Bismarck artist behind controversial Greta Thunberg mural shares stories of support and hate
FARGO — Following backlash over plans to put his work up on the wall of a Bismarck business, a North Dakota photographer continues to get threats and support from across the world for his portrait of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Shane Balkowitsch is in the process of preparing a metal print of "Standing For Us All," his photo depicting the activist at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which will be put up as a mural in the alley of Front Street Taproom in Fargo. It was originally going to be put up at a bakery in Bismarck, but controversy quickly canceled those plans .
In October 2019, Balkowitsch had been spending time on the Standing Rock reservation capturing images of North Dakota's Native Americans using silver wet plate photography. He said he took on that specific type of photography back in 2012 as part of a movement to revitalize the practice.
During this long project, an unexpected and rare opportunity presented itself before Balkowitsch. Thunberg was making a stop in Standing Rock. Through his connection with the tribe, he managed to get some time to photograph her visit.
"They said you will get 15 minutes with Greta tomorrow," Balkowitsch recalled.
In the world of wet plate photography, Balkowitsch said 15 minutes is not a lot of time to get it done. He had to pack a dark room into his trunk. In the interest of time, he started with a standard portrait. Making quick work of it, he then had ample time to get creative for a second photograph.
"I knew that I had one in the can, I had Greta, I had the portrait," he said. "So I could take a chance and I could create an artistic piece. That's when I was able to capture Standing For Us All."
The photo would be seen across the country in article thumbnails about the controversy, and later archived in the Library of Congress. It has been displayed in large public places like on electronic billboards in Paris.
After capturing the image, Balkowitsch said he turned to Thunberg's father and asked, "What can I do for Greta?"
"You've already done what you can do for Greta," Balkowitsch remembers her father saying. "You've taken these beautiful photographs of my daughter. Now you just need to share these with the world, and with those images, her message will go with them."
Over the next few months, Balkowitsch worked with a friend who owns the Brick Oven Bakery in Bismarck to print a roughly 7-foot-tall mural that was to be installed on the back of the building. Balkowitsch said it was privately funded, and they had worked through the city's renaissance zone authority board to make it happen.
This brought on a surge of unexpected attention — a lot of it negative.
"(There were) online threats ... boycotting of the business," he described. "The threats went to the landlord, and then there were threats of vandalism."
Balkowitsch already had a few of his pieces put up throughout the city. One of them, "Liberty Trudges Through Injustice", had eggs thrown at it in downtown Bismarck. This happened within days of KFYR-TV reporting his plans for the Greta mural.
"Then it wasn't just threats," he said. It was something physical that was actually carried out."
Balkowitsch said his children were featured in the background of the mural that was egged. Some of the eggs landed on his children's faces, something he takes personally.
"Someone targeted my children," he said.
With an increasing number of calls to boycott the bakery, Balkowitsch decided it was time to end plans to put up the mural.
"It became apparent to me that I couldn't let anyone else take it on the chin for my work," he said.
Just hours after the announcement, Front Street Taproom in Fargo volunteered to take it on instead. They agreed to install the mural on the wall in their back alley patio space. The business is located on Main Avenue near Broadway in downtown Fargo.
"This is all just them coming to a stranger's aide in the middle of the night," Balkowitsch said.
Many expressed their support for the move on social media, though there were also calls for a boycott.
At one point, a North Dakota blogger suggested Balkowitsch may be a Nazi sympathizer because of how passionate he is about his Porsche.
"They were painting this story that I'm a Nazi for no other reason that I own a Porsche," Balkowitsch said. "Kind of a reach, because we'd be in trouble as Americans if every person that owned a Porsche is a Nazi."
Balkowitsch still wonders how his photograph of a child in a field managed to drum up this much controversy.
"(There's) all this hate towards me. What is my crime? What have I done? Did I murder someone? I'm a rapist? Did I embezzle some money? Sell some drugs? No. I wanted to put a mural up at my own expense ... in my own hometown as a gift from me. That's my crime."
Balkowitsch said through all this, he's still getting a large number of positive responses and support, pointing out dozens of articles and editorials talking about his work that share the image and the message with the world.
"The good has completely outweighed anything of the negativity," he said.
Just this week, a business in New York state announced plans to put up the mural. Plans for another copy of the mural are in the works for the Standing Rock reservation.
Balkowitsch said the mural at Front Street Taproom will be revealed on March 18 at 1 p.m. It is not a painting of the photograph, but rather, a print put on metal plates that will be attached to the building.
The reveal is timed around when a documentary about Balkowitsch's work is scheduled to be shown at the Fargo Film Festival.