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Interview with Captivating Photographer Mike Graeme

Interview with Captivating Photographer Mike Graeme

Trisha Binwade

Hi everyone,

I am Trisha Binwade, a junior in high school who has a love for obtaining knowledge. I was born in Manchester, UK and brought up in Seattle, WA. I am quick to pick up on new hobbies, and am a dancer, writer, makeup artist, athlete, and an excellent chef. I have always had an attraction to living spontaneously and hope to travel the world, start my own business and be my own boss.

Today I am in conversation with renowned photographer Mike Graeme

Mike Graeme is a settler photojournalist of Scottish, Irish, and English descent living on unceded Sn̓ʕaýčkstx territory. His work has been published in The Nation, The Narwhal, National Geographic Blog, CBC, and The Tyee, among others.

  • Mike Graeme
  • Mike Graeme
  • Mike Graeme

Interview with Mike Graeme

When was your “photographer awakening”?

You know, I don’t think I will ever be able to put a finger on a definitive “awakening” moment, yet an important one was in 2013 when I received a fully funded scholarship to study Japanese language at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in Nisshin, Japan. For full disclosure, I had spent the months prior to the trip in a state of deep depression. All I could think about was the ongoing colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples, the collapse of the climate, the decimation of old growth forests, the pollution of sacred waterways by oil, plastics, nuclear waste, you name it. I felt pretty helpless.

I happened to arrive at the Tokoname airport on the morning of March 11th — two years to the day of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Not long after, I found myself walking in downtown Nagoya and chanced upon a peaceful march to ban risky nuclear technology from Japan. Someone handed me a noisemaker and I kind of got swept up in the protest.

I had my camera on me, too, so I started documenting. I became so enthralled in the energetic dance of the people making a stand for their home and the planet that for a moment I forgot about my depression. It was one of the happiest days I had had in my recent memory, and it kind of woke me up out of my stupor. It planted a seed, too: I had something to offer the movement.

At the end of the march, one of the Japanese activists invited me over to their community house for dinner, and soon after I was participating in their organizing meetings, joining their events, and going on trips with them. I ended up moving into their house, where I lived for the rest of my time in Japan. I had found a community and my camera was a sort of catalyst for that. I continued showing up at nearly every action organized in Nagoya, all the while practicing my photography.

When I arrived back home I began to see all these movements happening that I had the privilege of not being privy to previously. That’s when I really honed in on the Indigenous-led movements that were rising to confront injustices in colonial Canada.

Do you remember your first shot? What was it?

That’s a difficult question because I’ve had my hands on a camera since I was pretty young. There are home videos of me grabbing the camera from my mom and going around the house filming my baby sisters. I grew up with an amazing mother who loved photography as well. So, from a young age I had a fair share of inspiration. I also got really into skateboarding from 10 years old onward, so my friends and I would take photos and videos of each other all the time.

As a white male settler, I am privileged in so many ways, and one of them was to have access to my mom’s DSLR camera growing up, and to later be gifted one by her and my dad right before my trip to Japan. It is only lately that I’ve been really grappling with that privilege I grew up with, and which I continue to carry, as well as what it means to convert one’s privilege. I recently gave my Kwakwakaʼwakw friend my Nikon d610 — which I spent about $2200 on including repairs — because I saw how much they loved photography yet they didn’t have the resources at the time to make that kind of investment.

As settlers on Indigenous territory in so-called “Canada,” I think many of us can really reflect on the wealth and privilege we may take for granted or not even realize we have and see how it is rooted in stolen land, lives, and labor. We don’t need to get defensive or feel ashamed, but rather be accountable and work on leaving a decolonial legacy. I know I’ve strayed from the question, but there you go.

How do you prepare for your photoshoots?

Most of my photography has been volunteer documentation of Indigenous — and more recently Black-led — uprisings, so, firstly, if I haven’t been directly invited, I always start by reaching out to the organizers to see if they would like me to support. If that’s given a go then I think about what kind of setting — environment, lighting, weather, et cetera — the action will be happening in. This will decide which kind of lenses, camera, and other gear I will bring.

Mike Graeme

Did you go to school to study photography?

No, but my Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology & Environmental Studies really helped me start to develop a decolonial lens, which is crucial to the type of work I’ve come to be a part of. Plus, going back to that study abroad in Japan, I really lucked out because my university dorm-room neighbour just happened to be a photographer from France. We’d go exploring around Japan together, and it was great to have a friend to be inspired by and to learn from.

He taught me all about the photographer’s trinity of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. He also kept saying to me, “You’ve got an eye for taking photos, and that’s the important thing,” so it kept me focused on framing a shot I felt to be beautiful rather than getting overwhelmed by the technical aspects.

What equipment do you use?

I use a full-frame Nikon d750 as my primary camera and a little Fujifilm X-T20 as my secondary. I usually have a 50mm f/1.4 mounted on my Nikon, which I sub out for an 80-200mm f/2.8 if I need a telephoto. I tend to use my Fujifilm for wide angle shots, and go back and forth between the equivalents of a 21mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/2 on that camera.

Sometimes I take out my mom’s old film lenses, like her 500mm f/8, which I love taking out into the forest to see what abstract visions I can get lost in. I used to always shoot with zoom lenses but I’ve fallen in love with the crispness and beauty of primes, as well as the way they encourage you to work differently for the shot. I think it inspires a creativity that works for me, and in the process I’ve developed a sort of respect for each focal length and the diverse images they can impart.

How long do you spend waiting to capture that one moment?

Once I have my camera out I am never really waiting. I’m always darting around trying to catch everything — and of course I never do. It’s a lesson in acceptance for all those perfect moments missed, but that’s the impermanence of life for you.

Sometimes I’ll be going through my photo library after the fact and realize I’ve taken a 10-photo burst of pretty much the same shot, yet I’ve come to see how much can happen in even a millisecond, especially at an action. Each photo has a slightly different characteristic to it. Sometimes it takes me ages to sort through them all, but I guess that’s the price I pay for the shot that I was looking for.

Do you spend a lot of time editing your work?

It always depends on the photo. I’ve gotten better at copy and pasting ‘develop settings,’ but I like spending time with a good photo trying to get it just right. Other times I go to edit a photo and soon realize it looks better than the original. My computer is pretty old and slow, it ends up taking longer than I’d like. I’m also a very indecisive person, so I’m always going back and forth, unable to decide what to bring out in a photo.

My partner is my sort of behind-the-scenes design director. If it weren’t for her helping me choose between this edit or that edit then I’d probably still be deciding. She also has the same university degree as me and graciously lets me bounce ideas and concepts off of her when I am writing.

What is your style of photography, and what do you wish to convey with your photographs?

I try not to confine myself to a style, but I would say I gravitate towards documentary, portrait, and nature photography. When I do photojournalism-type work, I try to use my photography to amplify what’s already being conveyed by Indigenous and Black leaders, or whoever I am helping document. I am always trying to keep myself out of the way so as not to take up space, while at the same time knowing that I am not separate — that my reality is completely intertwined with theirs.

So I continuously reflect on and challenge my complicity in, and how I privilege from, ongoing settler-colonial oppression, and how I can convert that privilege — how to hold up the people while dismantling the systems that hold the people down.

  • Mike Graeme
  • Mike Graeme
  • Mike Graeme

How can we contact the Land Defenders and Black Leaders in the photos you’ve shared with us?

You can check out their Instagrams: Sii-Am Hamilton, Ta’Kaiya Skoden Stoodis Blaney
Kolin D. Sutherland-Wilson, Youth for Yintah, Pamphinette Buisa, Vanessa Fosjo, Asiyah Raesha Robinson and Salma!

Where was the dreamiest place you’ve ever taken photos?

I was 20 years old and had received a low-income ticket to the Burning Man, which takes place on Paiute territory in Nevada, U.S. I remember the way the dust opened and closed across the harsh yet alluring landscape, letting in glimpses of different sculpture art scattering the desert, and people in splashy costumes riding around on caravan spaceships, fire-breathing dragons, floating carpets. It’s a dynamic environment that does a lot of the work for you.

At the time, I had a little waterproof Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot, which ironically had some water leak into it. It gave the photos an added psychedelic look. If I’m not mistaken, it finally broke from the water damage during that trip so the rest of that time is in my memory. I ended up going back with my sisters and partner five more times and every year is a new photographic undertaking that fills my heart, especially being there with family.

Which city in the world do you one day wish to shoot at?

I used to dream of being a travel photographer but now I don’t see a big need to go anywhere. I think that, as a settler who privileges from Canada’s colonization, I’ve realized that I have a responsibility to use my photography and journalism to help Indigenous Land Defenders and Black Leaders, working together with them to decolonize and end systemic racism here at home.

Which shoot was the hardest, tiresome and long?

The 17-day ceremonial reclamation of the B.C. Legislature by Indigenous Land Defenders and Black folks in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. Hands down. It was hard, tiresome, and pushed me to the brink, but in the best of ways. We camped there almost every night with the goal of providing a protective shield to help keep the Indigenous and Black folks safe from Victoria police and white supremacists.

Sometimes we didn’t sleep, instead huddling around the sacred fire, listening to songs and stories, or cleaning the kitchen, bringing coffee to the elders, setting up new tents, or making call-outs for supplies or support. I remember sitting on the stone steps during those cold February nights, fumbling with frozen fingers to transfer photos from my cameras to my phone so that I could get them uploaded to social media or added to news releases in time.

I can’t imagine how tired the Indigenous and Black youth must have been, as they prepared speeches, organized tactics, upheld protocol, while keeping up with their everyday lives and schoolwork — all with the added stress of going up against a ruthless colonial system, its police force, and racist onlookers. I’ll never forget the energy that people brought, the resurgence and power that the Indigenous folks imbued, and the community that was created across cultures.

What are some big milestones in your career?

My first paid photoshoot ever was taking portraits of author and historian Eileen Delehanty Pearkes. She gave me the confidence that my photos were worth something. This was followed shortly after by my first wedding shoot, which was for a good friend so the pressure was manageable. I then signed up for some journalism classes at the University of Victoria and got a job working as a photojournalist at The Martlet for two years before starting more of a freelance lifestyle.

A major milestone happened earlier this year when The Nation, a magazine in New York, reached out to me asking to publish a photo I had taken of the Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en, who took over the steps of the B.C. Legislature for 17 days because of how the government of British Columbia was treating the Wet’suwet’en First Nation (the story can be found here!).

During that action, those Indigenous youth prevented politicians from entering the Legislative Assembly, stalling the prorogation for the first time in British Columbia’s history. I learned a lot about photojournalism during that action. The Vancouver Sun and The Province newspapers used one of my photos taken during the same time without my consent, and they refused to pay me for months. So, learning how to squeeze compensation out of them was another milestone.

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I had never really been paid for my photojournalism before that occupation, and I was able to make over $2000 from the various photos I took in that 17-day period, all of which I was able to donate to the Indigenous Land Defenders who were leading the action, as well as the Unist’ot’en Legal Fund. Most recently I got the opportunity to have some photos published in The Narwhal, an award-winning journalistic publication that I have long admired.

The story features Indigenous Sinixt, who were falsely declared extinct by Canada in 1956, and who were challenging that colonial maneuver in the Supreme Court of Canada this year (the story can be found here!)

What was your biggest challenge so far?

My biggest challenge is, and may always be, doing my work in a good way. I’m always learning how to be more sensitive and respectful. As a white settler, there are countless forms of oppression that I have the privilege of not having the life experience. The last thing I would want to do is trigger the colonial trauma of my Indigenous and Black friends.

At the same time, the sources of that colonial trauma are what we must collectively uproot, so it’s a fine and messy line. I am always listening, reading, and researching so that I can be more mindful and effective in my work, and learn to tread lightly while amplifying the injustices that folks want to be amplified and celebrating their resiliency.

How important is photography to you?

Photography is probably my primary way of seeing and relating to the world. I remember there’s that saying of not living your life, or a vacation or whatever, through a lens — and I think that is indeed important to some extent. But I think photography has helped me see deeper into life and my travels in a way I wouldn’t have without a lens between me and reality.

What advice would you give someone who would like to become a photographer?

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it.

Second, if you’re a settler hoping to be an ally to Indigenous folks, Black folks, and People of Colour as a photographer, don’t just show up and start taking photos. It is about relationship-building. It is about following protocol. It is not about bringing your own agenda, or doing it for your own image. Check in and ask if your support is needed. In the same vein, it is deeply ingrained in us to think of photography as an act of “capturing” and “taking photos,” but I think photography needs to be revolutionized to be thought of as an act of “giving.”

As photographers, we have a responsibility to avoid extracting from and exploiting Indigenous, Black, and Brown movements. How are you giving back, not only with your photos but being a part of camp: carrying firewood, helping elders, donating funds, bringing food and supplies.

Rapid Fire:

  • What is your post processing software?
    Lightroom.
  • How long have you been a photographer?
    10 years.
  • What is your Favorite lens?
    An impossible question but the 50mm f/1.4 Sigma Art is beautiful.
  • A scenic place you’ve taken photos that first comes to mind?
    Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, México.
  • What is your Favourite time to shoot?
    Golden hour, or blue hour.
  • Where can people follow your work?
    Definitely my Instagram in the link below!

Ways to reach Mike Graeme

Ways to Reach Trisha Binwade

You can also access our recent interviews with Amanda Nguyen Hammond, Raheemat Sofola, Achala RaiUtsa Madan, Adrija Mukherjee, Shubhangi RastogiDipankana DasMisty RohatgiMehreen SaigalFeyisara OdukoyaAmelie MartinezLisa NathAnamika PunjabiShivani BafnaMarce Pedrozo Bhushita and BhavikaIsilda Da CostaArya Talwakar, Alice OrionMazel JMel Terrofranca.

Yash TiwariHiba Zaidi , Bridget Moore,  Hanifa HameedMeg Adams, Lindsay WhiteAlan KuriakoseAntonio RomeroOmotunde SogunleKhushi GadhviSanskruti BalgudeJessica Parker KennedyTom WlaschihaTaaha ShahValerie and AlexAishwarya Sridhar, Indiana MehtaSneha DesaiReMix ReekKira RizaviNatiq and Ashwin. These interviews range over a variety of topics such as BLM, Fashion, Sports, Wellness, Writing, Feminism, BLM, Rap, Acting, Travel, Photography, Dance and Music!

You can also check out some games played with our celebrities:
– Song Dictionary with Pratibha Singh Baghel
– Song Dictionary with Kira Rizavi
– Song Dictionary with Pakhi Singhal

You can also check out Grow with The Teen Pop Initiative interviews, where we support NGOs in whatsoever ways possible!
– Sandali Srivastava from Virtuskool
– Yousef Areda from Raise4Refugees 
 Varya Yadav from Cards in Kindness
– Debargha Roy from Project Saathi
– Khushi Popli from Project Pragati

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who low what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike MikeMike MikeMike Mike Mike MikeMike Mike

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike

First, I would say don’t worry too much about getting all the technical things worked out right away. Those will come, so for now, just have fun with it. In our rush to be “good” at something, we often miss an important opportunity to just be curious and naive. For instance, a child who wants — or is told — to “grow up” can miss out on the crucial experience of getting lost in their imagination. It’s so much harder as an adult to find that childlike state of awe. So get behind the lens and get lost in it. Follow what appears beautiful to you and run with it. Mike

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