Photographer Kristina Barker sees South Dakota—really sees it—and captures it in a way you won’t soon forget. Her photography of the Black Hills is at once wild and familiar. One photo looks plucked out of a Western, too untamed and too perfect to be real. The next is routine, but uniquely intimate—a family of ranchers praying over their dinner, a Sioux Tribal Police officer shedding her uniform for fancy dress regalia.
Kristina’s spent eight years criss-crossing South Dakota, and it’s rare that she’s not armed with her camera. It’s a lucky thing, too. For South Dakotans, her photography is a stirring tribute to home. For everyone else, it’s a glimpse into the Mount Rushmore State so vivid you’ll want to follow Kristina’s lead and move out to the Edge of the West.
Why did you come to South Dakota, and why did you stay?
I have long been in love with the rural West—I find the stories and the people incredibly captivating.
I was finishing my degree at San Francisco State University in 2007 and knew that I wanted to go out of state for my first job after college. I wanted to work in a newsroom that was focused on its community. South Dakota quickly rose to the top of the list where editors had expressed interest.
I moved here in January of 2008, with a U-Haul and my six-month-old puppy, Moco, and began working at the Rapid City Journal. I gave myself the goal of staying two years, but clearly I’ve surpassed that goal. South Dakota feels so much like home, more than the Bay Area ever did.
Your “Edge of the West” photos go everywhere—they sit at kitchen tables, they forge rivers, they look down from a mile in the air. What makes a photo worth capturing? What makes a photo a true portrait of South Dakota life?
I’ve driven over 300,000 miles, zig zagging across our state in the nearly eight years I’ve lived here. There are a lot of scenes that stand out when I think of South Dakota: a lone tree in the middle of a pasture, small draws filled with lush green grasses, rolling hills that carry the horizon all the way to Wyoming. But I think what stands out the most are the families and faces of people that I’ve gotten to meet.
A true portrait is a photograph that simply says, this is a slice of everyday life. And for a lot of folks in our rural communities, that life is challenging. There is a lot of physical work involved and people take a great deal of pride in that. South Dakotans are proud. They are hard working. And you’ve got to be pretty darn resilient to put up with our winters.
Are there any clichés in photographing rural life that you steer away from?
I think one of the biggest challenges photojournalists can face in capturing rural life is turning the lens into a vehicle to capture poverty porn. This is a challenge urban journalists face as well.
When I get calls from clients to photograph stories and issues where rural poverty can be a huge driving point in the issue at hand, it’s a delicate balance. I want to capture how rural isolation and lack of services can contribute to a community’s issues, but I’m not going to deliver photos that show everything as bleak and lifeless and lacking hope.
What’s the most challenging photo or series you’ve captured while living in South Dakota?
During my first year at the Rapid City Journal, I had the opportunity to team up with a talented reporter on a story about Ali Nowotny, a teenager who would be undergoing surgery to remove a mass in her brain. We were able to follow her from the beginning of her journey through her recovery, and then would continue to check in on her life in the years to follow.
It was such an incredible opportunity to get to spend that much time with one person, their family, their friends, and be able to gain the trust needed to access to what they were going through. But the story was challenging to tell and heavy to carry. It was a story that involved a lot of tears and lying in bed at night wondering about how Ali was feeling or how her dad was coping.
When you are out shooting, how much of it is instinctual? How much is planned?
Most of the time my trips are planned. Sadly, I have fewer and fewer days where I get to just wander with my camera. But while the outing may be planned, the photos themselves are more serendipitous.
There are some essentials that you mentally check off your list when you photograph most stories: faces; interactions; scene-setters; and wide, medium, and tight moments. But you’re also always watching and listening for the unexpected. And the listening part is so key—a story evolves and changes during the reporting process. And your plans for shooting need to be able to change and move with that evolution. I love being able to give in to the serendipity of it all. That’s often where the strongest photos come from.
What have you learned from photographing South Dakota? What do you want your photography to teach others?
It’s too easy for our rural parts of the country to be forgotten. I don’t see South Dakota as a “flyover state.”
South Dakota sits at the edge of the West, a place I feel uniquely links the Midwest with the West. It’s a place where the rolling prairie meets the big sky. There are towns and communities where time has stood still in a way, leaving scenes reminiscent of the ’40s and ’50s. While small towns might move a little slower than urban communities, it’s important for people to know and recognize the life happening here and understand the great sense of community in isolated places like these.