Interview with Photographer Molly Steele

So, I have never officially met Molly outside of internet land, but we both hail from the swamps of North Florida and were recently connected by mutual friends. I had been following Molly’s development as a photographer over the years, intrigued by her wanderlust, but more importantly, by her dedication to experiencing a counterculture that has been slowly pushed out by capitalism in this country. While her photos are beautiful, her words are poignant - true to her personal experience and perspective of the things she is shooting.

When I first reached out to Molly about this interview, back in November, she had already been at Standing Rock for a couple of weeks. With little service and several physically/mentally/emotionally demanding tasks to attend to on the ground, she wasn’t able to respond until after leaving North Dakota and returning to her home base in Los Angeles. There, she continues to spread awareness that the the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is nowhere near over. On December 4th, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced a halt in moving forward with construction pending an environmental review and assessment of alternate routes, many saw this as a victory - but for others, for those who stayed at Standing Rock, for those paying closer attention, for those who have been fighting relentlessly for clean water, for autonomy, for their home - this was not a definitive victory, and remaining vigilant and active was not a choice. Eventually, the pipeline could still plow through indigenous lands, contaminate vital water sources, and devastate tribal communities. But the so-called victory distracted many, and much of the attention for the NODAPL movement quickly dissipated until...

Just yesterday, the Trump administration announced that an executive order would be signed to advance the Dakota Access Pipeline. I hope this interview serves as a reminder that now, more than ever, we need to fight and continue fighting. We need to keep boycotting banks fueling DAPL, supporting protectors on the ground, and donating to legal initiatives fighting for Standing Rock. It’s not over. Not even a little bit.

You have a background in photography. Do you feel like this art form lends itself to your activism? If so, how has this changed over time?

I use my photography to document my personal perspective of the world as I experience it. Over time, this has led to sharing a number of different things ranging from my love life to resistance movements to road trips and daily happenings. I steer clear of the word “activist” because its social connotation tends to attract liberals who feel the need to get active to cause change. I’m just moving through spaces with a general concern for wanting my life to be a certain way. In the last few years, that’s meant that my photography and writing have been outlets for sharing from this perspective.

I noticed a dramatic shift in your rhetoric via social media and admire the fact that you have used your standing in order to support such an important cause (Standing Rock). I’m sure you deal with all sorts of trolls and people knocking you down. Did you think this would happen, and did you make a conscious decision to not let it get to you? Does it get to you?

Haha, it totally gets to me and yet comes as no surprise. I find myself feeling annoyed, and also looking at myself as being annoying to others. I guess the latter is fine, because my voice is clearly an expression of myself, and people don’t have to listen if they’re not into what I’m saying. However, I might one day want to have some “legitimate” career as a photojournalist, in which case it might behoove me to stfu a little.

Can you talk about your decision to go to Standing Rock? What kinds of reactions did you get from friends and family (also curious about your followers)? Were they supportive?

I decided to go to Standing Rock after a couple of months of following what was happening there. When I first decided to go, it was heartbreaking to hear that so many people around me (in LA, of course) didn’t even know what was happening at Standing Rock. I exhausted myself trying to share what I could with people both before going and while I was there. It made me feel even more distant from my community, and drove me closer to those I met at Standing Rock. So many friends and strangers on the internet were thanking me for being there, and it didn’t feel right to accept that gratitude, though I understand it comes from a loving place. I just felt like, of fucking course I was going to be there, and like, why wouldn’t we all? It was that compelling of a situation for me, like there was no option to not go. My family, with the exception of my grandparents, didn’t know I was there, but I know they would support me, as they have participated in protests in the past.

What kind of tactics have been used to hinder construction of the pipeline there?

You name it! Work stoppages, monkey-wrenching, peaceful and prayerful tactics like marches, people withdrawing from the banks that invested in the pipeline, public outcry, boycotts, trying to reason with the opposition, etc. I tend to err on supporting direct action more than praying the pipeline away. With that said, throughout my time there, I interacted with a variety of tactics, which felt important to do.

How were you and other protectors faring with policing violence and oppression from those interested in seeing the pipeline through?

During some of the most intense moments of direct abuse from police, I found myself feeling pretty numb, in shock, maybe. Several others have said the same. Shock is one way trauma can manifest, and I feel lucky to be a part of a community of people experienced in resistance that can help share their knowledge about trauma care and build a web of support for all that need it.

How do you feel the media has skewed what is happening at Standing Rock? Do you feel that they are representing the situation accurately?

Hahahahahahahahahaha.

NODAPL has still received a lot of attention, why do you think this specific peaceful protest has received so much attention as opposed to the others that have happened in the last decade?

What has been happening at Standing Rock pulled on people for a variety of reasons. The NODAPL movement is more than a pipeline resistance, which I think is why it attracted so many thousands of people and worldwide attention. Not to say that other protests haven’t also been multi-faceted in their struggles, of course, but this touched on so many subjects. For one, people were drawn in because of the environmental concerns around the pipeline itself, but for many, the most atrocious magnets of the movement were regarding the breaking of treaties with indigenous people, the insane surveillance and brutality inflicted on unarmed, peaceful water protectors throughout 7+ months of the movement, the opportunity it presented for people to live together in a way we haven’t seen for hundreds of years, and so many other things. I feel like we’ll see more protests like this in the future, as the world becomes more and more of a festering wound while we continue to strive to find each other in this quest for joy and peace.

Do you and other protectors ever feel defeated? How do you stay motivated to keep going day by day in these extreme conditions?

I wouldn’t use the word defeated, but I have been open about feeling paralyzed on many occasions. The intensity of the surveillance there makes it feel hard to move. There is 24/7 monitoring of people ranging from the cell phone tapping to the plane and helicopters that circle above camp around the clock, in addition to police parked along the highways leading to camp, as well as all the armed white citizens local to Bismarck and neighboring areas that have taken it upon themselves to profile and aggressively attack natives and anyone that looks like they’re here to protest the pipeline. These things, in addition to the isolation, extreme weather, and 1 million other things make it a really challenging environment for many people to stay healthy in the mind and body. Staying motivated and in a positive mindset takes the support of those around you, remembering what we are here for, and for me, changing up my daily activities when I’m feeling down. This might look like organizing radical discussions one day, to building tipis with a team of women another day, to cooking for others, or even leaving camp for a break.

The thing about this protest that really moves me is the solidarity of the many, many tribes who have come from all over the US and Canada in order to support this cause. This is unprecedented. What has it been like to experience this type of solidarity?

It’s been an incredibly unique experience. There are not only people from the US and Canada, but people from all over the world including Māori and Sami people. This diversity in solidarity adds to why this particular protest has garnished this level of support and attention. It’s a meaningful gathering of such a diverse group of people that we have not seen before.

As a white woman, what was your experience like living in that space, in that culture?

I have felt challenged by my whiteness and cisgender status in a number of ways, mostly coming from my own insecurities about being white in this space, as well as facing how many view the traditional role of femme-identifying peoples. In my month-long stay, my whiteness was rarely something brought up or addressed by native people, and I feel fortunate for having felt so welcomed and appreciated. My insecurity around my whiteness came from feeling ashamed for how other white people were acting and speaking there, and has encouraged me to build a dialogue with fellow white people in order to better understand these things. I came to understand how my colonized upbringing affects others and myself, and hope that many other people experienced an increase in their understanding of colonization as well. As for being a woman, I found myself facing sexism on a regular basis. For example, in one of the camps, I was expected to dedicate myself toward homesteading and being in the kitchen while the men were out “stopping the pipeline”. I spent many days with my lover in that camp, who is native, discussing my personal capacity to assist in stopping the pipeline. To deny this would separate myself from my ultimate empowerment and potential. It would be unnatural for me to limit myself to homesteading and keeping to the kitchen, while others would thrive in that space. It is my view that we are all building personal awareness while working to empower ourselves and those around us. With this, we can be stronger together in resistance of the pipeline and its world.

How did things begin to materialize at Standing Rock in December? Was it actually a victory? What do you think will actually happen?

After the so-called victory, which, just to be clear, was no victory at all, some things certainly did fizzle out. For those of you reading, I encourage you to speak with your peers about what really happened. On Dec. 4, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the permit to drill under the Missouri River was denied. Tens of thousands of people understood this to mean that we had won, that the fight was over, and time to move on. Wrong. What that means, essentially, is that Energy Transfer Partners no longer has a permit to drill, but is still able and choosing to do so at the risk of being cited. For the record, they have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines already, so paying a fine in order to continue construction of a $3.8 billion pipeline is no game-changing obstacle. It's like trying to shoot a commercial without a film permit...you do it until you can't afford to pay the fines anymore, because you're determined to get the job done and the budget for the job is likely significantly higher than any fines you may end up paying. Okay, so now that that's in perspective, consider the effect this announcement had on people all over the globe who heard the permit was denied and assumed that means we won. People stopped donating materials, people stopped helping fund the camps, and not only did many people stop coming, but thousands who were at camp, left. I've read countless social media posts that reflect that people still to this day think the pipeline has been stopped, despite the many videos and photos available that show construction (and protest) is still active. Water protectors are still being threatened by police, who are now toting lethal shotguns around at prayer marches. As of January 1, investors can legally divest their funds because the pipeline isn't yet in operation as per the terms of the contracts. This is thanks to the many people over the last year that have organized and participated in the resistance of the pipeline. I have no idea what will happen now, but my hope is that solidarity demonstrations continue to happen, especially leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20. We need to show that we are against the pipeline and its world.

How has it been being back in LA after such an experience, and do you have any projects you’re working on now?

Being back in LA after Standing Rock is truly awful. I spent the first three weeks back just trying to process, which I am still doing now. I haven't been sleeping, and it's difficult to connect with others who weren't there. The time spent at Standing Rock was transformative beyond words due to its many traumas, challenges, and the many moments of enlightenment and community. After a decade in LA, I've now put in my notice to move out and on. I'm currently working on my first 40-page colour zine in collaboration with Deadbeat Club. It will be a limited edition and available in mid-February at the LA Art Book Fair.