I initially came across Molly Steele's photographs via Instagram during the height of the No DAPL protests at Standing Rock. Less stereotypical pictures of protest, what I saw were portraits of people, the places they were inhabiting, and the larger picture of a community of people with a history and a culture under attack. The injection of the self within Steele’s work is what I found so compelling; she acts as a witness, protagonist, and subject all at once. Whether riding on trains, roaming through the desert, or on the front line of a protest, her presence itself bled through more than a simple gaze through a glass lens. I connected with Molly over email, and she was gracious enough to share her time and a few pictures with me.
Sebastian Gladstone: Why did you initially decide to go to standing rock?
Molly Steele: I went to Standing Rock because I didn’t feel like there was a choice for me to stay home while that was happening. I’d been following the struggle for a few months over the summer and then once attack dogs were used against water protectors, it felt imperative to add myself to the movement.
SG: What do you see as the role of your photographs in relation to being a witness, and do you hold set boundaries when engaging with a scene you are trying to document?
MS: First and foremost, my presence at Standing Rock was as an actor, not as a photographer. I find it difficult to involve myself with my full capacity while also trying to be a photographer. There were choices that needed to be made, like do I help hold the line or take photos while everyone around me is shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with water canyons? There was no question that I would choose to be involved directly over taking photos. In protests or demonstrations as well as in intimate spaces, I always always always prioritize the experience of being there and developing relationships more than documenting. That’s not to say there isn’t a value in the documentation, it’s just probably not me that’s going to take that role.
SG: How did you initially get into photography? Is it the only medium you work in?
MS: I travelled alone a lot and wanted to find a way to share my experiences with friends back home without having to travel with others. Figuring out how to share a feeling through a photo was really important to me. So far, I’ve mostly done this through still photography, but am looking forward to moving into motion one day.
SG: Social media has definitely helped get your photographs out into the world, and has partially taken over the American political sphere. Do you find it hard to maintain a balance between connecting your work with the world, engaging in world politics, and staying in the present?
MS: I definitely have had a hard time finding that balance. Once I became more political, my social media presence shifted significantly. Now I find it hard to post at all because I want to be more present with what’s happening around me and sense others wanting the same.
SG: Your work is very uniquely stylized, yet straightforward at the same time, presenting beautiful landscapes and harsh realities in a similar light. What is important to you about injecting your own presence in the work?
MS: It’s important to me that people paying attention to my work see that I’m just an individual and sharing things anecdotally, as opposed to a journalist or reporter of some sort. Taking that stance allows more room for nuances and carves out space for my perspective. Something about the juxtaposition of my personal life mixed with a casual reportage of current events feels disarming and perhaps more accessible.
SG: When do you decide to focus your efforts on a singular project?
MS: I typically only focus when I fully immerse myself in an environment, and usually in those moments I try to separate myself from the notion that it’s a project or work.
SG: As technology affects the global spread of news, information, and communication, do you feel there needs to be an equal change in the way people protest and work politically?
MS: With the exponential growth of technology, I think we need to be constantly striving to find how we can rework these advances in our favor. There will always be a way something can be repurposed to the benefit of those it’s intended to repress. It’s also important to be aware of how the populations overwhelming involvement in the growing catalog of data through the digitizing of our lives is creating a fundamental shift in the way we relate to globalization. I feel like we can use this change in technology to work toward making a shift in the world, but need to be aware of how our use of it is fully surveilled and that it’s crucial to be safe when interacting in a digital world.
SG: Lastly, Do you have any new projects in the works that you can share with us?
I do! On February 24th I released my first ever zine in collaboration with Deadbeat Club, entitled “I Just Want To Be Warm At Night”. It’s a 44-page color zine of my photographs in an edition of 300 with a written insert and postcard. Its available online through Deadbeat Club.
To see more of Molly's work visit her website here.