A billboard on Hennepin and Sixth Street features five dancers photographed by Sahan Journal's Jaida Grey Eagle. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Usually when I’m talking to Jaida Grey Eagle, our photojournalist and a Report for America corps member, it’s because I need her to photograph a source for a story or resize a photo for our website at the last minute. 

Our readers see another side to this scene: photographs of protesters, Olympic champions, changemakers, and more. After working with her for a year, I can confidently say that Jaida isn’t your typical photojournalist. 

In fact, most of her work is informed by her fine arts photography background. And vice versa, her work for Sahan Journal has led her to pursue other interesting—and big—projects.

If you’ve driven past Hennepin Ave and Sixth Street in Minneapolis recently, you may have noticed a large billboard with five people dancing against a black background:

Gayatri Narayanan: Gayatri is a dancer with the Ananya Dance Theatre and organizer. She is committed to serving abolition and anti-caste movements.

Atquetzali Quiroz: Atquetzali was born and raised in Saint Paul, Mni Sota (Minnesota), homeland of the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples. She is a co-founder of Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli, a traditional Mexica dance group. 

Malgaren Mekonen: Malgaren is an Oromo dancer. Jaida met Malgaren while reporting on a meal program that serves mostly Oromo, Somali, and Hmong children.

Nina Rose Berglund: Nina is a jingle dress dancer, Indigenous youth leader, public speaker, and climate activist. Born and raised in the Twin Cities, Nina believes in utilizing traditional values and methods to solve urgent world problems.

Lue “Finisher” Thao: Lue, also known as Bboy Finisher, is a professional dancer who teaches, travels and competes around the United States. In 2017, Lue founded Cypher Side Dance School and Studio.  He is currently a member of Optimistic Crew.

One thing they have in common—besides dance—is their connection to Jaida. Jaida, who is Oglala Lakota, has known Atquetzali and Nina since they were teenagers. She met Gayatri through mutual friends, and Malgaren and Lue through her work at Sahan Journal.

“I feel like in my role as a photojournalist that I should try to take up as much space as possible for the communities I cover,” Jaida told me. “I go between this world of being a fine arts photographer and photojournalist, and this was the perfect way I could tie those two together.”

As part of the “It’s the People” project, the Hennepin Theatre Trust put out a call for projects that answer the question: Whose stories belong here? As one of the selected photographers, Jaida got to feature her work on a billboard.

“Hennepin Avenue is historically this theater avenue. It houses most of the theaters in the Twin Cities,” Jaida said. “There’s always stories being told here. But growing up, those stories I’d seen were always “The Nutcracker”, “A Christmas Carol”—very white, eurocentric stories.”

Jaida has been building relationships with people of different cultural and professional backgrounds for more than just this last year. Through those relationships, she’s been able to tell stories in a more accurate and sensitive way. Jaida’s coverage for Sahan Journal, as well as her other projects, have changed the way I’ve looked at my own storytelling abilities.

For example, while reporting at protests and community events for the last year, Jaida noticed a pattern that I had mostly missed. Dancers have always shown up.

“Rarely has there been a time where I had been covering an event where there hasn’t been some form of dance,” Jaida said. “It’s so representative of community. Being an Indigenous woman, one of our strongest representations of community coming together is powwows, and that’s all centered around dance.”

I’m not sure if it’s typical for an immigration and politics reporter like myself to drive past a billboard and think, My coworker made that. But that’s the sort of photojournalist Jaida is. When we go to assignments together, she’s always telling me about her (multiple) other projects. Early on in our time working together, I asked her how she’s able to find the time. She simply told me that if she’s passionate about something, she’ll make time for it.

“I’m still trying to figure out what being a photojournalist means, and I’m also kind of making it up for myself too,” Jaida said. “I don’t think I fit into that traditional role of what a photojournalist is supposed to be. I’m just doing what I find my passion in.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.