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photography

Her lens on the frontlines

Photographer Amber Bracken’s photographs of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a series shot over five weeks in North Dakota, won first prize in the World Press Photography award for Contemporary Issues.

Ten of Amber Bracken's photographs, a series shot over five weeks in North Dakota, were drawn from over 80,000 submitted images and won first prize in the World Press Photography award for Contemporary Issues

Footage of the standoff at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline may have been dominated by clouds of tear gas and riot police but photographer Amber Bracken set out to show the wider context of a community struggling to determine its future.

During the protests, a man is treated after being pepper sprayed by police. White people have joined the camps in large numbers, often standing in front of indigenous protestors to shield them with their bodies.

Ten of Ms. Bracken's photographs, a series shot over five weeks in North Dakota, were drawn from over 80,000 submitted images and won first prize in the World Press Photography award for Contemporary Issues. The Edmonton-based freelance photographer said it was a win that came from patience and looking closely at the deeper issues playing out in front of her on the wind-swept plain.

Oceti Sakowin, or the Seven Council Fires, is the true name of the great Sioux nation and refers to the coming together of the different factions of the tribe. They are among the 200-plus tribes represented in the camps and on the front lines.

"The goal was to contextualize this issue. It's not that the Sioux just decided this year that they didn't want the pipeline, it's not about a specific project, it's about their right to determine what happens on their land," she said on Monday after winning the award.

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“I don’t want to be killed here. I came here to live with my children and my children’s children,” says Vonda Long, descendent of High Hawk, who was killed in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. She says she carries trauma from colonization but has been fighting for justice her whole life as a member of the American Indian Movement. “That’s what you do. You sacrifice for your brother.”

While some of Ms. Bracken's photos show the struggle between activists attempting to block construction of the pipeline and police, she also documented moments of contemplation and prayer on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Veterans had carried an American and a Mohawk Warrior Society flag through winter storms.

The photographs were taken during trips in September, November and December. The cover photo for the series, showing veterans carrying an American and Mohawk Warrior Society flag during a snowstorm, was taken in December when Ms. Bracken was on assignment for the Globe.

In camp, every day tasks like cooking and chopping wood are on the front line. Here, men unload a massive donation of firewood.

Despite the images of struggle, she says she was surrounded by constant prayer during her time in Standing Rock. "Everything was prayer. There was smudging at the gates, food preparation was prayer, interacting with the horses was considered a form of prayer," she said. "Every activity brought people back to a common purpose. They weren't protesting the pipeline, they were praying against it."

The pipeline, if completed, will be approximately 1,900 kilometres, and pass under the Missouri River.

On one of her trips she travelled to the area from Alberta in her battered red Pontiac. During her time in Standing Rock she slept in a tent or the backseat of a rental car, surrounded by thousands of activists as cold weather descended on the area.

Horses are central in Sioux culture, described “like my brothers,” by one youth. To have traditional governance and lifestyles, including horses, on the land is deeply healing and is fundamental to the pipeline resistance.

She was first drawn to North Dakota because of parallels with her earlier work covering the Idle No More protests across Canada, but returned due to size of the ongoing protest against the pipeline.

Two more Canadians won prizes in the World Press Photography awards. Giovanni Capriotti won first place in Sports for a series of images and Darren Calabrese won third prize in the same category.

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