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.

Q&A With Podcast Superstar Nora Saks, MA: ‘You Can Be Pretty Creative About What You Do With This Degree’

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, The Richest Hill which, follows the past, present and future of a famous Superfund site in Butte, MT. The podcast was named one of the “Best Podcasts of 2019,” by The New Yorker magazine and it has become popular in and outside of Montana.

Nora Saks graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism with her MA in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism and Richest Hill was born out of her master’s thesis.

Graduate student Sierra Cistone chatted with her about the podcast and her time in graduate school. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, Richest Hill photo credit: Grant Clark

What made you want to pursue a MA in journalism?

I spent about a decade almost as an organic farmer … and I think over time I realized I was interested in subjects like food justice and farming, but really what I enjoyed more than anything was listening to the farmers and hearing about their life experiences and backgrounds. And, that mostly got me interested in storytelling.

Eventually, I realized, ‘what is a job I could do that would let me keep learning, would let me talk to lots of people and walk a few steps in their shoes and have all kinds of adventures but do it with a purpose?’ And, I think that’s ultimately what led me into journalism.

Is there a class that was really helpful for practicing skills that you use today?

I remember Investigative Reporting being pretty helpful … that was when we had just the worst smoke season and Seeley Lake was just inundated with wildfire smoke. I am pretty interested in public health and environmental justice. So, Joe Eaton who is the instructor of that, taught us some good investigative reporting and research basics and then I decided to focus on the health impacts of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. I think having that class was a baseline for doing that work and I ended up getting two stories on NPR that were born in that class.

How did your idea for Richest Hill get started?

When I was reporting the radio documentary for my master’s it was on a much smaller piece of this puzzle. That was what my project [master’s thesis] was on and throughout that process of reporting that for months I realized “oh there are a lot of things happening right now in Butte around Superfund, not just what this activist group is focused on.” 

And, that’s what made us think, “oh this is a much bigger story…”

What was one of the biggest take-aways from the early episodes of producing Richest Hill?

There were a lot of people involved but I think some of the people who showed up in some of the early episodes come back. You never really know if you’re doing a project like this, who you are going to want to come back to and who might end up being a bigger presence.

So, I think keeping those relationships for your sources solid and up to date and as trustworthy as you can is pretty important if you are doing a long project.

Nora Saks interviews Mark Thompson with Montana Resources for Richest Hill. Courtesy photo.

What would you say to anyone considering pursuing a graduate degree in environmental journalism at UM?

For me the people and the relationships that came with those other students and the faculty — I probably didn’t really appreciate fully at the time and I’m only now beginning to understand how vital they are. 

I guess to anyone who’s worried about putting themselves in a box by doing this degree, I would say you don’t need to worry about that… Having an area of specialty or expertise is really useful and the coursework I did in school, as well as the research I did on my own in reporting, I think it’s actually really broad and kind of exciting in that way..

I think there are a lot of directions you can go with it and you don’t need to worry about getting pigeonholed and you can be pretty creative about what you do with this degree.