The Faces of Standing Rock project by art director turned photographer Mico Toledo captures the water protectors of the Sioux reservation lands in North Dakota. The images show the indigenous people of the region who oppose the construction of a pipeline across their homelands. “The project came about when I read an small article in The Guardian back in June portraying the small group of Sioux indigenous youth fighting a three billion dollar pipeline project that would pass through their lands, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation,” says Mico. “I couldn’t help but notice the beauty and strength in their eyes. These were young people, but they had a clear cause and you could see back then they wouldn’t back down from it. I was deeply fixated by this issue for weeks and weeks. How can so little people have the courage to fight the oil business in such an oil friendly Trump state like North Dakota.”
The protests saw more than 4,000 protestors from around the globe oppose the DAPL pipeline. Significantly, more than 200 different native americans tribes joined the fight – the first time the tribes have united since European settlers set foot in North America. “I knew I didn’t want to take the usual protest pictures with fists waving in the air and clashes with police. I’m not a journalist, so as a documentary photographer I wanted to capture the little stories behind the bigger picture, the individual beauty and strength of each person dedicating their life in the camp to fight the oil pipeline known in the camp as the Black Snake,” explains Mico. “I wanted to divide the whole movement into small little cells and understand their motivations behind their own fight. Each story was as important to me as the whole picture.”
The photographer spent two weeks creating the images and in December last year, the contractors were denied permission to build the pipeline. “My goal was to portray Natives as strong but peaceful figures, contrasting with the picture painted by some local and mainstream media like Fox News and Bismarck Tribune depicting them as trouble makers and violent,” says Mico. I witnessed a rebirth of the American Indian movement, although it’s not officially labelled like that, I felt a deep sense of regained purpose within everyone I talked to. I sensed that finally after years of systematic oppression they’re finally proud of who they are as a people and as their own culture. I set out to photograph protestors, but I left happy and honoured to be able to capture water protectors, Native Americans, caretakers of our planet in their most proud and victorious moment."