“I learned from their perspective how they saw their community,
and I learned a lot about their community and culture,” Houston
says. “It was also a soft and effective introduction to the community.
By the time I started working on the assignment [for The Nature
Conservancy], I was already accepted and had a lot of connections.”
While he was working on the story, Houston continued to engage
the community with what he called “listening sessions,” which were
open meetings to give the local community a look at Houston’s work
as it progressed. “What I wanted was feedback from them, and in
particular, what they thought about how I was representing them,”
Houston says he doesn’t let the community edit his work. His job
is to tell the truth as he sees it, and sometimes, there are images
that “are less than flattering for the local community or subjects,”
he says. But community feedback helps him give his pictures more
context when it’s needed, he says.
For instance, he was working on a project about a watershed
conservation project in Colombia when he photographed some old
pots against a warmly colored wall of a farmer’s house. When he
showed the picture at a listening session, the locals “were horrified,”
Houston says. They explained that local conservation efforts had
helped improve their economic situation. But to them, the photograph
represented their poverty—and their past.
“We talked about it, and instead of being filler, the photograph has
meaning, and I can tell the back story in the caption,” Houston says.
He says his engagement with local communities affects his
coverage in other important ways, too. For one thing, locals don’t
always understand how professional photographers work, or
what Houston is looking for, until he has a chance to explain it.
“Sometimes they’ll offer up ideas” for pictures, he says.
The engagement also helps him avoid the common pitfall of
romanticizing native communities that live close to the land. Many
outsiders see such communities “and think, ‘Wow, they’re pure,
they’re thoughtful and artful,’” Houston explains. “The reality is
that it’s often a lot more complicated than that.” To romanticize
them, Houston says, reinforces stereotypes that can hold them back
economically and politically. And besides, it’s not good journalism
because it’s almost never truthful. —DAVID WALKER
organizations and conservation photographers are now taking
The First Nations community he worked with in the Great Bear
Rainforest “has a real sense of ownership of their story, and a sense
that they’ve been abused by white culture that has appropriated
their story,” Houston says. By teaching the workshop with high
school students, he gave them the tools to tell their own story.
But the engagement also helped him photograph his story for
The Nature Conservancy more accurately, he explains.
ABOVE: A woman processes traditional medicinal plants collected in the Great
Bear Rainforest, near Klemtu, British Columbia. Working for NGOs, Houston
learned that “the stories had to be much more about people who live there and
rely on the resource, than about the trees and tigers and snakes,” he says.
RIGHT: Jason Houston photographed a Kitasoo chief leading a field trip in the Great
Bear Rainforest. Houston also taught residents to use photography to document their
own culture. BELOW: A photo of old pots “horrified” members of a Colombian community,
who felt they represented poverty, Houston learned at a listening session.