A project on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to two Native American tribes, won an undergraduate from Dortmund, Germany, the BJP Breakthrough prize.
Last summer, German photographer Felix von der Osten made a road trip to the US, travelling through places such as South Dakota and crossing the border into Montana.
It was here, towards the north of the state that he came across the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to two Native American tribes – Gros Ventre and Assiniboine.
This is where he would make his series, The Buffalo that could not Dream, which has won the undergraduate series category in BJP’s Breakthrough Awards. “I had never seen anything like this before, nor did I know anything about this place,” says von der Osten, who is studying a BA in photography at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, Germany.
“My idea of Native American people was a very romanticised one, from books I’d read. [After arriving at Fort Belknap] I became interested in this place.”
Von der Osten explains how he ended up living on the reservation for a month towards the end of 2014, and says that his images reflect what he saw while he was there and the people he met.
The two tribes are historically enemies he explains, but were forced to live together through the Appropriations Act of 1851, brought about by the US Government, which saw the creation of reservations for Native Americans.
His project focuses on two key aspects, says von der Osten: the continuation of tribal culture, and the current living conditions of Native Americans. “The first week I was there, I didn’t even take out my camera,” he says. “It was a case of meeting people and explaining who I am, what I was doing.”
Over time, von der Osten won the trust of the residents, and was invited into their world. His aim through the series was “to show a slice of life as it is now, and the beauty and richness of the Native American culture, [giving it] the dignity and respect it deserves.”
Through a combination of carefully considered formal portraits, landscapes, and still life studies, von der Osten allows the viewer “to examine everything – from the texture of a woman’s braids and the softness of eagle feathers, to the rough rocks of the mountainous terrain.”
He hopes to make the viewer curious through his images, and to raise awareness of the hardships these people have faced and still face, but without focusing on the negative aspects of their lives. “It was not my intention to show the really horrible things that happen,” he says. “Stories of gangs, drugs and alcohol abuse are easy topics that a more fast-paced, reportage-interested photojournalist might cover.
“I don’t want the Native Americans to look bad, which is far more difficult to achieve than to focus on their struggles and hard lives. I am descriptive,” he adds, “and my point isn’t to make an example; it is to follow my own curiosities… Shining a light on the faces, the lives, and the roots of this culture might help to better understand these people and to counteract the oppression.”
See more of Felix’s work here.