencies requesting an Environmental Impact Statement from the Army Corps (3), and thousands of environmentalists and First Nations activists standing in solidarity against the police and construction workers.
Angus Mordant, Standing Rock, Image 3, 2017 (detail)
The protests got ugly when police became brutal.
“Being out there, witnessing mass arrest, lots of massing, tazing and shooting of rubber bullets at protesters. It’s quite intense. But being behind a lens gives you a little bit of distance that helps you process it a little bit”, said Angus in a recent Canvas: Art and Ideas interview.
“Shoot first, look later,” he says.
Angus arrived in September 2016, after it was revealed that security officers who worked for the pipeline company attacked First Nations protesters with dogs and pepper spray (4). The attack was sparked after protesters tried to voice their grievances towards construction workers for desecrating sacred burial sites and artefacts (5).
In the eyes of police, the role of the participant and the observer began to blur, according to Angus:
“They were arresting anyone who was there, journalist or not… grabbing anyone within arms reach… a few friends of mine got arrested… Mordant County, North Dakota arrested ten journalists and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria only arrested seven.”
Angus’s photo exhibition ‘Standing Rock’ captures the grim battle at Standing Rock from the eyes of the protesters. Through careful composition and focus, Angus is able to convey what occurred with an emotive truth that is absent from much photojournalism.
Angus Mordant, Standing Rock, Image 6, 2017 (detail)
“Some people take a hardcore photojournalist approach and it has to be 100% objective. I think there’s room to meet in the middle somewhere and use an arts based form to spread the message,” said Angus.
It’s almost impossible for the journalist to capture every perspective. In the age of smartphones and Twitter, however, “everyone is essentially a photojournalist”, says Angus. Perhaps the journalist doesn’t need to capture every perspective. Just the ones that matter — the ones that are silenced by brute force.
A few days after interviewing Angus in FBi studios, oil began flowing through the recently built Dakota Access Pipeline. After renewing construction on DAPL, President Trump also gave the authoritarian order to resurrect the Keystone XL pipeline — undoing President Obama’s veto blocking it.
Keystone XL was proposed by TransCanada in 2008. It was opposed internationally by environmentalists, First Nations Peoples and even the White House. TransCanada said in 2011 that the project would create 140,000 direct and indirect jobs. The U.S. State Department fact checked this claim in 2015 and found that Keystone XL would create 42,000 direct and indirect jobs (including cafe and hotel jobs), 3,900 construction jobs and only 50 permanent jobs to keep the oil flowing (6). Environmentalists and Indigenous activists highlighted that TransCanada’s use of unconventional oil extraction from oil sands pumps out 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than standard oil extraction (7). They were also opposed to the pipeline’s route which would cut across the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifers in the world, a key source for fresh water for many locals. In the end, President Obama used his veto power for the first time in five years to overrule the green-lit decision made by the Republican-controlled House and Senate (8). Two years later, President Trump used a very similar pen to kick Keystone XL back into action (9).
The grim reality of Standing Rock makes me wonder whether Democracy can work if people like Trump can get into power. And what people can do if all their efforts can be forgotten with just a drop of fascism.
Construction for Keystone XL hasn’t started yet. The Trump Administration still need to meet the requirements of federal environmental law, such as objective consideration of the environmental impacts. TransCanada also need to win over Nebraska. However, there has been growing opposition in Nebraska due to the pipeline only offering temporary jobs and the risks pipeline could have on the local cattle industry (10).
Capturing events, such as Standing Rock, are a type of participation and protest, even if Mordant only sees himself as an ‘observer’. Together, along with other types of protest, we might be able to keep the pipelines out of the ground.
Further reading / watching
(1) President Trump’s memorandum (executive order) regarding DAPL <here>
(2) Read more about the young Indigenous activists who ran to the White House <here>
(3) Read more about the three federal agencies requesting an EIA from the Army Corps <here>
(4) Watch pipeline company officials attack First Nations protesters with dogs and pepper spray <here>
(5) Watch pipeline company officials destroy sacred Sioux burial sites <here>
(6) Read more about the U.S. State Department fact checking the real amount of jobs Keystone XL would create <here>
(7) Read more about environmental concerns regarding Keystone XL <here>
(8) Watch President Obama announce his veto against Keystone XL <here>
(9) Watch President Trump sign multiple memorandums regarding Keystone XL and DAPL <here>
(10) Read more about the growing opposition in Nebraska against Keystone XL <here>