Photographer Interviews

Working as an Outsider: Jason Houston on Working with First Nations Communities

July 4, 2017

By David Walker

When Jason Houston traveled last summer to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, his assignment was not only to document progress on The Nature Conservancy’s environmental initiatives there, but to teach local high school students how to use photography to document their own culture and environment. “From a practical perspective,” he says, “if you’re not involving and empowering local communities, then conservation just doesn’t happen.”

In pursuit of stories all over the world about the effects of climate change, over-fishing, habitat loss and other topics, conservation photographers are usually working as outsiders. Houston is no exception, and says he didn’t pay much attention to local communities when he started his career. But as he spent more time in the field, he noticed the central role they played in the success or failure of the conservation efforts of his NGO clients.

“I realized the stories had to be much more about people who live there and rely on the resource, than about the trees and tigers and snakes,” Houston says.

© Jason Houston

A woman processes traditional medicinal plants collected in the Great Bear Rainforest, near Klemtu, British Columbia. Working for NGOs, Houston learned that “the stories had to be much more about people who live there and rely on the resource, than about the trees and tigers and snakes,” he says. © Jason Houston

His perspective changed more than a decade ago, with an assignment for an NGO that designed its conservation programs around the needs and input of local communities, rather than imposing top-down programs. “They would engage local leaders, and do surveys about local behaviors,” he explains.

Houston says Mark Dowie’s 2011 book, Conservation Refugees, has also raised consciousness within the international conservation movement. Dowie took NGOs to task for pushing conservation agendas without regard to the cultural or economic concerns of indigenous people. As a result, Houston says, many conservation organizations and conservation photographers are now taking community-oriented approaches.

The First Nations community he worked with in the Great Bear Rainforest “has a real sense of ownership of their story, and a sense that they’ve been abused by white culture that has appropriated their story,” Houston says. By teaching the workshop with high school students, he gave them the tools to tell their own story. But the engagement also helped him photograph his story for The Nature Conservancy more accurately, he explains.

“I learned from their perspective how they saw their community, and I learned a lot about their community and culture,” Houston says. “It was also a soft and effective introduction to the community. By the time I started working on the assignment [for The Nature Conservancy], I was already accepted and had a lot of connections.”

While he was working on the story, Houston continued to engage the community with what he called “listening sessions,” which were open meetings to give the local community a look at Houston’s work as it progressed. “What I wanted was feedback from them, and in particular, what they thought about how I was representing them,” he explains.

© Jason Houston

A photo of old pots “horrified” members of a Colombian community, who felt they represented poverty, Houston learned at a listening session. © Jason Houston

Houston says he doesn’t let the community edit his work. His job is to tell the truth as he sees it, and sometimes, there are images that “are less than flattering for the local community or subjects,” he says. But community feedback helps him give his pictures more context when it’s needed, he says.

For instance, he was working on a project about a watershed conservation project in Colombia when he photographed some old pots against a warmly colored wall of a farmer’s house. When he showed the picture at a listening session, the locals “were horrified,” Houston says. They explained that local conservation efforts had helped improve their economic situation. But to them, the photograph represented their poverty—and their past.

“We talked about it, and instead of being filler, the photograph has meaning, and I can tell the back story in the caption,” Houston says.

He says his engagement with local communities affects his coverage in other important ways, too. For one thing, locals don’t always understand how professional photographers work, or what Houston is looking for, until he has a chance to explain it. “Sometimes they’ll offer up ideas” for pictures, he says.

The engagement also helps him avoid the common pitfall of romanticizing native communities that live close to the land. Many outsiders see such communities “and think, ‘Wow, they’re pure, they’re thoughtful and artful,’” Houston explains. “The reality is that it’s often a lot more complicated than that.” To romanticize them, Houston says, reinforces stereotypes that can hold them back economically and politically. And besides, it’s not good journalism because it’s almost never truthful.

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