Were you always interested in journalism, or did you enter the field by exploring photography?
I wouldn’t say I was always interested in journalism. We had a work aptitude test in junior high school. I cannot for the life of me remember what my test came back with, but I remember thinking it was so boring and I really didn’t want to be that person. It was a really predictable, office type job. So, I went on a brainstorming session with myself, trying to figure out what else I would be. I figured if I didn’t decide on something else to be, I would find myself in the aptitude test position anyway, so I was almost scared straight. I was already playing around with cameras and I was sort of an arty kid. I was in art classes and I liked to draw and I painted a bit at school, but I was also impatient so photography appealed to me as something that is more immediate. I also felt strongly about wanting to do something of service, something that was good for the rest of the world. I kind of knew what photojournalism was because my grandparents had National Geographic. It was like, “What can I do that lets me be creative and doesn’t put me in an office and helps people?”.
What drew you to create Generations and what was the thought process behind making it?
At the time, I’d been volunteering at this art-based youth outreach called iHuman. They have art therapy for kids considered at-risk and marginalized. Whatever kind of creative practice you’re into, iHuman has got it, and someone will help you get better at it. But once people are in the door, there are also social workers, bus tickets, food, access to addiction support and parenting groups—all the kinds of things that somebody without a stable family life would need. It was the first time I had ever realized that there’s a whole generation of basically lost Indigenous kids. Almost 80 or 90 percent of the youth at iHuman were Indigenous. A lot of them were living between group homes and friends’ couches, or in trap houses. They were invisibly unhoused. I was almost angry at myself for how much I had not seen this whole generation of young people who are right in front of us. You walk down the street and you don’t register them as unhoused, but there was this whole community at risk in such a dramatic way, and it didn’t seem like an accident.
I knew I wanted to talk about that, because if it was invisible to me, I felt like it must have been invisible to other people as well. I also wanted to do it in a way that had some hope and agency built into it. Generations started with the idea of Indigenous youth rappers. They had a whole group, and they were performing, and there was this whole network connected with the leaders to help tell that story. I wanted it to be about them doing something, not just about how hard everything in their life was. But the more time that I spent with them, the more that I knew about their story, I would take it as a learning ground. Every problem that they start talking about, you find out it’s connected to this other thing, which is connected to another thing, and everything is always connected back to residential schools or colonization. So now, Generations is about intergenerational trauma and how that manifests. Once you see it, you see it everywhere, and it’s impossible to miss the connections. Immersing myself in their story, and spending so much time with that community really set me off, in terms of sensitivity or awareness. It got my radar up in a lot of ways that it wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Is there a particular experience or project you can pinpoint as key to your career development?
It’s a constant growth upwards. Getting an internship that turned into the staff job at the Edmonton Sun was really important, because I was such a baby photographer. I was interested but I wasn’t very good. I got assignments and I had to make pictures and make something good, regardless of the situation. Having to figure out how to make a picture, sometimes out of nothing, was a really good training ground.
Also, getting laid off from the Edmonton Sun was very important because at that point I was ready for more authorship in my work. Going freelance gave me more space, and I had to reassess what kind of photojournalist I was going to be and what kind of person I was going to be in the world. That’s also when I got more serious about doing more personal work, and that’s when I started my Generations project. It’s not like I set out to be somebody that photographs all these stories around colonization and Indigenous issues, but it all started with Generations, which was in my own backyard. I started that project because it was there and I felt it was important, but also because I was looking for something more meaningful, for something bigger, and I was looking for authorship. And that was the story that was in front of me.
How do you navigate the power imbalance between a photojournalist and a subject, especially when working with Indigenous peoples who may be particularly distrustful of mainstream media?
In a broad sense, when I’m thinking about rights and responsibilities that are inherent to journalism, it’s really important that we understand what our rights are. Your right to photograph on a public street, for instance, is really important if you need to witness what police are doing. But that same right can be abused if you’re talking about photographing someone who, comparatively, has a lot less power – like if we’re talking about an unhoused person. As my general guiding principle, I weigh everything against relative power. My rights and responsibilities are always weighed against someone’s particular power or level of vulnerability in a situation.
In terms of Indigenous communities, mostly what I’ve done is connect with Indigenous people. Just like everyone else, we all have our different thresholds of comfort. We photograph within a community, but we photograph with people; ultimately, it’s individuals who decide to share their story with us or not. My experience has been about connecting to and navigating relationships with specific people. Basically, it’s about communication, and the ability to explain both what you need and what the outcomes might be, including what some of the risks might be. After you’ve had this conversation and everything is clear and someone makes a decision, I think it’s really important to not patronize that decision. Even if people are vulnerable, you’ve got to let them make their own choices about the world.
Another thing that’s been really important in terms of navigating those relationships is learning to take no for an answer. This would probably be important for any community that’s used to having their boundaries ignored or has a mistrustful relationship with the state and institutions of dominant society. In photojournalism, some of the messaging I got as a student was, “Do what you have to do to get the picture,” and “Failure is not an option.” There’s a lot of talk about our rights, which I think is important because young student journalists are usually insecure. But when you apply that lens to a community that is used to having their boundaries ignored and is used to being disempowered in different exchanges, you’re basically recreating the trauma of these power imbalances. In taking no for an answer, you’re building a relationship because you’re showing that you can respect a boundary. And some of it’s really simple. I’m not talking about stepping on anything ethically, or changing the story in any way, but just someone saying something like, “No, maybe we don’t want a picture of that particular ceremony or practice.” Asking questions and respecting the no’s when they come is proving that you can respect a boundary. You’re setting up a healthy relationship.
When you were arrested for covering the Wet’suwet’en protests, you became a story yourself about freedom of the press. Did that experience affect your approach to your work?
No, not at all. I didn’t do anything wrong in that situation. It is unfortunate the way that cycle occurs, because although not a lot of journalists get arrested in Canada, there’s quite a bit of history of journalists being detained during particularly large police actions. It’s unfortunate that we only really talk about press freedom when it’s the most extreme situation, and generally at that point, there’s other news that’s more important. Truly, it’s not my intention, nor should it really be any journalist’s intention, to center themselves in the story. It’s not about you, it’s about whatever it is that you’re covering. But that’s the pattern: we don’t talk about it until it happens. And then we talk about it in shock tones while it’s happening, and then forget all about it again until it happens again.
I do think we need to be more proactive in our insistence upon press freedoms, and never stop being vigilant on where that line is, because it really can slip faster than you think. All it takes is for people to not exercise their rights for a little while. There’s what the law says, but there’s also what’s in common practice and what the expectation is of police on scene. If people go a certain period of time without exercising their rights, police are then taught by our behavior what to expect from journalists and what’s considered professional conduct of journalists. If police learn that as journalists we won’t insist on our rights, we won’t get them again. There’s that tension between what the law says and the decision of the police on scene that day, or the decision of a politician who decides who has access to their press conference. I definitely advocate for constant vigilance on press, freedom issues, and continued conversation. We have to be loud, we have to be determined. We have to really insist on our rights because we can lose them faster than you think.
When you’re photographing a chaotic, dangerous, or emotionally fraught moment, at what point, if ever, do you decide to stop shooting? How can early-career photographers develop this intuition?
I actually rarely stop taking pictures. I think the only argument for stopping photographing is if you’re in imminent danger, or if you’re in an emotionally fraught situation and the person who has been sharing their story with you has had enough—so having both a good sense of danger and also a good emotional intelligence to be able to read a situation. I also have to figure out whether it’s me being uncomfortable that makes me want to stop photographing, or is it something that the subject has actually communicated with me? Sometimes when people are emotional or going through a difficult moment, we can project our discomfort onto that moment. You have to be really skillful to tell the difference between a cue that’s actually from them, or if it’s just you talking yourself out of a picture.
Usually, it’s better to err on the side of making the picture and figuring it out later. If a photograph has any potential to cause harm in the world, it doesn’t happen when you make the picture, it happens when the picture is shared. And you have time in between making the picture and sharing the picture. You don’t have to publish everything you photograph, and we don’t—we make those choices all the time. But in the moment, when you’re photographing, it’s a little bit like a writer collecting quotes. You’re not going to use everything, but if you don’t ask, if you don’t record it, you can no longer make the decision about it. It’s gone into the ether; you can’t get it back. But if you make the picture, you now have decisions to make about what is the right picture to tell the story in this moment.
Do you think a photographer needs to be emotionally invested in a subject to make a strong journalistic image?
Not necessarily. I’m a proponent of emotional intelligence and taking care of yourself as a whole human being. I think having emotional range and other experiences in your life and probably some therapy is good. A lot of situations we end up in are emotionally difficult; you have to feel like you have good emotional health so that you don’t project yourself into a story and you can be a good conduit for other people’s stories, no matter how challenging they might be.
Sometimes, you’re not going to be able to help it and you end up caring about particular people and places. But even then you have to have an emotional skillfulness to separate what you need to do, what the job requires, and your feelings about it. Ultimately, it isn’t about your feelings in the same way that the story is not about you: it is their story and their experience. And even if that brings up feelings for you, you have to find a way to deal with those feelings in your own time and place, so that you can be respectful of their story. I do think you have to be invested intellectually; you have to have quite a lot of knowledge about what you’re photographing. Anybody can take a picture, but to understand where you should be pointing your camera, to get skillful at that, you have to understand a story quite well.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail about your award-winning photograph of the memorial outside Kamloops residential school, you said: “For better or for worse, we care more about things that are beautiful.” How does this principle guide how you make newsworthy photographs?
I think my job is to make true pictures that help to capture [the audience’s] attention or communicate something that’s harder to communicate in the written word, that does something that words can’t. And in that pursuit, I’m looking for beauty. I’m not looking for false beauty or to turn things into a movie set. It’s more so that I’m looking for the beauty that does exist there. Sometimes, it’s a poignant or graphic or difficult kind of beauty. It’s difficult to talk about challenging parts of the human experience as beautiful, because I think our cultural idea of beauty is too simplistic; we think of beauty as pretty, appealing, and attractive. When I say beauty, I mean something more authentic, graphic, and compelling. I personally believe all parts of the human experience are valuable and worth talking about, including the challenging parts, and there are parts of the challenge that themselves can be beautiful. So that’s what I’m looking for. It’s important to me because I know that’s what we can respond to, and that’s what will help us connect with a particular story.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Make pictures every day. Find a way to tell stories all the time, because you can’t work through all of the things you have to learn by being a part-time photographer. You really have to use your camera a lot. Now, that might mean taking on a personal story for yourself. It might also mean taking a job if you can get it, or some combination of the two.
Cultivate other interests. I think it’s really important to be able to figure out what it is that you’re trying to say about the world, and one of the paths to doing that is by being a person outside of photography and photojournalism. So, take a minor in psychology or global politics or whatever other thing you want to do when you’re a student. Ultimately, it will make you a more interesting human, which then makes your storytelling more interesting and your awareness more interesting, and the things you are going to be attracted to more interesting.
I would say, not necessarily get therapy, but get a hold of your own emotional health and life. It’s a really challenging job internally; the amount of self-doubt, the moments of failure, dealing with the vagaries of the industry, and you also deal with really emotionally taxing topics. The combination of those things means you have to have some support for your mental and emotional health. Having consistent journaling or meditation or a support process—so that you have somewhere to put all of the stuff that is inevitably going to come up, so it doesn’t have to poison your work—is really important.
You have to be willing to be a multi-skilled person. Unfortunately, the realities of the financial situation in photojournalism are pretty challenging right now. Often people are also writers or they’re also videographers, or they have drone skills, audio, and podcasting skills. Having other skills makes you more marketable and makes it a little easier to survive in the business long enough that you can become really skillful.
Photojournalist Amber Bracken had a pivotal Christmas, aged 11-years old, when she received her first camera. With her Polaroid in hand, she moved from being frustrated about the fragmented nature of her family albums to stepping behind the lens and capturing pictures for herself. In 2008, after studying communications and journalism, Bracken launched her career in photojournalism. In 2015, Bracken initiated Generations, an ongoing photo series that began with a focus on Indigenous youth in her hometown of Edmonton and set the foundation for her continued coverage of issues affecting Indigenous peoples in North America. She was arrested by the RCMP in 2021 while covering Wet’suwet’en land defenders, and won a World Press Photo the following year for her photograph of a memorial in Kamloops, British Columbia, commemorating Indigenous children who died in residential schools. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, National Geographic, and The New York Times.
Website: Amber Bracken