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Documenting disparity: UNM student’s photographs in the Navajo Nation during the pandemic pushes her work into the national conversation

Nathanial Garcia outside his home near Window Rock, Arizona. The coronavirus has killed more than 600 people in the Navajo Nation.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The photographs of Sharon Chischilly capture the ravages of COVID-19 across the Navajo Nation.

A Navajo man stands in front of his home next to a hand-made sign reading “DUE TO COVID-19 ABSOLUTELY NO VISITORS” A masked and gloved Miss Navajo hands out homemade face masks and hand sanitizer. A Biden/Harris supporter balances a political sign to protect her from the snow in front of the Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock, Arizona.

“I don’t think Indian Health Service was generally positioned to respond to a pandemic nationally,” said Dr. Jill Jim, the Navajo Nation health director.

The Navajo Nation hit a single-day record of COVID-19 cases this month, with 383 people testing positive for the virus. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 fatalities reached 645 as of Nov. 27.

A University of New Mexico photography student, Chischilly grew up in Manuelito on the Navajo Nation. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

She recently received a grant through Santa Fe’s Obscura Gallery funded by the photographer Manuello Paganelli. His award-winning work has appeared in GQ, LIFE, Forbes, Newsweek, Time, Reader’s Digest and more.

Paganelli said he was impressed by the “maturity, seriousness and depth of her work.”

“I grew up with no running water as a kid,” Chischilly said in a telephone interview from Gallup.

My parents “would fill up buckets of water at the chapter house and bring them home. That was what we used to wash dishes and to wash my hair.”

Chischilly’s mother died when she was in high school. She is the youngest of four.

She encountered her first camera in 2018 at UNM-Gallup.

“It was a Canon AE-1 film camera for $20,” she said.

Chischilly learned how to operate it by herself and by watching YouTube videos.

Her introductory photography professor said her work resembled journalism.

“The way I like to take photographs – I like to document things, not posed photographs,” Chischilly said. “I like to go to events in Downtown Albuquerque.”

Betty Bennett received food and supplies from public health nurses near Kayenta, Arizona. Many homes in tribal communities do not have electricity or running water.

She photographed a celebration honoring the life of an Albuquerque skateboarder who had died.

“I started taking pictures of the flowers they left behind, or a skateboard in the shape of a cross,” she said.

At home, she photographed a Navajo code talker.

“It changed my life,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

When the pandemic first hit, she hurried home, thinking she would be safer on the reservation than in the city.

“But it turns out the Navajo Nation was one of the highest – higher than New York City,” she said.

Between caring for her father, Chischilly shot pictures of the pandemic. At the time, she was working for UNM’s college paper, the Daily Lobo.

Cordaryll Tolino disinfecting shopping carts at Bashas’ Diné Market in Window Rock, Arizona. Native American communities have consistently had higher positivity rates than the general population. (Courtesy of Sharon Chischilly)

Her life changed again when she met a Washington Post reporter at a Navajo food distribution site.

“He asked me if the Post could use my photographs,” she said.

Sharon Chischilly, a UNM photography student, has had her work appear in national newspapers.

From there flowed a cascade of assignments from national newspapers.

“I started going to Window Rock,” she said. “Whenever I could, I looked at events like food distribution.”

“It really made me sad,” she continued. “Especially for a photojournalist, there’s codes of ethics, so I can’t help someone when I’m documenting it. You want to help, but you can’t let that get to you.”

Being Navajo gave her easier access, she acknowledged. But some residents didn’t believe her when she told them she worked for the New York Times. Others assumed she lived in New York. Once a (white) nurse refused to believe her employment until Chischilly showed her a letter from the paper.

Biden/Harris supporter Cindy Honani stands outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber while holding a sign above her head to protect herself from the snow in Window Rock in late October.

“I’m not very fluent in Navajo,” she added. “When I meet someone, I say hi in Navajo to make them more comfortable.”

When her spring classes begin, Chischilly plans to continue her work on the reservation. She recently accepted a job offer with the Navajo Times.

“I really want to be a photographer for National Geographic,” she said. “I want to take photographs of different cultures and animals.”

She says she’s saving the $500 in grant money toward a better digital camera.

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