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Behind the lens: Former student of famed Creighton photographer now watchful eye behind Red Cloud calendar

The cover image on the 2017 Red Cloud School Calendar.As a student at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, Willi White very clearly remembers the photographer arriving at his school to capture images of his classmates in their traditional regalia.

He remembers the lights, the conversations, the excitement around this annual event, when his Lakota community became the focal point of vivid, celebratory photographs comprising the Red Cloud Calendar, for 20 years expertly shot by Creighton University’s the Rev. Don Doll, SJ, an emeritus journalism professor and internationally renowned photographer.

Now, White — who eventually came to Creighton and found himself in Fr. Doll’s classrooms, tracking photographic subjects through his professor’s lens and developing his own vision — is poised to take over the enterprise of the calendar, a position he said he accepts with great anticipation and even greater humility.

“Shooting for the calendar has always been a very proud event here,” said White, who also serves as communications coordinator for Red Cloud Indian School. “When Fr. Doll arrived, we knew who he was, we knew how much this meant to him. When I came to Creighton and he became my professor, he started pushing me into thinking about photography and maybe taking this from him.”

Fr. Doll was first approached with the idea of the Red Cloud calendar as a fundraiser for the school in the 1990s.

Having had his first experiences both as a young Jesuit and a photographer on the Rosebud Reservation, adjacent to Pine Ridge, in the 1960s, by 1997, he had spent the better part of the decade photographing people living on Sioux reservations in five states and Canada, stories and photos that became the basis for his book, Vision Quest: Men, Women, and Sacred Sites of the Sioux Nation.

“The initial idea was wonderful and I was very interested in it,” Fr. Doll remembered. “I wasn’t sure how far it would go, but as we saw that people really took to the calendar, we did it again and we kept on doing it. I have really enjoyed all of the time I have spent with the kids and in the community and I was always hopeful Willi might be interested in taking this.”

The young visual artist had long set his sights on filmmaking and thought the moving image was where he would make a lasting impression, but was still captivated by the experiences he’d had in Fr. Doll’s photography studio at Creighton.

“I’m glad Fr. Doll kept me in conversation on this,” White said. “I do love film. I do think that’s where my career is headed. But still photography is able to convey something else and to tell a different story. And as we’ve seen, it’s a story that’s very important to people here.”

Among other accolades, White has earned a grant from the Sundance Institute’s Native Filmmakers Lab and this summer he immersed himself in the artform, serving as an assistant to the British director Susanna White on a biopic about 19th century artist and activist Caroline Weldon and her efforts to paint Lakota chief Sitting Bull.

This spring, Fr. Doll asked White and Angel White Eyes, another artist and a 2008 Red Cloud classmate of White’s, to help him with the 2017 calendar shoot.

Setting up the lighting for the calendar and now providing White and White Eyes with lighting equipment for future calendar shoots, Fr. Doll also shepherded the two younger photographers through the process. The three took roughly 2,000 photographs in a span of a few days and gradually winnowed them down to images with calendar potential.

The final tally saw all but one of the chosen photographs flying off the shutters of White or White Eyes. Over three days, Carol McCabe, from Fr. Doll’s studio, also helped the two younger photographers with the selection process and the workings of PhotoShop.

“Initially, I said, ‘Well, how did this happen?’” Fr. Doll said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and these two come along and they’ve got it figured out on the first shoot. But that’s why we came. That’s what is great about this transition. Angel and Willi have lived this. They should be the ones doing this and it’s very appropriate and worth celebrating that we should it hand it to them. I’ll certainly miss it, especially being able to make that trip and drive through the Sand Hills, but I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.”

White said he is coming to grips with the immense project he’s inherited while more deeply pondering the vital legacy of which he is already a part.

Still firmly focused on his filmmaking career, he said knowing how much the Red Cloud calendar means to his people will continue to be a driving force in delivering it and putting his own particular touches to it.

“The calendar built up its legacy and has become such a part of the community,” White said. “The lights, the cameras, the students, the parents, they have all recognized this calendar and made it a part of their lives. People get excited about it. We see ourselves in this calendar, in the regalia, the children. This is our culture and Fr. Doll really wanted to celebrate that. It feels like such an honor, in the first place, that someone like Fr. Doll would take this on and now, for him to hand it to Angel and me, it’s a great feeling. We’re getting our chance to put our vision and our stamp on it.”

To purchase the 2017 calendar, click here.

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