Montana Public Radio

Photojournalism From A Native Perspective

Feb 12, 2021

Salish Kootenai photojournalist Tailyr Irvine joins Gwen and Sally to talk about the role of photojournalism in telling a story, and the importance of having Native voices in newsrooms.

Listen now on Parsing the Press with Sally Mauk, Gwen Florio and guest Tailyr Irvine

Sally Mauk Photojournalists' work has moved us to tears, to joy and to action, but that work is often not recognized for the talent and courage it requires.

Our guest today is one of those courageous talents, Salish Kootenai photojournalist Tailyr Irvine, whose work has appeared in everything from the Char-Koosta News to The New York Times. Tailyr, welcome to the program and tell us how you got interested in photojournalism. It began, I believe, at a protest.

Tailyr Irvine Yeah. So I got interested in journalism around my sophomore year in college. I was kind of early in the J-School still, and I seen something happening on my Facebook timeline. I was like, well, what is Standing Rock? Why are people out there?

And so I went with a friend originally, and it's only about 11 hours away so we drove, and I kind of want to see, like, what was happening. There wasn't any news articles out. It was all the way back in September, it was very, very small, and it was the protest camp. And I was like, "Oh, this is pretty cool."

And so I started photographing and kind of documenting who was there. And then it blew up into the Standing Rock protests and the DAPL thing. So I kept going back and kept returning. So every couple months I'd go back and photograph and photograph and photograph.

It's kind of what got me into where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be working on. I wasn't exactly sure. I knew I wanted to work in newspapers and, you know, wanted to do photojournalism, but I wasn't exactly sure what kind. I think that really pushed me into, like, this is the niche I want to go into, this is the stories I want to tell. After seeing a lot of stereotypical images coming out of that and realizing how uninformed not just the public, but journalists who were working in these communities, it really led me onto the career path where I wanted to help educate and help dismantle some of those stereotypes.

Mauk Well, we'll talk about that a bit more in a minute, but Gwen, as an editor, you've worked with many photographers and seen the impact their photos have. And those photos often convey not just the emotion of a good story, but the truth of a good story. There's nothing more impactful to me than a really great photograph accompanying whatever the story might be.

Gwen Florio Yes, and I've been really lucky throughout my career to work at newspapers with just incredible photo staffs, including most recently at the Missoulian. The tragedy of this is over those years, those staffs have been cut and cut and cut.

An American Society of News Editors survey a few years ago show that photo staffs have been affected more than any other part of the newsroom by cuts. Some papers, both large and small, have completely cut their photo staffs and are relying on reporters with iPhones, and knowing my own facility with an iPhone, I don't think that's a good idea. But maybe Tailyr can speak more eloquently to why that's not a good idea.

Mauk Tailyr, those of us who take photos on our phones and so on, it's nothing like a professional photographer who has a lot more going on when they frame a photo and when they imagine what the photo should be.

Irvine I think the biggest thing for me is doing it ethically and, you know, making sure the person you're photographing is OK and make sure you have everything in the right context. And reporters can do that, and I've seen reporters take, you know, pretty good photos.

But they're there to report. They're not there to take photographs. When you're just there to take photographs and take in the scene and show people what they're seeing, you can't do that while also reporting. It's very difficult to do two things at once. In the same way, it's very difficult for me to try to interview and photograph at the same time. It just doesn't work.

Well, with photography we're documenting history and, for me personally, I think photographs are what a lot of people remember. And I think those good photographs are what people remember.

I think we've seen newsrooms who've cut photo staff, and I think you've seen that in the photos that services, you've seen how that affects newsroom coverage. You've seen comparison between really good photos and really poor photos and people who are embedded in that community, who know that place.

Mauk Tailyr, you began your career working for various newspapers, doing the kind of breaking news coverage that those papers require, but you live to become a freelancer. Talk about what went in to that decision.

Irvine Yeah. I came into photography wanting to be a photojournalist, wanting to work in his papers and documenting communities that I'm from. Mostly I wanted to show the audience the community from a perspective they're not used to seeing I think.

There aren't a lot of Native journalists working in Montana. So originally when I got into it, I really wanted to be that person, I wanted to help diversify the coverage we take. I wanted to help with the stereotypical images that we've seen time and time again, because without a diverse staff, there's no one to correct that. And you don't know what you don't know. So without having Natives in the room or Natives photographing, you don't really know — I would just say you don't really know what you're doing wrong because there's no one there to call you out when you do things wrong.

So that's kind of originally why I got into journalism in Montana specifically; It's because I wanted to cover my community, I wanted to kind of correct the stereotypes that I've seen in the papers around here.

I went from Montana to larger newsrooms. I went to Dallas Morning News and the Tampa Bay Times because I wanted to also bring the perspective of a native photographer into the newsrooms and had those conversations with him as well. Because there are large native communities in every pocket of the country, but we don't see those reflected in the daily papers.

Mauk Gwen, Tailyr's right. Montana has a terrible record of newsroom diversity when it comes to Native American journalists especially, in a state with one of the largest Native American populations in the country. And I read a statistic — the Nieman Lab says that less than one half of 1% of journalists in the U.S. are Native American. It's embarrassing.

Florio It is. I think it's one of the great shames of our business, and I will specifically point to journalism in Montana. I know that chain I work for did not have any Native reporters. Some of it is economic, but I think it's got to go deeper than that.

And I think it has to be a priority for newspapers. You know, times are hard, but there has to be an overarching concern here.

I'm really interested in something you said, Tailyr, about the stereotypes. Can you talk about some of those stereotypes you see by reporters and photographers — maybe only out of ignorance — but it's still there and I assume it's still harmful?

Irvine Yeah. I feel like ignorance is probably the most harmful because no one who's ignorant does it on purpose. They're not trying to harm these communities, but that's what happens. So I think it's harder to step up and take blame, like, 'Well, no, I'm not being racist, I'm just being ignorant.' It's like, no. Well, the ignorance is leading to your racism so you need to correct that.

And I think I see a lot of that in the newspapers around Montana, especially growing up. There was a story about my tribe specifically, who had a settlement from the federal government. They sued the government for mismanagement of fund because the government lost millions of dollars that they're supposed to hold in trust for Native Americans. And the A1 image on that story was a tribal member holding a handful of hundreds in the air and waving it around. And the lede to the story was talking about, you know, like, "Oh, there are trucks for sale," and someone's like, "I'm gonna pay off my trailer." And it's just like, that is so ignorant.

And one, the photographer went down the day of the checks going out. So he went to the bank at 8 a.m. and it's like, well, who's going to deposit a large check at 8 a.m.? It's going to be probably someone who's impoverished, someone who needs the money, and that's not a reflection of all of CSKT [Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes].

But by using that headline, and that picture to match the story, you change the way non-Natives perceive the entire community. It's stoking racial tensions that we've had to battle for forever; since this state was Montana.

And I think as journalists, we have an obligation to tell the truth and to tell — to avoid stereotypes and with that image and with that stuff. It's just one example of how Montana journalism has failed Native communities time and time again.

It's been not only that, but it's, you know, when they tried to report on natives. Like, I think you can go back to the history and the archives of papers in Montana, and you can see very clearly that Native communities have been left out unless it's something poverty porn, unless it's powwows, unless it's dancing or it's like death.

Yeah, so I think that's why I got into journalism mostly, it's because I wanted to be someone to confront these stereotypes. I wanted to be, instead of being angry about this coverage and being angry about what I see time and time again, I wanted to do something, my little part to change it or, you know, to be present in the newsroom where people are making these decisions. And I think sometimes just the presence of someone Native, or just a presence as someone from that community, it makes people really think about what they say and how they say it.

Mauk This is an ongoing and long overdue discussion, Tailyr and Gwen, and hopefully we can continue it at another time, but we're out of time today. I want to thank you both so much, and Tailyr especially. Thank you for being our guest today.

Florio Thanks, Tailyr.

Irvine Thank you for having me.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.