Q&A with photojournalist Russel Daniels, ’09: making an impossible story possible

Russel Daniels is a writer, photographer and filmmaker who graduated from the J-School in the Spring of 2009 with a BA in photojournalism. Through photography and storytelling, Daniels’ work brings attention to Native American and underserved communities’ history and culture.  

In a recent Q&A with graduate student Sage Sutcliffe, Daniels shares how he gained the technical skills to tell an “impossible” story he has wanted to tell since before entering the J-School. Daniels’ photo essay The Genízaro Pueblo of Abiquiú was recently featured at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the first chapter of many regarding the Native American enslavement in the Southwest. An edited transcript of the conversation follows. 

Russel Daniels, photographed by Chad Kirkland

What are you currently passionate about?

The thesis of this project is the legacy of Spanish colonial era Native American enslavement and captivity in the Southwest. In the last few years I’ve been meeting other descendants, Genízaro descendants, and other people that have captivity in their families throughout Northern New Mexico. I was meeting them and going to visit them and just not even taking photos, but just talking and hearing their stories.

The topic predates and postdates the transatlantic slave trade. It literally didn’t stop after the Civil War in New Mexico. On my dad’s side, we are Diné, Navajo, and our ancestor was taken captive in the middle 1800s by Utes. 

So I can almost say I went to journalism school to tell that story, really. I’m like, that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to learn how to tell a story, and then that was the story I really wanted to tell.

So even back then, this was on your mind?

It was on my mind, but it seemed impossible. How do you document, photograph history? It’s almost impossible. Out here in the West where it’s dry, a lot of things are preserved. If it was humid and moist, things would dissolve and or get overgrown and collapse. But out here, especially in the deep Red rock desert on the Colorado plateau, things are well preserved. So, you got ancestral pueblo and sites still around, so you can photograph stuff like that. But I didn’t realize at the time way back then that there were still communities of descendants still living in New Mexico, but that’s what all my research led me to.

Is there anything that you learned at the J-School that you still utilize today or you’re glad you learned?

The most valuable tool that I’ve ever had in my career is learning how to write, learning how to pitch stories, learning how to research, learning how to interview, learning how to ask the right questions. And a lot of that does revolve around writing. And I think that’s the thing that I often tell students or younger people that are interested in photography and photojournalism, even artists—learning how to write about your work, cause it’s how you’re going to get paid.

What’s your favorite subject to capture through the lens?

I love wandering in my neighborhood or walking in a new town and just wandering it. I love to find the ordinary and make a photo of it. It’s usually a detail that’s fascinating to me. Or maybe a little lighting. Some people are just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that you just made that photo of something so boring and made it interesting.’ So, that’s my daily work. My day really is walking around and taking photos just for fun, seeing things.

What would you like students to know about the field of photography?

Just keep doing it, and keep doing it even when you’re not feeling it. This kind of applies, I think, towards a lot of creatives in general. You can’t just rely on inspiration to make good work. You’ve got to develop skills and discipline and habits to be able to work through when you’re feeling uninspired. Being an artist, being a creator, content maker, you’ve got to know how to work through all your personal issues and just keep creating.

Q&A with Outdoor Journalist Liam O. Gallagher, ’03: Keeping Up With the Media Landscape as a Freelancer

Liam O. Gallagher is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, editor and producer who captures stories of outdoor pursuits. His clientele includes brands like Patagonia, advocacy groups like Protect Our Winters and media outlets like The New York Times. Gallagher graduated from the J-School in the Spring of 2003 with a BA in print journalism and has freelanced for most of his career.

In a recent Q&A with graduate student Sage Sutcliffe, Gallagher shared his experience in the freelancing world through an ever-changing media landscape. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Liam O. Gallagher

Technology has changed so much since you began J-School in ’99. What was it like to experience the change?

We were right on that cusp of where, in a couple years, it all changed. Everything went full digital. So, I kind of felt lucky that I decided to chase the passion of outdoor employment, because it allowed me to watch the landscape, the media landscape, and not have all my eggs in that one basket, where I was all-in on a small newspaper or all-in as a freelance writer. It kind of gave me the flexibility to choose the stories I wanted to choose and to write, and then also still do other stuff.

What are some challenges of being a freelancer?

It’s up to me to be the business guy, the accounting guy, the content creator guy. You just have to do it all, which can be kind of draining. And the longer I’ve done it, it gets easier to do all that. But it’s still a lot of work. And I have a wife and two kids now, too, so there’s some real responsibilities that come with it.

What advice would you give to a student who is interested in outdoor filmmaking and journalism?

I would just spend as much time as possible outside with your camera gear or a pen and paper, and then seek out the people who are doing at the top level of whatever the pursuit is— snowboarding or fishing, or maybe it’s running or mountain climbing — and see how you can get in with them. Because, that’s a great way to just network without feeling schmoozy or networky — is just to approach them with honest curiosity about what they’re doing. The more people you connect with, the more opportunities kind of start popping up.

What’s your favorite subject to capture through the lens?

The beauty of the natural world, being in the mountains or being on a river and filming is just awesome. You’re in awe. And I think there’s a lot of value in awe and being a little person in a big world, a big natural world. So anytime I get to be filming nature with some human subjects that can tell me about what they’ve been through, I think that’s the best.

What is a professional accomplishment that you are most proud of?

It came out, I guess at the beginning of the pandemic a couple years ago, called Drop with another alumni from the University of Montana, Hilary Hutcheson. I was proud of that one because it was kind of a big project where we had a lot of moving parts, and then we also had to complete it through the pandemic, which was kind of wild. And I finished it. So, despite some obstacles and a pretty big idea, it all kind of came together.

And then, personally, having a couple of kids and a wife is awesome. The kids are so cool. It’s really hard, but it feels like a real accomplishment. And to see them be happy and outdoorsy, and they get along with each other most of the time. It’s a great personal accomplishment to be in a place like Bellingham that I really love and have this family going.

Good Work Wednesday: May 3, 2023

By Sage Sutcliffe

Top Montana News Stories

1. The remarkable life, death and tombstone of Manhattan’s Sammy Williams (Darrell Ehrlick / Daily Montanan)

Trans rights stories have been at the top of my newsfeed all week following the censorship of representative Zooey Zephyr of Missoula. This one, written by Darrell Ehrlick, shares an incredibly neat story of a trans figure from Montana history.

2. ‘Pushed out’: Two-Spirit student leaves St. Labre Indian School (Nora Mabie / Missoulian)

Reported by Nora Mabie, another important story profiles a Two-Sprit student, Sully Montoya. Montoya feels he has a both a masculine and feminine spirit, but he was unable to express himself freely at St. Labre Indian School in southeastern Montana.

3. Photo essay: 54th Annual Kyiyo Pow Wow (John Stember / Montana Free Press)

Check out Stember’s photo essay from the 54th annual Kyiyo Pow Wow at UM. Stember’s lede explains what the event is all about: “The celebration, organized by the Kyiyo Native American Student Association, was an opportunity to honor movement, family and culture, connect generations, and show off dance styles and regalia from different tribes.”

4. ICT opens news bureau in Montana (ICT Staff / ICT)

ICT (formerly Indian Country Today), a subset of IndiJ Public Media, is expanding its reach with a new news bureau in the J-School. “IndiJ Public Media and the University of Montana’s journalism school hope the partnership will increase and improve coverage of Indigenous issues throughout Montana as well as in neighboring states and southern Canada,” ICT wrote.

Top Environment and Science News Stories

1. Climate Change Is Walloping US Farms. Can This Farm Bill Create Real Solutions? (Lisa Held / Civil Eats)

After an info-packed lede, Held poses two questions in her nut graf:

“So, as negotiations around the 2023 Farm Bill, the country’s most important piece of food and farm legislation, heat up, the question is: will it play a meaningful role in addressing and responding to the climate crisis? Furthermore, can an unwieldy government bill, shaped by a bureaucratic system heavily influenced by the powerful agriculture lobby, really shift the food system toward a lower-emission, climate-resilient future?”

From there, Held reports on what the bill is intended to do for U.S. farmers, merging important environmental and economic concerns.

2. Dwindling sea ice and rising Arctic ship traffic may bring unwelcome visitors to King Island, Alaska (Emily Schwing / High Country News)

Schwing reports on King Island, Alaska, and the anticipated threats to “food security and cultural resources” on the island as climate change worsens. A short news piece, Schwing interviews descendants and residents of King Island to hear about their worries first-hand.

Top Student/Alumni Story

1. Bill requiring license to use state fishing access sites passes Legislature (Tom Kuglin / Missoulan)

J-School grad Tom Kuglin (’14) is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau covering the “outdoors, recreation and natural resources” beat. His concise news story for the Missoulian offers all the pertinent details that Montanans should know thus far about House Bill 521, “a bill that will require anyone using state trust lands, fishing access sites or wildlife management areas to first purchase a license has passed the Legislature.”