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On the Frontline: Photojournalist Ryan Vizzions heads into conflict zones to capture images

Chief Arvol Looking Horse at Standing Rock. (Photo by Ryan Vizzions)

Natural disasters, protests, and matters of life or death – these are the subjects that Atlanta-based independent photojournalist Ryan Vizzions is dedicated to capturing when he’s in the field. “When I go and I cover issues, it’s because I am passionate about knowing what is happening,” he explained. “I want to understand what’s happening.”

Vizzions’ path started with grief. After his father’s suicide in 2009, he was struggling with the loss, and turned to photography as a means to cope. Initially, he took photos of street scenes around Atlanta, but then he decided to quit his job in music marketing, bought a plane ticket to Thailand, and landed in the middle of the Red Shirt Protests against dictatorship. Vizzions grabbed his camera and went to check out the resistance compound in the middle of the city. Everyone assumed he was a journalist. “That’s kind of what sparked my interest in social justice,” he said.

In the years that followed, Vizzions found himself on the frontline of various conflicts, often in the very heart of community movements. His work first gained international attention when he began documenting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

A teepee at Standing Rock. (Photo by Ryan Vizzions)

Welcomed by community elders and leaders of the movement, Vizzions found himself at the center of the conflict, documenting the water cannons and tanks contrasting sharply to prayer circles, ceremonies, and the day-to-day lives of the water protectors. “Especially as an independent photojournalist, they really took me and showed appreciation,” Vizzions said of the community at Standing Rock. “When you have your heart behind your work, they work with you.”

Vizzions was one of the only truly independent media sources that covered the events that unfolded in North Dakota, and as a result his photos provided a unique perspective from inside the community. The powerful portraits of water protectors confronting soldiers have been printed in publications around the world (including The Guardian, People and Newsweek), and he has won a number of awards for his work.

Late last year, Vizzions wet to Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes that devastated the island’s power grid. Working with the local community and town officials, he documented their struggle to regain some sense of normalcy in the absence of electricity. Vizzions said without the internet, Puerto Ricans felt – and still feel – shut off and ignored by the outside world and the government.

A mounted protestor faces a police line at Standing Rock. (Photo by Ryan Vizzions)

“One thing I’ve learned is that if you stay neutral in situations between the oppressed and the oppressors, you’re pretty much just being complicit with the oppressors,” he explained, admitting that he does bring a bias to his coverage of these events.

For Vizzions, that’s actually the point. Given that he is not represented by any publication, and instead does grassroots fundraising to finance his trips, he only goes after issues that strike him as being in significant need of independent media coverage.

Neither the power outages in Puerto Rico nor the Standing Rock protests are over, and Vizzions feels that he has an obligation to keep awareness up about these issues.. “I feel like I owe it to the movement to continue to talk about it and get it out there until it’s over,” Vizzions said.

He’s also working on a book about his experience at Standing Rock.

For more about Vizzions’ work, visit ryanvizzions.com and on social media @ryanvizzions.

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