Bozeman based photographer and filmmaker CJ Carter’s work aims to understand and communicate the human experience through storytelling and image making. His work finds him traveling the globe, working with an a array of non-profit organizations. For his most recent project, CJ traveled to the Arctic with “Polar Bears Internartional.” Past projects have led CJ to places like Indonesia, the Altai Range in Mongolia, Nepal and Greenland. I caught up with CJ while he was in between trips at home in Bozeman.
Chamonix Mont-Blanc, France
What was the major turning point in your life when you realized the true power of photography and film?
After high school, I went to to Indonesia on a whim. I wasn’t inspired to go college right away. I didn’t respect the experience yet. Instead, I went to Indonesia and was exposed to some of the rawness of developing regions as far as health and environmental well-being. There were a lot of people living with sicknesses, and a lot of intense environmental degradation at the hands of rapid economic development projects and deforestation. The last night I was in Indonesia, I saw a film called The Water Bearer, about a Quebecer facilitating water infrastructure development between Catholic and Musilim communities in Flores, Indonesia. The film was at the Canadian Embassy. Afterwards, I met some Indonesians who invited me back to their work space while I waited for my early morning flight. It was an Islamic Environmental NGO (Non-Govermental Organization) and they were focusing on bird flu pandemic, some of them were doing new media. We ended up talking about discrepancies in understanding between societies perpetuated through images. We talked about the upcoming primaries for the U.S. presidential election and images of America they were familiar with through mainstream media. They were watching our election and were more informed than I was about the candidates. It was an awakening of how little we know of other regions before we pass judgement. When I left for Indonesia, I had people asking me why I would travel to a country with so many radical Islamists. Clearly the media flow was flowing stronger in one direction than the other. From then on I realized the power media has in shaping our understandings in the world community.
Bear Biologist Tom Smith Ph.D, Manitoba, Canada
Let’s talk more about the power of images. Can you explain how your understanding and use of photography and the power of images has changed over time?
For me, it came in stages. I realized, “I have a power of representation. I could represent anything or anybody in any way that I want.” As time has gone on, it has become, “How do I share the camera?” Especially when I approach a project, the question becomes “Who’s story is it?” and “Who’s supposed to be telling it?”
The image is so universal, every culture has a way of representing different aspects of their life. Many times the answer is that it is not my story to tell. Culture is everything. The term “culture” gets commercialized to some degree, but culture is life. It’s something that might smell bad sometimes. It’s all the issues of life. It’s not just the sexy photos that you see in National Geographic. A lot of that is understanding that culture is here and now. It is everything that we are living. It’s here in Bozeman; it’s performed behavior; it’s art; it’s how we are organizing ourselves into a social mass. I think the camera has a way of documenting these things, but it is important to deconstruct how these images are made. So, for instance, when I walk into a nomadic communities, I ask, “How do I make this something that the people can feel dignified saying they were a part of?”
Up close and personal with ursus maritimus, Manitoba, Canada
How do you balance using your artistic abilities and your story-telling abilities to make an impact and create social change, while at the same time making a living at it?
It is really rare to find something where you can feel like you’re contributing to these social causes and still putting something in the pocketbook to pay for groceries. It’s really interesting ethical ground. I’m really thankful to have the opportunities within the non-profit world. With the kind of work I do, I’m not selling Hostess Cupcakes, it’s more of a consciousness I am trying to sell. Selling the ideologies that these organizations represent, with Polar Bears International, it’s realizing and acting on climage change. Today our generation is more connected to the rest of the world. We have connections through traveling and the internet. These new relationships bring new responsibilities. Working with non-profits, for me, is a way to continually connect with people and regions in a meaningful way.
How did you get associated with Polar Bears International?
I’ve been involved with the non-profit scene in Bozeman since I was really young. I think I started volunteering at the food bank with my mom when I was 5. More recently I’ve been working with the Montana Mountaineering Association, the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, Iqra Fund and the Atlas Cultural Foundation on media projects. Polar Bears International came out of the woodwork through some common friends. It’s a pretty tight community. Polar Bears International has a really unique media mission. They were founded by an arctic photographer so image-making and public outreach has been at the heart of it all since the beginning. Now they do live broadcasts with scientists from the Arctic to schools, etc. They are getting into the film scene. My role was to produce a few films, man the remote cameras and to help make sure the live broadcasts ran smoothly.
A Kazakh woman awaits a flight to the capital city of Ulan Bator, Bayan Olgii Airport, Mongolia
How do you view the role of image-making working in favor of the fight against climate change?
It’s a tough one. The climate card is something people have been over-saturated with, without being offered pragmatic solutions for everyday action, or for that matter, hope. The topic went silent with the last election. It’s interesting working in the Arctic. Not only is there native folks, there are also scientists who have spent a lifetime working and living there. There’s something special about the stories that have come out of that. We can all look at polar bears floating on icebergs until our eyes bleed, and we still won’t care. Part of the storytelling involved in this kind of social cause is about making people care, the best way to do that is with strong human stories.
What past experiences of yours have prepared you for work in the Arctic with Polar Bears International?
This last trip to the Hudson Bay with Polar Bears International, filming with scientists and polar bears was definitely a challenge on all fronts and a lot of past experiences pulled through to make it happen. The time put in writing research papers in school and ethnographic fieldwork over the past few years really came into play to first understand what is happening in these scientist’s work, then figuring a way to work with them to deliver a story. I think the scientific community, like other social groups, has their own language, cultural mores and ethics about how they want to be represented. It takes a bit of observing and participating to figure it out.
Sweetgrass County, Montana
Physically it was frigid, regularly -20 to -40 degrees Celsius, many times with wind. Being used to the cold from Alpine climbing and ski touring or even freezing in snow forts as a kid in Montana helped me to stay honest about how much exposure was okay and when to turn it in. The psychology of living in an inside-out zoo with large carnivores and constantly being on the move for a few weeks is really taxing. I definitely tapped into the painful Zen learned crossing the Gobi Desert in a minibus for a week enroute to skiing in the Mongolian Altai. If I hadn’t had this collective of experiences, I think it could have been a different story.
What is the role that photographers, filmmakers, storytellers (writers, designers, etc.) play in the world of science and research?
I think scientific research owes it to everyday people to make what they are finding approachable to learn about. Not to dumb-it-down, but to make it communicated in a way that can benefit people. I think at their very best craft, science and art are mirrors of each other. People involved in communicating science and research have a really unique body of content and what I perceive to be a tacit responsibility in their work.
Can you explain your understanding of how media and storytelling can cross physical, cultural, and linguistic borders? Especially in the instances of working with the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and the sheep herders of rural Montana?
I think now, more than ever, visual stories have the ability to transcend borders. It’s pretty clear, at least geographically, how Montana and Mongolia add up. I mean, we have high steppes, big river basins, mountain ranges, and share a pastoral history. Montana was built on copper, wool, and wheat. There’s a common element there – it’s the wool – at least in this region. In South Central Montana, we produced the most amount of wool in the world for a couple years in our early history. That industry was very closely tied to a dry mountain climate, new immigrants, and the people’s ability to work with animals. I didn’t really understand how that worked until I had travelled to Western Mongolia. I came back and went to the family I had been working with over in Sweetgrass County, right near Big Timber. I had never thought about “Montana development” the same way you would think of “African development.” In Montana 150 years ago, kids weren’t going to high school. And right now, with the Kazakhs we’ve been working with in Western Mongolia, kids aren’t going to high school either. There are no paved roads; there’s no 3G; they don’t have internet. They’re currently building and surveying their equivalent of interstate I-90. Also, international mining operations are setting up shop, much like the copper boom in early Montana.It made me see development in a different way. There are some stark contrasts as far as religious affiliations with the Kazakhs Sunni-Muslim religion, and us, with our Christian thing. But as far as physical landscape and development goes, Western Mongolia and Montana have a lot in common.
Bayan Olgii Province, Mongolia
Do you feel like the two cultures could learn from each other?
Yes, it’s a two-way street. It comes down to some pretty core identity questions, because there is a shared landscape identity. A lot of this has to do with how we want our regions to look 25 years from now. I think that’s what has developed my interest in planning; how it deals with communication and action on a community level. It begs the questions of adaptation and evolution, “Where did we come from?” “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”
What is your over-arching goal as an artist and documentarian?
My goal as a documentarian is to bring people to a place where they are both challenged and engaged by images and the contents within. I think content matters and in learning about things through images, hopefully, we can approach the future more informed and more inspired. The world can be a really dark place and I hope that through my work to get people psyched about what can change to make terra mater a livable place for future generations.
What do you have planned next? What’s on the cooker?
This spring is kind of a mixture of things. I’m focusing pretty heavily on skiing and filmmaking. I’ll be basing out of Chamonix, France for a month making a film on the severity, but also the aesthetic of skiing, and life in the mountains there. People have been climbing these mountains since the mid-1800’s, which creates a unique human presence. That’s something I’ve always been keen to do, technical skiing and making art in the alpine. Then, I’ll likely head back to Central Asia in the spring to follow up with same three nomadic families. I am going to do a mixture between photo/voice and GIS, which is mapping, and community-based photo representation. Grad school is also in the works. That’s what’s on the cooker for now. Insh’Allah, things will go well.
Below is one of CJ’s video productions.