In the summer of 2014, Columbia College Photo Department students—led by Dan Wessell (BA, 2014)—planned, organized, and carried out an analog photography workshop for residents of the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota.
This was the second year the group has held this workshop for kids and teens on the Pine Ridge Reservation. There was a small group of kids that joined the workshop. I would say it was the best two weeks of my life! The six volunteers got to work one-on-one with the students and act as mentors through their photography journey. They not only learned how to use a camera and work in the darkroom, we worked hard on giving the students tools to express who they are and show pride about where they come from.
For one assignment I had the students write for an hour on topics the volunteers came up with. Example: What would your dream house look like and why? In 10 years, what would you like to be and do? The students were free to pick three topics and write in as much detail as possible. Many of the volunteers also participated in the assignment as to not feel it was only them working or sharing their stories. We gathered as a group to read aloud. The detail in the stories blew my mind because of how much they were able to express. Many of the stories were powerful, funny, and sad. It reminded me that what we were doing on the reservation was a good way for the kids to learn something new and share their culture with the world.
I called myself a history buff on American history before coming to the reservation. Now, after learning about their culture and history, I found out that I knew very little. There is much more detailed information than what is said in school textbooks. I learned about Lakota culture and the land, after sitting down and talking to our great friend, Joe Whiting, his granddaughter, Shannon and their neighbor, Louie. Talking with the kids from the workshop, I was able to get their insider perspective of the culture. I was very privileged to have almost five different generations educate me about the past, present and future of the Pine Ridge Reservation, that many do not know about or take the time to hear.
I did not take as many photos as I should have of the landscape. The lighting was perfect and beautiful! However, the colors and sky allowed me to find myself and finally take a breather from city life. One morning, after a huge rain storm, I found affirmation that I was growing as a person and an artist, and that I want to continue my photographic work and inform the world of the truth and untold stories. (Note from Jasmine: Lena’s photographic works deals with our socio-cultural views of individuals with Autism.) I would say the “GOOD” spirit was with me and hopefully now, after leaving the reservation, will stay with me until the end of time.
It was sad to leave Kyle. The kids and everyone we met considered us family and a part of them. The worst part was having to say goodbye to the kids, our new friends, the landscape, and our good dog friend, Bugs. Bugs stayed at the classroom building and would greet me and Sydney every morning while walking to class and would roll over for belly rubs. Yes. I have a heart for dogs! I cried leaving her as she watched me and Sydney walk home from the small hill. My heart was breaking on our last day.
Lastly, I cannot wait for the public to see the photographs and writings these kids did. I hope it brings a positive light to the Pine Ridge Reservation. I cannot wait for next year to have this great experience again. Thank you to all the people who made it possible!
Check out more information and pictures here: