L-R: Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Sii-am Hamilton, Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, backed by other Indigenous youth from over 30 different Nations on the steps of the B.C. Legislature in February and March, 2020. Photo: Mike Graeme. This photo originally appeared on TheNation.com.

L-R: Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Sii-am Hamilton, Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, backed by other Indigenous youth from over 30 different Nations on the steps of the B.C. Legislature in February and March, 2020. Photo: Mike Graeme. This photo originally appeared on TheNation.com.

Nelson photographer documents Indigenous and Black social movements

Mike Graeme wants to express solidarity, not privilege

Mike Graeme doesn’t want to make a big deal of himself.

The 28-year-old photographer, who grew up in Nelson, was reluctant to be interviewed about his work. His subjects and their causes are what is important, he says.

Graeme has become known for photography that expresses solidarity with Indigenous and Black people’s rights as well as environmental issues, especially climate change. His specialty is photographing rallies, marches, and other public events.

He worries that by being featured in an article, he is taking up space that the people in those movements should have.

“Photography is often associated with capturing and taking,” he says.

Graeme wants his photography to be “an act of giving, not extracting, especially because when we’re talking about Indigenous movements and Black movements, we want to be trying to step out of the way as much as possible and trying to have those voices come through.”

This attitude has resulted in Graeme, a self-described “straight, white, male settler” being invited by Indigenous, Black and environmental groups to document their events.

His work has appeared in many publications including The Nation, The Tyee, National Geographic Blog, the CBC, Ricochet Media, the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province, the Sierra Club, and First Peoples Law Journal.

‘Seeing people caring so much’

It all started in Japan, where Graeme went on a Selkirk College exchange at age 21. Before he left, his parents bought him a good camera.

He was not doing well in those days, he says. He was overwhelmed and depressed by global problems.

“I was pretty sad and down on the world. I was thinking a lot about colonial oppression and climate change.”

One day he came upon a large street demonstration against the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“Just seeing how much energy and life those people had, it gave me a new burst of energy … to see all these people caring so much.”

An anti-nuclear demonstration in Nagoya, Japan in 2013. Photo: Mike Graeme

An anti-nuclear demonstration in Nagoya, Japan in 2013. Photo: Mike Graeme

Inspired by this feeling, he documented the march with his camera. The organizers approached him, curious about who he was and why he was there.

“They were so stoked that I could come and show support and I ended up becoming pretty good friends with them. They invited me over for dinner and I ended up joining their organizing meetings and living with them for the remainder of my time there in Japan.”

He says his camera became a tool he could offer to a movement he believed in.

Behind the lens in those street actions, he experienced “the sense of really living in the moment, and that was something I had not been able to feel in a while. It was so exciting.”

‘Seeing the energy that is rising up’

Back in Canada, while completing a degree at the University of Victoria in environmental studies and anthropology, Graeme worked at the student newspaper and threw himself into photography, documenting the movement against pipelines and for climate action, always in alliance with Indigenous people, including the well-publicized events at the Burnaby Mountain pipeline terminal.

“I was hearing about these actions almost on a weekly basis. They often needed photographers, so I was really happy to help them document it, so they could use the photos for press releases.”

Graeme has also photographed a number of Black Lives Matter and racial justice rallies on Vancouver Island following the death of George Floyd in the U.S.

A Black-led march through Victoria is the third Black Lives Matter in June, 2020. Photo: Mike Graeme

A Black-led march through Victoria is the third Black Lives Matter in June, 2020. Photo: Mike Graeme

In early 2020, an Indigenous youth group supporting the Wet’suwet’en people in their dispute with the federal and provincial governments spent 17 days in a non-violent occupation of the steps of the B.C. legislature. Graeme was invited by the organizers, and posted dozens of photos to Instagram and Facebook.

He says the news media took many photos there, “but you could really see that they were just coming and snapping a photo and uploading a story, and then moving on to the next thing.”

By contrast, he says, he was “trying to see the energy that is rising up, and trying to make sure that that gets conveyed and amplified.

“I think about the resilience that has brought these folks to this point in time, and which continues to be expressed in their current movements, and I try to take photos of that power being expressed.”

Recently Graeme was contacted by the Sinixt people at the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State. They had hoped to take a large contingent to Ottawa in October for the hearing of the Sinixt hunting case at the Supreme Court of Canada. But the pandemic precluded this. Sinixt leader Shelly Boyd travelled to Ottawa with the respondent in the appeal case, Richard Desautel.

In the lead up to the Rick Desautel case being heard in the Supreme Court of Canada, Sinixt woman Prasát, also known as Shelly Boyd, leaps across a chasm at ʔaʔkłkəkniʔ, or place of redfish, by the ferry in Harrop, B.C. Photo: Mike Graeme/ The Narwhal

In the lead up to the Rick Desautel case being heard in the Supreme Court of Canada, Sinixt woman Prasát, also known as Shelly Boyd, leaps across a chasm at ʔaʔkłkəkniʔ, or place of redfish, by the ferry in Harrop, B.C. Photo: Mike Graeme/ The Narwhal

Boyd told Graeme she had seen his photos on social media and wanted to connect with him on her way to Ottawa as she travelled through B.C.

They organized a photo shoot on the shore of Kootenay Lake, and the results appeared in an article about the Sinixt in the online magazine The Narwhal.

“I’ve admired The Narwhal for many years now, and was really excited that they wanted to help the Sinixt tell their story,” Graeme says.

The project is the latest in the ongoing attempt of a “white settler photographer with privilege rooted in a system of stolen land” to convert his privilege into justice, he says.

Mike Graeme. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Mike Graeme. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Graeme says he has no pretensions to neutrality.

“There is no neutrality. Wherever you’re coming from, you’re part of a system that isn’t neutral.”

He says he does a lot of research before shooting, and that includes “listening to my Indigenous friends and my Black friends and really hearing their experience and then aligning the photos with their experience, trying to get my own perceptions and experiences out of the way as much as possible.”

Graeme says he encourages Indigenous people to take their own photos. He has given one of his cameras with lenses, and photography lessons, to some of those friends.



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Zoey Uniat is now three months old. Photo: Submitted
Castlegar baby with rare disorder progressing towards coming home

Fundraiser for Zoey Uniat has raised more than $50,000

Photo: David Dudeck
What you see …

Share your photos with Trail Times readers at editor@trailtimes.ca

A crew of 8 regional firefighters attended a house fire in Fruitvale on Friday. Photo: Trail Times
Friday house fire in Fruitvale

Three firefighters from Station 374 Trail attended; 2 from Montrose; 3 from Fruitvale

A juvenile sturgeon in a B.C. rearing facility. The wild population in the Upper Columbia is estimated at 1,100 individuals, enhanced with roughly 5,500 hatchery fish. (file photo)
B.C.’s Upper Columbia sturgeon endure long battle with local extinction

Decades of monitoring and intervention is ongoing to save the prehistoric fish

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

Williams Lake physician Dr. Ivan Scrooby and medical graduate student Vionarica Gusti hold up the COSMIC Bubble Helmet. Both are part of the non-profit organization COSMIC Medical which has come together to develop devices for treating patients with COVID-19. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

The helmet could support several patients at once, says the group

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

Most Read