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Emily Schiffer

Cheyenne River

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In 2005, I founded a photography program for youths on Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. In this ongoing program, my students and I photograph together, share our images while they’re still in the viewfinder, and operate as both subjects and photographers. Our favorite locations are the fields and abandoned buildings on the fringes of town, forgotten places thick with the past that lend themselves to imaginary games and textured photographs. The absence of an adult presence is evident in both the children’s play and our images. The 500 inhabitants of Dupree, SD are confident in the area’s relative safety. Children explore freely, and develop a community of young people that operates without adult involvement. My images explore play as a vehicle through which youth reveal and negotiate their emotions, traumas, and desires. Children have a unique ability to experience love and joy alongside pain without compartmentalizing their experiences. I seek to convey this complexity. Over the course of four years, my students and I have documented our relationships with one another and this land. The validity and meaning of my images are linked to the shared context of their creation. Therefore, my work will be exhibited alongside the children’s photographs, which present the other parts of the whole. The design of a group exhibition represents the next phase of this program. In summer 2010, I plan to host six committed teenage photographers and two adults in New York City. The purpose of this visit is to expose the youth and elders to ideas of representation: the artist’s intent, and the viewer’s perceptions. We will tour museums and galleries, and meet with artists and curators. This artistic exposure is designed to inspire the creation of a photographic instillation that will enable the viewer to interact with our images and form relationships with our photographic subjects. Currently, my students, their families, and I are engaged in a fundraising campaign to support this next stage. We hope to reach a wide audience at home and abroad.



B. 1980. In 2003 Emily Schiffer received her BA in Fine Art and African American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2005, she founded the My Viewpoint Youth Photography Initiative on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, where she continues to teach and shoot. Awards include: the 2010 Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Portraiture, the 2010 winner of the PDN Photo Annual Personal Project Category, the 2009 Inge Morath Award, presented by Magnum Photos and the Inge Morath Foundation, a 2006-2007 Fulbright Fellowship in Photography, and recognition as one of the top ten portfolios for the 2007 Leica Oskar Barnak Award. Emily has exhibited her photographs internationally. Her work is in the permanent collections of The Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, Japan, Foto Baryo, Philippines, and The Center for Fine Art Photography, US. Emily lives in Brooklyn, NY and is available to work internationally.


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Emily Schiffer


58 thoughts on “emily schiffer – cheyenne river”

  1. Emily


    This is amazing, awesome, wicked, killer stuff. All meant in the good way.

    I’ve just checked in, and am so pleased and delighted to see this here. Congratulations. What wonderful wonderful wonderful photographs. I’m overwhelmed.

    I’m going back now for a second viewing.

  2. Sidney Atkins

    What eyes! Some of the finest compositional use of the square format I can ever remember seeing. Very magical light dynamics in the images which give them an intense dramatic quality. The prairie sky helps at times, but by and large this drama is all in the eye of the photographer. Superb photography… BURN cranks up the quality yet another notch.

  3. Speechless. Stunning. These are not images I will ever forget. Thank you for this beautiful work and your obvious commitment to this community.

  4. CarolBottacin

    This is amazing, I am impressed!!!
    Congratulations. Beatiful photographs and great work.

  5. EMILY,

    This morning I am running….but I could not go without saying something…Sometimes, I should say very rarely, you see the work of a new photographer and your heart starts accelerating,…you could image after image, and you cannot believe what you see…this is how I felt…Most stunning work I have seen in a very very long time… inspiring, magical…mystic river and kids… In complete admiration of your work…will be back this evening to spend more time looking at it.



  6. These are some beautiful photos and I really love the fact that you are sharing photography with the young people on the reservation. It is a wonderful concept, for those who have visited Native American reservations in the west know about the social ills that are omnipresent. Do you know about the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe Emily? This could be an interesting institution for you to work with/for.

    Have you thought about photographing adults in the community? It would be a more difficult task, but may add another element to your project.

    My favorite images are the ones like 2 and 6 because I have never seen anything like these before. They really show the children’s place in their beautiful natural landscape and they define your personal vision more so than the “reportage-like” shots.

  7. Wow. I have not visited Burn for a week now, because a week ago today I flew down here to Arizona from Wasilla to pay a visit to my Navajo friend while he still lived. I just returned, exhausted, from his visitation at Fort Apache and must get up early in the morning for his funeral.

    As has been the case on each day that I have been traveling, I am ending this one too tired to look at Burn or any other of my favorite websites, but, I decided that I would just take a peek at the Burn cover photos but not look inside.

    But then – Wow.. double wow… triple wow! The first wow was your opening photograph. The second was when I read “Cheyenne River Reservation” and the third was when I read, “Dupree.” This is the very reservation and the very village where I got my baptism of fire into Indian Country – not as a photographer but as a Mormon missionary. And in Indian (and Eskimo) Country I have stayed ever since.

    So I did look through your images… QUADRUPLE WOW! And I am certain that I knew the parents of these kids you work with when I was there, for I knew every single child in the village and I knew them well.

    I want to say more, but I’ve really got to go to bed.

    Keep going, Emily Schiffer! I must make a journey back to Cheyenne River one day – I hope I get to meet you.

  8. Stupendous in the extreme. I’ve not felt this level of admiration for a photographer’s work for at least a decade. Quite frankly, I’m in awe of what you have achieved with this body of work.

  9. I’ve been on the site for almost a year, anticipating and enjoying each new post. This however is my first reply.
    I was tempted to comment not only because of how strikingly powerful the images in this essay are, but because of their context. As an Anthropology student in Windsor, Ontario my discipline’s discourse forces me to mind what we call “crisis of representation” in my personal photography (the two often clash). Emily’s program has effectively transcended that issue, providing her subjects their own cameras, knowledge to use them and ultimately agency [in it’s sociological def’n].
    Wonderful work Emily, not only artistically within this essay but in the project of your school. For me, this has been the most inspiring article on Burn I have encountered to date.

  10. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    An incredible combination of the majestic and the intimate within the same group of pictures and, even and often, within the same frame. A very great treat to see this work here. Wonderful and lovely. Your good heart is on display as readily as your good eye. Thank you.

  11. last night i met Emily and her boyfriend quite by accident at the annual PDN fete in new york….we had never met prior and it is quite coincidental that this story is published the following morning after she was awarded first place in the Personal Project category for the PDN awards….i had no idea Emily was an award winner when i went to the event…..Emily is face to face just as you might imagine she would be from looking at her work…her persona reflects her work or vice versa….the other coincidence is that Emily also just won the Winephoto contest in Italy where i was on the 7 person jury where we voted by points online…Emily is quite obviously on a roll and deservedly so….

    i do look forward to seeing more of Emily’s work and also perhaps working with her students and a special presentation in an upcoming issue of Circus….i certainly hope we have the opportunity to meet when she brings them to new york….

    great project and work Emily…done from the heart, with a keen eye, and for all the right reasons…

    cheers, david

  12. Gasp. These wonderful images are stirring. Yay medium format photography and Emily’s versatility with it – it is rare to see such spontaneity with such.

    I’m also impressed with the coincidences written about in the above post(s)…life imitating art?

  13. a fortnight at f8

    I’m a long time reader but I’m finally moved to comment. All the superlatives used to describe this work are justified. I’d like to add ‘intoxicating’ to the list. Simply the best essay I’ve seen anywhere for a long time. TVM

  14. jenny lynn walker

    Something looks different since i first looked at this – is it me or the essay that is changing? Certainly the images are either rotating or changing places. The image i liked most was at the end and is now in the middle. I didn’t have much sleep these last few days, am i hallucinating? I know for sure the girl with the broken leg that i liked so much was image 30 this morning (the last image) but is now image 21 as i look again… it seems the spontaneity of the change/changes is now matchin the spontaneity in the images and that, is poetic! : )

  15. jenny lynn walker

    Congratulations on this work Emily! Viva freedom of play!

    off for some zzzzzz!

  16. DEE VINE…..
    beautiful imagery..

  17. “This continent, an open palm spread frank before the sky.”–james agee

    sublime, broken’t-wide like the moth-scattered sky, he too dreams of diving into the sea of the backyard-earth from the nob of a fallen tree, wing and wasp and wilding….

    my jumping heart, indeed….

    one of the finest stories of childhood i’ve seen published in a while….



    p.s. my vote for EPF for be for this project or dima’s because i personally would love to see a photographer get something who shelters that work and life back to the kids from which they have drawn inspiration…..

  18. p.s I WOULD ENCOURAGE EVERYONE TO ALSO LOOK AT EMILY’S STUDENTS’ WORK (it can be found on her website)…just sublime….this is an exhibition would love to see as well…

    and i agree Emily: the 2 bodies of work (yours and theirs) MUST be exhibited together, for photographic and for spiritual reasons….your work is joined and defined by theirs :))))))))))…


    DAVID: hook her kids up with Circus…Emily’s students + Sohrab’s students could make a gorgeous first edition…talk to u this weekend about that :))))

  19. Emily – great stuff on myviewpoint.org as well as your own website. very cool :)

  20. EMILY,

    I am back…Kept thinking about some of your pictures today… I just spent some very enjoyable time looking at each photograph carefully this time while I was in a rush this morning to go to work. Your pictures are very humbling… So many great ones that I wish I had taken :):)!!! Not sure there is any point in telling you my preferred ones but just in case :):):) I thought that 1, 5, 6, 10, 11, 17, 18, 20, 23 were the very very very special ones for me… (arguably all your pictures are special). It is great to hear from David that you are getting these awards. Nothing more pleasing than to see real talent recognized. It is not so common also that there is not one person here on site who is critical…. this says something as well… If our dear David says that the persona reflects the work and vice versa there are many of us out there who hope to meet you someday… Your work is inspiring…what you are doing with these kids is as well. I wish you great continued success with this work and joint exhibit with the kids…


  21. Inspiring and original for the most part! Congratulations for being published on Burn and for the all the awards. My only quibble is that I cannot fit together amazing, really personal shots like 7 and 19, with some a bit more predictable like 12,17 and 18.


    neither of you is hallucinating….we often move pictures around a bit after publishing….everything looks different after actually published, so i do play a bit..however, in this case, i was simply following the wishes of Emily who had new pictures and a new sequence of her own which was different from her first edit and sequence….was surprised both of you noticed the new sequence , but not the new pictures….so in this case i was not playing, but allowing Emily her final decision to go with the package as it is now….i only edit and sequence if so requested by the photographer….

    cheers, david

  23. Emily: Wonderful, wonderful work. Congratulations. You are very special. One thing though, learn to eat your young. It is necessary.

  24. jenny lynn walker

    DAH: It is far better now! I like the new edit and the inserted images. By the way, I did notice new images but felt it was impolite to mention it – on the other hand, perhaps it would have been polite to those commenting to mention their inclusion? After all, their comments on the photos where they mention which images they liked and so on, now don’t correspond with the images in the sequence so anyone interested in their likes and dislikes will be misled as to what their likes and dislikes are!!!

    Anyway, i really like the new look edit – it’s much more powerful!!! : )

  25. Fun stuff to watch, and always a lesson to have children handle cameras. No pointed message, or agenda…Liberating!
    I would love to know what is the extent of their participation, besides shooting, in the processing and editing (can children edit like pros?).
    Well, you’ ve got yourself a full plate. No such thing as lazy love! ;-)

  26. I’ve been thinking about it a little more and I need to amend my statement. Some of those children are probably the children of children that I knew way back when, but most likely most of them are grandchildren.

  27. Hi David

    I did actually note the extra photos, as well the corrected number on my comment when the opening photo was moved from 5 (I think) to #1.
    I didn’t get enough time with it the first time through to really form an opinion wether the second edit was really better. It seems to me that quite a few were added though my very poor memory could be fooling me.
    In any case, just wonderful work. Thanks for bringing this to us.

  28. Emily excellent, bravo… congratulations for being published here at Burn…
    “See” you at the Winephoto exhibition…(honored to be hanging at the same wall:).
    DAH wrote above: “great project and work Emily…done from the heart, with a keen eye,”
    Stars are aligned pointing at you this year Emily..Circus anyone? could that be the best start?
    what not to love?

  29. I don’t generally comment, but I’d like to add my voice to the positive chorus.
    I’m not sure it gets better than the work the photographer shows here.

  30. Truly wonderful work. I am really humbled to see the artistry and vision presented in these photos. Congratulations and keep on building this legacy for the kids and yourself.

    All the best,


  31. You caught something special and bottled it.. thanks for giving us all a wiff of whats inside.

  32. Emily, I’ve been a visitor to this site for about a month now but I’ve never commented on anything. I was content just to look at the images. Your essay grabbed me by the neck and made me sit down and register just so I could tell you how magical your pictures are. I am a total amateur, never been trained, dont know what technically makes a good picture. I just know that these speak to me. I am haunted and grateful!

  33. lovely essay. feels dreamy but realistic, the children look natural, thoughtful. strong atmosphere. A pleasure to watch. Thanks!

  34. I enjoyed the your work very much. At various points I have wondered what life on reservations entails (being a Brit I have no idea) and of course childhood is a key part of that understanding. It might sound simplistic but your photographs have provided a great for my imagination to latch onto and build around. You have given not only a sense of the physical environment but the sense of being there as an individual immersed in that environment and from the perspective of a child. That’s quite an accomplishment.

    I’m currently shooting a long-term project in Afghanistan and photographing childhood as part of a wider project has been one of the most rewarding aspects. The difficulty of doing what you did is not lost on me… oh boy!

    For me #1 is the most important image, not so much from a pictorial perspective, but in its ability to pull you forcefully and sympathetically, into the wider story. Its one of those images that just forces you to open your mind, think, and take the rest in. Congratulations!

  35. Amazing important work. Thank you!

    But is it me or is there something really wrong with the scanning? Everything looks slightly out of focus and yet over sharpened. Something to think about as you move forward with these.

  36. Charles

    It is not you, I noticed the same thing. My eyes keep trying to re-focus.

    Emily, are these scanned from the negs or from prints?

  37. Ciao Emily,
    What you and your students have achieved working together is much more than making images. It’s a special bond that will last a lifetime.You are friends, playmates, sisters and brothers. It’s a bond that keeps being passed on. For us it began at Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, MA when you were a little girl. I have watched you grow from a curious 8 year old photographer.Even then you never forced anything, but let things flow in its natural course. I still saw that when we were together in South Dakota. You were an amazing student and now an amazing teacher.

  38. Ciao Emily,
    As I watch everyone photographing and moving in all direction with great intensity I am amaze to see the images come together as one force.It’s a thing of beautiful to witness.

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