Mike Graeme doesn’t want to make a big deal of himself.
The 28-year-old photographer, who grew up in Nelson, was reluctant to be interviewed about his work. His subjects and their causes are what is important, he says.
Graeme has become known for photography that expresses solidarity with Indigenous and Black people’s rights as well as environmental issues, especially climate change. His specialty is photographing rallies, marches, and other public events.
He worries that by being featured in an article, he is taking up space that the people in those movements should have.
“Photography is often associated with capturing and taking,” he says.
Graeme wants his photography to be “an act of giving, not extracting, especially because when we’re talking about Indigenous movements and Black movements, we want to be trying to step out of the way as much as possible and trying to have those voices come through.”
This attitude has resulted in Graeme, a self-described “straight, white, male settler” being invited by Indigenous, Black and environmental groups to document their events.
His work has appeared in many publications including The Nation, The Tyee, National Geographic Blog, the CBC, Ricochet Media, the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province, the Sierra Club, and First Peoples Law Journal.
‘Seeing people caring so much’
It all started in Japan, where Graeme went on a Selkirk College exchange at age 21. Before he left, his parents bought him a good camera.
He was not doing well in those days, he says. He was overwhelmed and depressed by global problems.
“I was pretty sad and down on the world. I was thinking a lot about colonial oppression and climate change.”
One day he came upon a large street demonstration against the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“Just seeing how much energy and life those people had, it gave me a new burst of energy … to see all these people caring so much.”
Inspired by this feeling, he documented the march with his camera. The organizers approached him, curious about who he was and why he was there.
“They were so stoked that I could come and show support and I ended up becoming pretty good friends with them. They invited me over for dinner and I ended up joining their organizing meetings and living with them for the remainder of my time there in Japan.”
He says his camera became a tool he could offer to a movement he believed in.
Behind the lens in those street actions, he experienced “the sense of really living in the moment, and that was something I had not been able to feel in a while. It was so exciting.”
‘Seeing the energy that is rising up’
Back in Canada, while completing a degree at the University of Victoria in environmental studies and anthropology, Graeme worked at the student newspaper and threw himself into photography, documenting the movement against pipelines and for climate action, always in alliance with Indigenous people, including the well-publicized events at the Burnaby Mountain pipeline terminal.
“I was hearing about these actions almost on a weekly basis. They often needed photographers, so I was really happy to help them document it, so they could use the photos for press releases.”
Graeme has also photographed a number of Black Lives Matter and racial justice rallies on Vancouver Island following the death of George Floyd in the U.S.
In early 2020, an Indigenous youth group supporting the Wet’suwet’en people in their dispute with the federal and provincial governments spent 17 days in a non-violent occupation of the steps of the B.C. legislature. Graeme was invited by the organizers, and posted dozens of photos to Instagram and Facebook.
He says the news media took many photos there, “but you could really see that they were just coming and snapping a photo and uploading a story, and then moving on to the next thing.”
By contrast, he says, he was “trying to see the energy that is rising up, and trying to make sure that that gets conveyed and amplified.
“I think about the resilience that has brought these folks to this point in time, and which continues to be expressed in their current movements, and I try to take photos of that power being expressed.”
Recently Graeme was contacted by the Sinixt people at the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State. They had hoped to take a large contingent to Ottawa in October for the hearing of the Sinixt hunting case at the Supreme Court of Canada. But the pandemic precluded this. Sinixt leader Shelly Boyd travelled to Ottawa with the respondent in the appeal case, Richard Desautel.
Boyd told Graeme she had seen his photos on social media and wanted to connect with him on her way to Ottawa as she travelled through B.C.
They organized a photo shoot on the shore of Kootenay Lake, and the results appeared in an article about the Sinixt in the online magazine The Narwhal.
“I’ve admired The Narwhal for many years now, and was really excited that they wanted to help the Sinixt tell their story,” Graeme says.
The project is the latest in the ongoing attempt of a “white settler photographer with privilege rooted in a system of stolen land” to convert his privilege into justice, he says.
Graeme says he has no pretensions to neutrality.
“There is no neutrality. Wherever you’re coming from, you’re part of a system that isn’t neutral.”
He says he does a lot of research before shooting, and that includes “listening to my Indigenous friends and my Black friends and really hearing their experience and then aligning the photos with their experience, trying to get my own perceptions and experiences out of the way as much as possible.”
Graeme says he encourages Indigenous people to take their own photos. He has given one of his cameras with lenses, and photography lessons, to some of those friends.