BISMARCK — When 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last month, she squeezed in a brief photoshoot to have her image preserved on a glass plate in a form of photography more than 150 years old.
In the weeks since, one of the two original plates made by Bismarck photographer Shane Balkowitsch has made its way to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The second will soon arrive at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm.
“It’s my most important work to date,” Balkowitsch said.
The image archived at the Library of Congress has been featured in at least 15 publications, and more than 1 million people have liked it across various social media platforms. It’s the photo Thunberg chose to share when she left the United States Nov. 13 on board a “zero-emission” boat to sail back to Europe after a whirlwind tour through North America to urge action on climate change.
The photo, which has drawn so much attention, almost never came about.
Thunberg visited the reservation on Oct. 8 at the invitation of Tokata Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock youth. Her trip, in which she spoke to students at Standing Rock High School, came about in just a few days.
Balkowitsch heard that she was coming through his connections with tribal members. He’s partway through a 15-year effort to photograph 1,000 Native Americans via a form of photography known as “wet plate collodion" that involves wetting glass with various chemicals before inserting the plate into a camera and then developing the photo.
He initially hoped Thunberg would have time to visit his studio in Bismarck, but she didn’t, so he asked if he could come to Standing Rock to take her photo.
“I got the call and they said 'you can have 15 minutes with her,'” he recalled.
Fifteen minutes is enough time for just one shot. Balkowitsch planned to make the most of it. He packed his camera, chemicals and a portable darkroom into his car, and prepared to leave with plenty of time to scout locations, set up his equipment and take a practice shot.
“I’m pouring these plates in the field,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong.”
But right as he was leaving Bismarck, he got another call. Thunberg’s schedule had moved up by several hours. By the time he arrived in Fort Yates, he’d have just a couple of minutes before his 15-minute window with her started.
Balkowitsch hoped for the best as he set up near Prairie Knights Casino. When Thunberg arrived, he poured a material called collodion onto a plate of glass, then immersed the plate in a silver nitrate solution and loaded it into the camera. He positioned Thunberg and made the exposure — removing the lens cap for 3 seconds — and then rushed the plate into his darkroom to develop it before it dried.
When a portrait of her face emerged, there were smiles all around.
Balkowitsch, though, really wanted to take one more photo despite having used up his 15 minutes. So he turned to her father, Svante.
“Can we do one more?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” her dad responded.
This time, Balkowitsch positioned Thunberg farther away from the camera, slightly off-center to showcase the Standing Rock plains.
“I wanted to give nature its due respect on the plate,” he said.
When he finished, an image of Thunberg gazing off into the distance emerged. He titled the work “Standing For Us All.”
Balkowitsch describes that image as the one that “wasn’t supposed to happen,” but it’s nevertheless the one that Thunberg chose to share with the world. It’s also that plate that -- after digitizing -- he wrapped in bubble wrap and packing peanuts and placed inside three boxes last week to ship to the Library of Congress. The first plate, of Thunberg’s face, will go to the museum in Sweden. He had promised her father that he’d find “a good home” for the plates to help share Thunberg’s message with the world.
Balkowitsch estimates that just 1,000 people worldwide practice wet plate photography, so any amount of attention helps the small community. The technique was popular for several decades before it was abandoned in the 1880s for new photography technologies.
Visitors to the Library of Congress can request to view the plate, which is 8 by 10 inches in size. Balkowitsch said the plate will outlast any other printed photograph of Thunberg because it's made using silver, which does not fade over time.
"This plate will be here long after her and I are gone," he said.