Art

For This Photojournalist, People Are More Important Than Pictures

Through immersion and collaboration, photojournalist Alyssa Schukar adds context to a complicated world.

by B. David Zarley
16 October 2016, 12:00pm

Shirley Romero Otero Chicana of Colorado. “When we heard about this particular struggle, our hearts pulled us this way,” Ms. Otero said, “because the next battle after losing our land is truly the fight for water.” Ms. Otero’s community in San Luis, Colo., is dealing with its own fight for water. All photos and captions courtesy of, and owned by, Alyssa Schukar.

It’s easy to forget the real people behind stories like the Dakota Access Pipeline protest; or the crime, poverty, and violence on Chicago’s West Side. For Chicago-based photojournalist Alyssa Schukar, however, context is the most important aspect of a photograph. Schukar approaches her assignments—for publications like The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Chicago Magazine, and Newsweek, among others—with the intention of capturing more than a moment.

“I have to approach everyone with empathy and respect and try to portray them in a dignified way,” Schukar tells The Creators Project. “I'm not really much of a news photographer, because I don't just want to take images; I want to make them as a collaborative effort with the person I'm photographing.” She achieves this by shooting traditional portraits, found portraits—candids that read as portraiture—and through in-depth immersions with people on the scene. “There's a relationship built and a rapport there before I start snapping pictures,” she says.

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Taylor Collins, 11, lifts her 5-year-old sister Chloie up to an ice cream truck so she can choose her dessert as their sister Gianna, 6, at left, watches. Marktown, an East Chicago neighborhood, is bordered by steel mills and a British Petroleum refinery, seen at back.

When Schukar was assigned to the #NoDAPL protests in North Dakota for The New York Times, she was originally there to shoot Green Party candidate Jill Stein's visit, but knew the story was bigger than that. “Particularly with the Dakota Access Pipeline, I wanted to be able to put [the protestors’] words with the images, because it was a very political situation,” Schukar says. “It was a very complicated world to walk into, as well.”

Rather than shooting away and then gathering names and information, Schukar spent time with the protestors, learning about them and why they were there. The information informed her photos, becoming images of people rather than Pipeline construction and protests. “I'm much more interested in people than I am in photography,” she says.

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Susan Leopold of the Patawomeck Tribe of Virginia watches the sun rise over an encampment where thousands have come to protest an oil pipeline. An arcade of flags whip in the North Dakota wind. Each represent one of 300 Native American tribes that have flocked here in what activists are calling the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn.

Schukar credits her first staff job, at the Omaha World-Herald in her native Nebraska, with exposing her to a wide range of people and situations. As the state's paper of record, the gig required her to talk to urban dwellers one day and rural ranchers the next. Since going freelance two years ago, she has focused primarily on how the environment—both literally and figuratively—shapes humanity.

A series on Marktown, a community originally built as housing for steel mill workers’ families in East Chicago, Indiana, shows images of a town being slowly killed by pollution and economic erosion caused by the very industry that built it. Similarly, her work chronicling the life of Jerryon Stevens for Chicago Magazine reflects the indelible effect Chicago's West Side can have on the lives of those who grow up there. “The work that I really like to do […] I can spend time with people and be immersed in their world,” Schukar says.

See more of Alyssa Schukar’s work below:

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Jerryon "Mank" Stevens, 15, looks in the direction of sirens and police lights while hanging out with family on the front stoop of his great grandmother's home in West Humboldt Park on April 12, 2016. A group of demonstrators gathered to protest the previous day's Chicago Police shooting of 16-year-old Pierre Loury, who Stevens knew through a friend.

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Catcher Cuts the Rope Aanii and Nakota of Wyoming. A Marines veteran injured in Fallujah, Iraq, Cuts the Rope spoke of his hope for a non-violent resolution to the dispute surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. "We will stop the pipeline, and we will do it peacefully," he said.

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Joseph and Kinehsche’ Marshall Hoopa Valley tribe of Northern California. “I’ve been telling her since she was a little person that she’s the storyteller,” Mr. Marshall said of Kinehsche’, his 9-year-old daughter. “When we’re all gone, she’s going to be the one telling the story. So it was really important that as soon as I found out I was going, I was like, ‘Kinehsche’, you’re going with me.’”

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A mile and a half from Marktown, Happy Jacks Liquors in Whiting is one of the few stores within walking distance from the neighborhood.

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A backhoe stands still after demolishing a home sold to BP, which owns the sprawling refinery seen in the background.

Click here to see more of Alyssa Schukar's work. 

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