Arts

This Instagram photo essay shines a light on Indigenous activism in Winnipeg

What Brings Us Here is the brainchild of Katherena Vermette and Alicia Smith, offering Indigenous activists in Winnipeg a chance to share their stories.

'It's emotional, and poetic, and sad, and beautiful; it's everything'

A post of the What Brings Us Here Instagram Account, featuring Drag The Red volunteer Kim Kostiuk. (Janine Kropla)

Instagram, with its seemingly endless expanse of selfies and brunch food, can also be used to give voice to issues and to tell stories. What Brings Us Here is a thoughtfully curated project born from the National Film Board of Canada's short documentary "This River." While the doc focuses on Drag the Red, the volunteer-run organization that searches the river for clues relating to missing Indigenous people, the filmmakers knew there was more work being done that needed to be showcased.

"With a 20 minute film, you don't really have time to tell the whole story," What Brings Us Here co-creator Alicia Smith tells CBC Arts. "Erika MacPherson, who co-wrote and edited the film, really felt she wanted to reflect the experience of a much larger community, and from the early stages I had suggested a photo essay."

Over the course of eight months of thinking and strategizing, Smith and Katherena Vermette, who also worked on the film, decided on an Instagram account that would essentially be a photo essay of Indigenous activism happening in Winnipeg.

"As a platform, we wanted to explore the everyday of things that are unfolding," Smith says. "There's a huge Instagram culture here in Winnipeg, and I've always been interested in how people are representing this place they come from."

A post of the What Brings Us Here Instagram Account, featuring Drag The Red ground co-founder Kyle Kematch (Mark Reimer)

When it came to choosing the photographers to capture the subjects, the experience was organic and often came about because Smith saw one of the photographer's Instagram accounts.

"It also requires a willingness — a lot of time it was like, 'Hi, can you meet us on the river bank?' or, 'Hi, can you meet us in the North End? We're on a Bear Clan walk,' so there's a certain person who needs to be up for that," Smith says.

Karen Asher, one of the project's photographers, jumped at the opportunity to contribute.

"It's emotional, and poetic, and sad, and beautiful; it's everything. It touches on everything, and I'm totally humbled by this experience," she says. "I remember posing some people for a photo and then seeing the photo posted with the story underneath and realizing, like, holy crap, I had no idea that was this person's story. It just goes to show we have no idea how compelling this person's history and story can be."

We want to continue it as a place for Indigenous voice and experience, and the framing of what brings you here to live your life or do your work, and the answers that come from that.- Alicia Smith

People sharing their stories — why and how they are involved with Drag the Red and The Bear Clan Patrol — is the heart of this project, but it has meant that more often than not, Smith has spoken with people who have openly shared painful and often traumatic events from their lives.

"There's this thing about asking people who've gone through trauma to tell their story again," she says. "There's a lot of trust building there, and a lot of time it would just be us on the river bank with a recorder."

A post of the What Brings Us Here Instagram Account, featuring Drag The Red ground co-founder Kyle Kematch. (Mark Reimer)

Part of that trust building includes going back and showing what they planned on sharing before it was posted.

"We often go back and show them what we've transcribed and what image we're going to use, and across the board people have been so excited," Smith says.

Smith says they plan on winding the account down for a while, but not for good. 

"We want to continue it as a place for Indigenous voice and experience, and the framing of what brings you here to live your life or do your work, and the answers that come from that," she says.

"I feel like people are with us on this, and I don't want to stop that momentum."

Check out the What Brings Us Here project on Instagram.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Atnikov is a freelance writer and organizer living in Winnipeg. Her work is focused around knowledge mobilization and arts and culture. You can see most of the things she's done at saraatnikov.com.

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