BEMIDJI -- Monika Lawrence first came to Minnesota from Germany in 2008 after meeting her future husband, Mark-- a Bemidji geographer -- at a social work conference in Croatia.
Upon arriving, due to slow moving immigration processes, Lawrence couldn’t initially work in Minnesota, so she began taking photography classes at Bemidji State University.
Soon enough, she was teaching them.
Now, more than ten years later, Lawrence is an adjunct photography professor at BSU as well as a freelance photojournalist frequently contributing to Minnesota Public Radio.
“I always say, I take photos for the radio,” she said with a laugh. “(It) introduced me in a fantastic way to Minnesota and Minnesotans. I had to go out and meet people, and I learned so much about Minnesota and about the most interesting people who do the most interesting things.”
This year hasn’t been too kind to most, but it has been heavy on the accolades for Lawrence. Two of her proudest photography accomplishments to date have occurred this year -- and you can see one of them on display now.
Her photos of a 2018 Ojibwe language camp in Ponemah were selected as one of seven regional works in the international Photoville FENCE juried competition. They are on display, larger than life, along fences in the Fargo-Moorhead area through December.
Lawrence’s selected images are titled “Ojibwe Heartbeat” and capture the playful spirit of a day at an immersive Ojibwe language summer camp up in Ponemah.
“That is one of the assignments I really, really like to remember. One of my favorites, I think,” she said. “For me, it was a fantastic experience, to observe and to watch.”
Coming from Germany, Lawrence didn’t originally have a lot of familiarity with Native American history and culture, and said while it was obvious to her that she was an outsider, everyone at the summer camp was welcoming to her and quick to explain cultural significance behind certain activities.
The multigenerational event drew Lawrence to covering the joy filled moments between age groups -- noting the native language elders all the way down to young toddlers who participated in a lively lacrosse game.
“Only about one hundred elders are fluent Ojibwe speakers currently in the region. Experiencing punishment for speaking Ojibwe in the boarding schools up until the 1970s, many chose not to teach their language to their children. Consequently, the language was on the brink of being lost -- but the tribe took great efforts to bring back not only Ojibwe as a spoken language, but also the Ojibwe culture and way of life,” Lawrence wrote in her project statement. “With my photos I wanted to focus on the love, the fun, and the joyful learning within the Ojibwe community. It was a great learning experience for me, too.”
Lawrence shot the photographs for Minnesota Public Radio back in July 2018, and thinks fondly on that day in Ponemah. With a laugh, Lawrence recalled receiving a back rub at the end of the day from an elder who noticed how she had been lugging around her camera gear for hours.
“It was an enriching experience,” she said. “It means a lot to me to share this story of the enormous efforts the Ojibwe people take to keep their language and culture alive and growing.”
About the artist
Lawrence began exploring photography when she bought her first Canon film camera in Germany in the mid-1990s, and started taking photo classes on the weekend in Berlin.
Covering Minnesota through photos has helped her feel more at home in her new country. She’s seen it all -- from photographing late-night bat catching, to a specialized skull taxidermist, to capturing sensitive stories from within the opioid epidemic.
“I really love working as a photojournalist,” she said, explaining that the photography and photojournalism industry are an ever-evolving field. “You grow with your challenges.”
Lawrence’s work focuses primarily on people, but also the intersection of environmental landscapes, wildlife and environmental issues.
She also thrives in the teaching aspect of her career.
“I love teaching, and I love photography, so I cut them together,” she said. “Through teaching, my photography has become so much better.”
This year has been one full of photography accomplishments for Lawrence. Most notably, she entered a juried competition with a series of her winter photos, called Beyond Whiteness, which were selected as a winner by a photo editor at the Guardian in the United Kingdom.
“That was mind-blowing for me,” she said. “That means encouragement for me to move on, that even somebody over there in London can relate to the photos. That was a big accomplishment for me.”
On the FENCE
The project is called Photoville FENCE, and is aimed at examining global issues on a local scale.
Seven regional photographers, of which Lawrence is one, have their work on display with about 90 other international artists. Each artist has five images taken from a particular body of work as well as a short artist's biography.
Photographers are asked to submit photos along the themes of people, streets, play, creatures, home, food, and nature -- Lawrence’s Ojibwe Heartbeat images fell under the “play” category.
“It is an amazing diversity of themes,” Lawrence said of the work displayed on the FENCE. “I think there is a lot for people to find there, to discuss.”
The first edition of the Photoville FENCE was exhibited in Brooklyn in 2012, and the project has since grown and flourished year after year across North America.
You can view the FWMF Metro (North Dakota, western Minnesota, and northern South Dakota) exhibit at Rheault Farm in Fargo, Scheels Soccer Complex in West Fargo, and at the football field at Minnesota State University Moorhead. The images were printed onto large vinyl panels, making them weather-resistant, as the displays will be up through December. Lawrence hopes Bemidjians will make the drive to Fargo-Moorhead to check it out.
“It’s a fantastic idea to have this kind of public art. Most people don’t go to indoor exhibitions, many don’t. This is something where you can just walk by and go there with family,” she said. “Bring the entire family, and bundle up.”