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The Ladies of Desert & Denim - Marissa Gonzales: Film Photographer & Activist

Lily Hetzler

Marissa Gonzales is the kind of woman who often says more with her eyes, than with her mouth.  She has a simultaneously biting power and hopeful optimism in her approach to storytelling. A photographer and activist, it's clear her vision is to bolster up the future, through the stories of the past. On our recent trek out to Desert & Denim, we spoke to Marissa about the importance of family, the lasting power of heritage, and the value of going your own way.

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Nativen:    If you want to just say your name and then talk a little bit about what you do in your own words.

Marissa:    All right. Can I say it in my native language? [Cherokee]

Nativen:    Ooh. Yes.

Marissa:    Osiyo. Marissa Gonzales daquadoa. Galieliga tsidenatloha.
It means, Hello. My name is Marissa Gonzales. Pleased to meet you.
I do film photography and I was really heavily involved in native activism out in Los Angeles during the time of Standing Rock and then also when a pipeline was going through my ancestral land out in Oklahoma. It was going to cross through five different routes of the Trail of Tears. But since then has been canceled and is no longer being built.

Nativen:    That is excellent. I'm happy to hear that. That gave me chills of sadness when I heard you say that. 

Marissa:    Yeah, a lot of people were mad.

Nativen:    Absolutely. 
What is your favorite stress-relieving hobby?

Marissa:    Probably shooting film. When I grew up, I didn't have a lot of outlets. I was kind of a sheltered kid. So it was either that or books. I have probably 20 books that are unfinished. 
I inherited my grandfather's cameras. I was going out and driving to reservations out in Arizona and photographing the landscapes there and the situation that surrounds a lot of that area, which isn't what most people expect. There are always these weird misconceptions of what a reservation looks like and I’ve been to some of the richest reservations and to the poorest of the poor reservations. 
San Carlos Apache reservation's one of the lowest income reservations and that's in Arizona and it's really sad, but also the photos are beautiful. You’ve got trailers. You’ve got broken down cars… and it's just kind of, a modern indigenous way of life now.

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Nativen:    Who's the woman who's inspired you the most?

Marissa:    Probably my mom, even though obviously we're mother/daughter, we butt heads, I'm a complete opposite of her, she has probably been the most stable person. Whenever I needed somebody, she's always been there. When I first got my cat, I got her thinking, that since she's a hairless cat, my mom wasn't gonna be allergic… but two weeks go by, three weeks go by, two months go by and my mom starts coming home a little bit later and I'm like, "What are you doing after work?" She's like, "Oh, I'm getting allergy shots so you can keep your cat," and I was like, "Aw, that's a true mom right there." She's just always been there.

Nativen:    Moms are the best. 
Three women you'd love to sit around the campfire with, dead or alive.

Marissa:    One of them is actually alive. She's a Mexican photographer named Graciela Iturbide and she has been photographing since the late 1950s. But she took phenomenal pictures all the way up until current and they're usually photographs of really bright highlights and dark contrast of the people of her area. It's more street photography, but she does it in such an artistic way that's just so beautiful and she's one of the most influential film photographers that I've come across. 
The second one would probably be my great-great-grandmother. The stories of her ... She was such a strong woman. She moved here single. She brought my grandpa here. She brought his brother, Alex, and their small sister, who ended up passing just a little bit after they arrived and she was a single mom in an era where Los Angeles was very oppressive to Mexican descent or Indians. They lived in Belvedere on the same street that the current police station is built now and it was all dirt road back then and basically shanty looking and so just hearing about her and how strong she was. Just up and moving from Texas to here is just like ...

Nativen:    An inspiring story. 

Marissa:    And then the third one, it's probably gonna be the most generic, but she's always fascinated me: Frida Kahlo.  Plus we share the a love for the same breed of dogs. I want one so bad and she had a million of them.

Nativen:    Words of wisdom or a nugget of advice that you might offer to someone who's looking to pursue their creative path?

Marissa:    Don't let outside people influence your work, tell you that it's wrong, or tell you you're not doing it right. There's never a wrong or right way to explore your creativity. I didn't really go to school for photography. I learned film just by reading up on it. I'm still very heavily a manual person. So if I buy a new camera, I will instantly download the manual and know how everything works and that's just what I do. 
A lot of the time, when I did sign up for photography, I had already taught myself how to shoot, and I was constantly told that I wasn't doing it right. My photos weren't good. I got an F on a lot of my assignments because they were either too out there or didn't hold, I guess, enough substance in my professor's eyes. But it was mostly people really close to me, things that really mattered to me. One of the biggest things I photographed was the Prop 8 protests back in 2008, and that was my final project. I got an F on it.

Nativen:    That's insane.

Marissa:    And it was just kind of an eye opener for me that it just doesn't even matter what other people say. I loved shooting that. I love shooting protests. I love shooting people making changes in the world and just inspiring people. It’s one of the biggest influences. If it resonates with you and who you are, just do it. Just don't stop.

Nativen:    Absolutely, otherwise, nothing interesting will ever come out of art.
If you could spend a day in someone else's jeans, who would it be?

Marissa:    My grandpa. He's a Wrangler man, for sure. He used to be a national rodeo and bronco rider in the 70s.

Nativen:    That's an amazing pair of jeans to be inside of.

Marissa:    Yeah, I mean, he's 87, 88 years old now. He's still alive and kicking and he still has his two horses and he's still going out to the rides, Deanza ride. He's still going out for memorial rides. I mean, he's just the most coolest old man ever.

Nativen:    Oh man, I'm totally a sucker for a good rodeo. Last question, three things you can't live without.

Marissa:    Number one, Gypsy, my cat. That's the first animal that I officially got with my own money.  She's a precious treasure. Two would be my cameras that I inherited from my grandpa because I mean, without him, my film photography would not have been anything, and then the third thing would probably be my family, my mom and my brother and my niece and his wife. Those people are the center of my being. They're everything to me.

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Interview by: Lily Hetzler

Photography by: Ashley Turner

This interview has been condensed & edited

all images copyright of Nativen