There is an old legend in the Lakota people about a giant black snake that will one day come down the Missouri River to poison the water and destroy the land as we know it today. Hence, that reptile seemed to have taken shape in the nearly 2,000-kilometer-long, 76-centimeter-diameter pipeline driven by the Energy Transfer company: the Dakota Access. Thousands of people, from hundreds of indigenous tribes, as well as others from different parts of the world, attended the protest called on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The construction not only endangered the region’s drinking water supply and its ecosystem, it desecrated sacred land.
Who owns the land?
Mitch Epstein (Holyoke, Massachusetts, United States, 1952) arrived on the reservation during the last days of the camping trip, in February 2017, days after the newly elected Trump had reversed the decision of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The US to temporarily halt the project (the Trump administration would carry out an unprecedented federal review of 27 natural monuments, freeing up land to be exploited for fossil fuel extraction, mining and tourism purposes). From the outset, the photographer was struck by the eerie visual resemblance that Standing Rock maintained with photographs taken in the 19th century at Wounded Knee, the scene of one of the bloodiest acts of genocide in US history. Cavalry Regiment stationed in the hills ready to crack down, this time it was police officers and armed private security guards who were watching the activists concentrated in the camp. Thus, from the wave of acts of resistance that brought about Trump’s coming to power, emerged Property Rights, the artist’s latest project. With Family Business and American Power, this new episode closed a trilogy that delves into the illusory nature of the American dream, as well as the perennial questions about power, individualism and equity.
“Who owns the land?” Asks the author. “What rights does it grant to its owners and at what cost?” Published by Steidl, the monograph explores through majestic landscapes and portraits, complemented by a series of texts, in the different narratives that are established about the property conflict. The artist, a pioneer of color photography, spent three years visiting the different areas of America where its inhabitants carried out a fight against the government that evidenced the misuse and mistreatment of the land they inhabit. A reflection of the disparity that is established between the industry and the community, as happened with the protests organized by the residents of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, (whose property was threatened by the construction of a gas pipe made in Korea, which would transport natural gas across their lands to a port in Baltimore, where it would be transported by ship to a plastics factory in Scotland) or even between science and community, as was the case at the Mauna Kea camp, an environmental mecca and spirituality from Hawaii, where a consortium of astronomers planned to build the world’s largest telescope.
“The Indians do not believe in the concept of property. And, although they fight for the rights granted to them by the treaties signed in the 19th century with the United States, they consider that the earth does not belong to us, it belongs to the whole of nature, to the universe ”, Epstein underlines in a video produced by Steidl, on the occasion of of the book launch. Similarly, the residents of Lancaster acted as representatives of a portion of land that they protected for future generations. “The landscape is a mirror of society and also a repository for our actions. The land has its own rights, rights that we ignore even knowing the enormous risks that this entails ”, the author emphasizes.
As the author progressed in his exploration, he expanded the meaning of the term property law significantly, beyond its strict legal meaning. Thus, it refers to another type of territorial dispute such as the one generated by the impact of the construction of Trump’s wall in Nogales, Arizona, to end up alluding to the vulnerability and fragility of our most sacred property: our body, through the acts of protest that led to the murder of George Floyd organized by the Black Lives Matter movement in times of pandemic.
Epstein’s landscapes echo the endless waiting that every act of resistance entails. Determination, fear, anger and pain overlap with the silent as well as majestic beauty that each image exudes. Hence, beauty acts as an operating force that leads the viewer to the heart of the matter. A splendor that comes from the power of the natural world. From the awareness of its strength, which dwarfs us as a species as much as it attracts us emotionally. The author calls for the natural world to be given the importance and measure that it deserves. “We really don’t understand nature. It is much more sophisticated than the human being. We cannot cover it in its entirety. So, as we face the challenges posed by them, we should recognize that we can learn a lot just by stopping to intervene and respecting, at least a percentage, the natural world. “
Between utopia and dystopia
Among the projects carried out in Europe in order to stop the alarming loss of biodiversity, and ensure the survival of species and different types of habitats in Europe is the Natura 2000 Network, a network that establishes inter-territorial bridges for flora and fauna. the fauna. The initiative caught the attention of Marina Caneve (Italy, 1988) when in 2015 she received a proposal to participate in a group exhibition grouped under the title Paraíso. From there arose Bridges are Beautiful, an ongoing project that reflects on contradictions that arise between the construction of infrastructures, freedom of movement and the preservation of the environment. The work can be seen in the latest issue of Getxophoto. Curated by Jon Uriarte, in turn digital curator of The Photographers Gallery in London, the festival explores the new meanings that the idea of sharing incorporates within the current scenario conditioned by technological, social and environmental changes.
The photographer considered analyzing the design, architecture and functions of the Network. “This great ecological corridor emerges as a natural paradise created by man in order to protect animals and plants from the infrastructures (roads and borders) previously introduced by himself,” says the author. “The Network responds to a logic that derives from ecological thinking, in theory it is about freedom. However, as I went deeper into his analysis, I realized that these corridors contain barriers that force the animals to remain in certain territories, which in turn are monitored by sophisticated technologies that allow us to know how they are used and who uses them. as it happens in military structures The line that separates utopia from dystopia is really fine ”.
The assembly of the exhibition combines the artistic work with the theoretical investigation of the author. He plays with the idea of movement implied by a corridor using the legends of the images in a discontinuous way, in such a way that they guide the viewer’s journey, alluding to concepts such as freedom and migration.
‘Property Rights’. Mitch Epstein. Steidl. 228 páginas. 65 euros.
‘Bridges are Beautiful‘. Getxophoto. Ereaga beach. Biscay. Until September 28
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