• Full FrameEducation Week's Photo Blog

    Legend of Pine Ridge

    by Swikar Patel posted December 16, 2013

    Sometimes you’re standing on the side of a dirt road and a kid in a red jacket runs by.

    Working on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was full of challenges. It was easy to get caught up in the all of the poverty and despair. While that is a huge piece of the story, it’s not why we were there. We were there to report on the state of education on the reservation.

    Another challenge was being in the field as part of a team: working directly with a reporter and videographer. Its hard enough to establish a connection with  a person on your own, to establish the trust to be able to blend in, disappear, and make the pictures. Now, we had a group of three (reporter Lesli Maxwell, videographer Megan Garner, and me, shooting stills and video), and, to make things more difficult, we were carrying the stigma of being outsiders in a place where outsiders often parachute in, tell stories of stereotypes, and then disappear.

    Most of our first two days at Red Cloud consisted of filming seven or eight interviews and getting a feel for the culture, daily school life, and how passionate the staff there is when it comes to setting their students up for a better future.

    It’s easy to burn out when you’re photographing in a school all day. Classrooms start to bleed together and you feel like you’re regurgitating the same frames over and over. I wasn’t making the pictures I wanted; the ones that communicated the weight of the story. We needed a face and soul.

    That’s not what we were looking for when we pulled off on a dirt road and got our cameras out. We planned to shoot scene-setting footage in the afternoon light, when a school bus pulled up behind us and 10-year-old Legend Tell Tobacco sprinted off past us in a red jacket. As he raced by, our reporter, Lesli, called out to him, “Hi, how you doin’?” “Nothing,” he shouted back, “just running home.”

    I rushed into the middle of the road, stopped down to f22 and let it roll. He ran all the way up this road, all one and a half miles of it, and as he disappeared into the distance, reality set in. I needed his name and had to follow.

    Lesli gave me a lift up the road and dropped me off just before a smattering of houses. We agreed I’d pursue solo. I hopped out and walked the rest of the way up the hill with a camera and managed to catch Tell as he wrapped around the front of his aunt’s house to head in.

    I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I was out of breath. Something to the extent of, “Man, you’re fast.” He smiled.