Q+A with Shani Komulainen, photojournalist

Komulainen didn’t set out to photograph land defense struggles, but after selling her first freelance photojournalism pitch to the Montreal Gazette, her path was set.

On September 1, 1990, Shani Komulainen snapped a photo of a young Canadian soldier standing face-to-face with an Indigenous land defender during the Oka Crisis in Kanehsatà:ke in southwestern Quebec. She wasn’t sure she had taken any usable shots until two days later, when her film from that day was processed. She had no idea people would be talking about the photo more than 30 years later. 

Among the shots she captured at dusk on that day was the iconic face-to-face, the defining image of that summer’s Mohawk resistance movement. Over the course of the crisis, the army and police worked to restrict media access. Like television broadcast footage of the Vietnam War awakened Americans to a brutal reality, it was one of the first popular media images to confront settler Canadians with the violent colonial realities lurking beneath the ‘aw, shucks, eh’ veneer of national neutrality. Over the years, Komulainen’s shot has come to symbolize relations between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations across the country.

In the decades since that shot, Indigenous land defenses across North America have become international news; rallies and solidarity movements around the globe have been prompted by land defenders facing off with private industry, police, and the government in sovereign, unceded territories across North America. The photos captured from these land defenses have become visual shorthand for an Indigenous rights movement that recognizes sovereignty and rejects settler-colonialism, but also for countries that, decades later, still seem set on negotiating under threat of force. Journalists covering these conflicts often face harassment, violence, and arrest from police and the state. In November 2021, journalists Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano were arrested and held for three days by Royal Canadian Mounted Police while on assignment covering the land defense on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Komulainen didn’t set out to photograph land defense struggles, but after attending Dawson College’s Institute of Photography and selling her first freelance photojournalism pitch to the Montreal Gazette, her path was set. She worked for a small Montreal paper and McGill University’s campus paper before interning at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, finally returning to Montreal in 1990 to freelance. During the Oka Crisis, Komulainen freelanced for Canadian Press, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and Maclean’s magazine.

In the year after the crisis, Komulainen’s life was changed forever by a car accident and a false charge leveled against her by the military for her work on September 1, 1990. We spoke with her about that day, that shot, and photojournalism of land defense since then.

Study Hall: How did you get into photojournalism?

Shani Komulainen: I’d been into photography since high school. There were certain images that stuck in my mind when I was a kid in the newspapers. The reality and the injustice. Hurricane Carter and things like that, certain things struck me. It was always about real events that were dramatic. I just got hooked and it worked out.

SH: What sorts of challenges did you face covering this land defence?

SK: There were barricades, and there was police presence so you had to go around the police. From July 11th to September 29, I don’t think I slept at home more than a couple weeks. We generally stayed up there. CBC rented out a woman’s house at the barricade. I slept in ditches. Somebody lent us a van, and a bunch of us slept in the back of the van with blankets. We’d go into town and pick up food. We were staying on site as much as possible, camping without tents. We waited weeks and weeks for something to happen.

SH: What happened when you got your iconic face-to-face?

SK: September 1 was the first day they came into the territory of Kanesatake. That was huge. I finally hear on the radio, the army is moving into Oka. I met someone in a shop in town when I was making a phone call. I said, ‘Is there any way to get up there?’ He said to use the back paths into the pines. I parked my car, was able to hop a few fences in backyards, and didn’t get noticed by police because I hid my cameras under my coat. When I got up there, the armored personnel carriers [APCs] were just parked on the road and waiting to move forward. There was a bit of a long-distance standoff, then the military slowly moved forward. They established a perimeter with individual soldiers holding a line when the Mohawks came up to them to try and challenge them individually. At this point the Mohawks were totally outgunned. This was the military, all of them fully armed, APCs full of equipment.

I noticed one soldier who was very babyfaced-looking. That soldier, Patrick Cloutier, was 19 at the time, and he was confronted by several different Mohawks at different times. My face-to-face wasn’t even a Mohawk. His codename was Freddie Krueger, and he was actually an Ojibwe economics student who came to support the Mohawks and be an observer. He was very soft-spoken. 

I kept coming back to that soldier because the dichotomy of the face and his military uniform just got me. I shot him head to toe, I shot him from behind, from the front. What made my picture work is I didn’t have flash, I didn’t bring it cause it was too bulky. I would’ve been screwed if they’d been moving fast. Everyone else had flash. Me being able to get that shot with no flash, it just had this atmosphere that was more compelling. I didn’t know that at the time, I was just doing the best I could. I didn’t know until two days later that it would be the shot of the day and on the front page everywhere. It’s just kinda this Canadian tension.

SH: What was the impact of that day and that shot?

SK: This was one of the first times that Native people had taken a stand that had an impact on a city and the whole country. People didn’t really understand why, but they heard about Native issues in a way they hadn’t before. You got the sense that this was not acceptable, the way they were treated. This put Native issues on the map because they weren’t gonna back down. The government never resolved things in Kanesatake, but other things got resolved that decade. Nunavut was created, land claims were settled in British Columbia. Some issues got settled, but now we still have pipelines trying to go through Native land. My picture keeps getting used because it shows that tension is still possible. It’s a symbol now.

SH: What happened after that day and that photo?

SK: I stayed until September 26, when the crisis ended. The Mohawks stood down their weapons, walked out and got arrested. I got arrested that night too, after I took photographs, but they let me go within hours. Five months later, in January 1991, I was doing an assignment for Saturday Night Magazine. I photographed one of the Mohawks involved in the crisis and drove him back to his home in Kanesatake. On the road back to Montreal, it was freezing rain. My car spun on a hill right outside of Oka into the path of an 18 wheeler. I was badly injured, taken to hospital, coma for two days, brain injury, broken legs, broken femurs. I didn’t get out of hospital for three and a half months.

Within a week of being in hospital, the Sûreté du Québec came to visit me and delivered five criminal charges against me. Possession of weapons, threatening with a weapon, participation in the riots, obstruction of a peace officer. I had no idea what they were talking about but it was labeled as September 1. It took us until the preliminary hearing that August to realize they were talking about the same time I was taking the face-to-face. If I picked up a weapon and threatened a soldier with a machete, it’s unfathomable that I wouldn’t be booted out of the media. There were 25 media people there.

We had video footage from two different outlets. We had video of a woman picking up a machete, and it wasn’t me. So why were they blaming me? We never got an answer for that. The prosecutor didn’t want to discuss it, so it went to a two and a half week trial. We had 13 witnesses, including a military photographer. I did get acquitted but it took a lot of work and time and effort, photographs, witnesses from Washington, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, everywhere. It was huge and ridiculous and costly, all because the soldiers decided to tell a tale to get someone in trouble. It just messes with you. It was like a Twilight Zone episode: it didn’t make sense and yet it was happening. If it was a time that I was just covering something alone, I would’ve been screwed.

SH: Do you think things have changed much since Oka?

SK: First Nations do not have a lot of actual power, but they have moral power. They have their history, their culture, their rights. So if we aren’t there as journalists to document this, document what’s going on when they get bulldozed by local governments, national governments, they don’t have a voice, and their voices should be heard. Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano, getting them arrested is right back to what happened in Oka where the media started to be controlled. In the beginning of the crisis, we had very good access. By the end, they tried to take access away from us. I don’t know what would’ve happened if there were no media present.