Mico Toledo


Can you start by introducing your project, as well as Standing Rock and what drew you there? How did the project come to be? 

My project Faces of Standing Rock does what it says on the tin. It's a project that aimed to depict and tell the individual stories of the brave indigenous men and women fighting a Goliath-an battle in order to defeat an oil pipeline planning to cross sacred Sioux lands in North Dakota. What drove me there was sheer curiosity. 

I wondered who these modern indigenous people were, where did they come from, how do they organize themselves and what made them join this particular grass-roots movement. Immediately after seeing a small article on the Guardian I bought a flight to North Dakota, and went to Standing Rock without much planning or research. It was my first real photography project, and I went full Napoleon on it, committing first and figuring out and learning as I went along.  Like I said, I didn't plan things prior to arriving there too much, all I knew was that I wanted to meet and talk to as many people as possible. 

I'm a people person, so I can talk for hours, but I wasn't quite sure on how the project was going to develop itself, and what actually happened is that one subject led me to another one. In the end I can kind of see a common thread by looking at the pictures, but the narrative is very loose and I tried to be as open as possible in order to find interesting people and stories on the way. I guess my style of photography is similar to Jack Keroac's style of writing. I usually find a subject, talk for minutes, or sometimes hours and usually get a picture out of it. It's a very slow yet rewarding process that allowed me to dive deeper into the movement, getting to know the people that make it tick.

My aim I guess was to first indulge my own curiosity, learn as much as I could about the issues they're facing and listening to as many stories as possible. Once that was done, I guess my secondary aim was to shine a light into what at first was an uncovered subject in most major newspapers. I hoped art could help spread their message to other places and somehow help their fight. It eventually became one of the most covered activist movements of 2016/17 but as I went there they were no film documentary photographers, but only journalists covering the events from a wider perspective. I guess I wanted to do a more intimate job, so I stayed in the camp, ate with them, and went to protests with them, all in order to understand the human condition and the small parts of a huge movement like this. 

Was there any moment during your time at Standing Rock where you wanted to make a photo but chose not to? Did you become a water protector yourself?

I consider myself a very gentle photographer. Unlike Bruce Gilden or Dougie Wallace, I never or rarely take candid pictures of my subjects. I really respect their privacy and their right to not want their picture taken. So specially in a native reserve, as a guest, I tried to be even more respectful, to their people, to their customs and so I always asked before taking any photographs. And I was usually met with a positive nod of the head.  I think perhaps from the more than one hundred people I've met there, probably just one or two asked for their pictures not to be taken. Having said that, if there's an incredible picture that has just aligned in front of me, I would of course consider taking that picture first, and then respectfully ask later. Sometimes, a beautiful frame could be lost if you take too long to ask a question. I am an humanitarian, and I guess always lean towards the leftist movements, so the movement definitely got a hold of me, but I wouldn't say I'm a water protector myself, because I didn't put my life on the line and didn't stay there for months and months, like some water protectors did. My job was to capture their portraits, their stories, their lives in the camp. 

But it's impossible to not get somehow emotionally involved in their fight once you're there and you see the injustices and imbalances of their struggle and the way authorities dealt with them. I'm definitely a sympathizer of any indigenous cause around the globe, and being there opened my eyes to a lot of issues unknown to me.  So I'm glad and feel honored to have had spent time with them. 


How did spending an extended amount of time in Standing Rock helped develop your project?

I wished I could have spent more time there. I did that trip twice, for around 10 days each time. Once in Summer 2017 and another time in Winter 2018. As a photographer, generally, the more time you spend with your subjects, the deeper you can go within your craft. Like David Lynch says, you can catch bigger fish. So definitely spending time there and staying in the camp helped my immersion and hopefully you can see that in the pictures. Most of my subjects were known to me and feel at ease in front of the camera.

Honestly, I wished I could have stayed for many months more to actually delve deeper. I regret not being there for key occasions and I regret not being able to take more or better pictures. Time gives you that chance. I had 20 days in total, and I'm happy with that, but I hoped I could afford the luxury of being there for at least 3 months straight. 

I think it would have made the whole project more sturdy. 


What surprised you about Standing Rock, how did it change the way that you think and approach your work?

Everything there was a surprise to me. The sheer scale of the place, the way it works. It takes you a least two days just to understand what's going on, who's who and how to walk about there. The first time I went it was the height of the movement, in early Autumn, the camp was inundated with almost 3 to 4 thousand people from every walk of life.  So it was fascinating and awing at the same time. But like I said before, this was my first serious documentary project, so I didn't really have a way of working prior to that. All I knew was that I wanted to talk to people first, and then take their pictures. I was carrying two big medium format cameras, so my process was slow, and I guess most people there were curious about my gear and really pleased to see a guy from Brazil in the middle of a native American reserve in North Dakota, so I think they all felt really curious and open towards me and maybe they could feel that I was a bit green and maybe that made them drop their guards and open themselves to me. 

The experience there actually shaped the way I work now and that really influenced my way of working in the latest project I'm shooting in the Northeast of Brazil. 

Your photographs don’t depict the widely recognized images of protest, can you describe your approach to how you captured protest in such a peaceful way.

I purposefully wanted to avoid the fists waving in the air and strong images usually associated with protests. I wanted to capture the strength of the water protectors in a more subtile way than what's expected from protest shots. For me the photo of Rez Kid represents the whole movement and puts it in much better light. The strength in his eyes, his purpose, his conviction, his stride, all and all in such a youthful face represents the best of what this movement represents and fought for.  A lot of people say that indigenous regained a once lost sense of purpose by joining this movement. I think I can see that in his eyes. 
The movement is made of thousands of people that are actually peaceful protestors, fighting water hoses and rubber bullets with chants, prayers and dancing, so I thought it was important to capture their beauty and peacefulness to most appropriately way of depicting these people. Besides, other newspapers were already depicting these cliché protest shots, and my natural response was to go the other way and find beauty in its small parts.


After 10 years of working as an art director and creative director what led you to pursuing documentary photography? What advice do you have for others who want to switch their career path?

This is easy. Documentary photography allows you to burst the bubble of your own world. We are so ingrained in our circles, hanging out with people from similar backgrounds that we fail to see the reality of the world through the eyes of other people. My switch is still under going, as I cannot sustain myself with Documentary photography at the moment, but as I started photographing otherly worlds I started realizing I was hungry to experience other lives than my own. It is a fulfilling experience to be able to see life through the eyes of other people, and it's humbling to put your own problems in perspective with other people's problems. They were fighting for the rightful ownership of their lands, their sacred burial ground and the right to have clean water. How can you come out of that and complain about a small issue in your day-to-day life after that. It is definitely an eye-opener to the real world. 

I advise anyone out there dreaming about a new life to go out and get it. Don't wait too much, or overthink too much. If you already know what makes you happy, just go out there and pursue that thing that makes you tick. The more you aim at something the least likely you are to put the trigger. 

Can you tell us about what you are working on next?

My idea is to solely focus on Brazilian subjects from now on. It's a massive country that is filled with infinite peculiarity and projects waiting to be shot. I was born there but left when I was in my twenties, so now I'm going back constantly to find stories, and there's lots of them. I find it interesting that such a big country is photographed so little and I always make a parallel with America and how the Americana aesthetics was and still is thoroughly explored by many photographs, and how the same doesn't really happen in Brazil. My idea is to capture the Brasiliana, it's an aesthetic that is there, in the backwoods, in the open lands, in the small towns and it's different and in many ways richer than the American mid-west, and it's just sitting there waiting to be captured. I'm hoping to be able to capture it on film. So my first project in Brazil is exploring the backwoods of a massive river in Northeast of Brazil called Velho Chico. It will come out later this year with an artist book and an exhibition at Jaguar Shoes in London.

What is the best way to keep up to date with your work?

Right now I only have my Instagram account to update my recent work. I'm still working on my website, and thinking about what's the best way to show my work in a simple yet engaging way. But for now you can follow me on Instagram.

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Rhombie Sandoval