An Eye on the Water: Interview with Ronnie Farley

by Julie Chibbaro

You’ve seen her shock of white hair like an aura of wisdom. If you live in Beacon, or anywhere along the New York State Watershed, you’ve seen Ronnie Farley. She is a known entity, a professional photographer, a published author, and a person who very much cares about our environment, though sometimes she can be invisible, like any great tender of things. She was also one of my sister’s best friends, a woman who cared for my sister with fearless love to the last days of her life.

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Ronnie Farley’s latest project can be summed up in one word: Water. She dives deeply into that subject with writings, a new set of photographs, and long walk down NY’s aqueducts, a project to raise awareness about where our water comes from. On a break in her walking schedule, I was able to ask her a few questions about her work, both past and present:

GLB: You have published a number of books that combine your photos and stories. Can you talk a bit about how you get your ideas for these projects?

RF: By 1985, I had been living in the East Village over three years, working at the copy desk and as a photo-stringer at Associated Press, bartender at CBGB’s Hardcore Matinees, and as a bookkeeper for both a crummy upper east side nightclub that became Chippendale’s, and later at Tommy Boy Records. I was photographing the streets and the rich mix of music, art and performance going on concurrent with the AIDs crisis and gentrification. Much of this work is published in Diary of a Pedestrian: A New York Memoir.

In late autumn that year, a friend in my building told me about her lawyer brother defending Navajo people in Arizona against eviction for coal and uranium mining. I began working with the New York City Native community on media outreach for the Navajo and in the summer of 1986, lived out on the reservation for the upcoming eviction deadline, which was eventually canceled for the time being.

The Navajo are a matrilinear society, and so many powerful women and their families were coming through from different tribes to support them. By power I mean the strength of self-possession—of being so grounded in your being/spirit and purpose that you are unstoppable. A power within your body that holds space like a Giant Sequoia. A power whose articulation of words are profoundly poetic, yet razor sharp. A power of love for the Earth so visceral, you are Her embodied.

These women were on the front lines of their own communities—from fighting multinational corporations, to domestic violence and teenage suicide. Through time, I began interviewing and photographing some of them for my first book Women of the Native Struggle: Portraits and Testimony of Native American Women.

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Women are the backbone of any society anywhere, and Indigenous peoples are holding up and protecting the natural world everywhere.

Cowgirls: Contemporary Portraits of the American West was a result of a woman seeing my Native images in a frame shop when I came in to pick them up. She said I should do a book on cowgirls and that I should know about her mother who started the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Hereford Texas. The rest came together.

I found the cowgirls to be equally strong and inspiring, but in a different way. They put me to work so I got to fully understand ranching life. I prepared sheep for shearing and participated in a cattle drive. I also followed the rodeo circuits across country: the Women’s Rodeo, the Black Rodeo, the Indian Rodeo. There is even a Gay Rodeo circuit. In both these books, the words belong to the women photographed.

New York Water Towers came about because I was spellbound by their otherworldly presence amid all the glass, mortar and steel.

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Once I discovered their purpose I became obsessed with photographing them. My previous book projects made me acutely aware of water issues, so a deeper sense of urgency grew beyond the beauty I was seeing. Many New Yorkers do not know what the water towers are, or that 90% of their water comes from the Catskill Mountains 100 miles north. Returning home from trips out west inspired me to research NYC’s water system and the astronomical engineering feat of aqueducts and dams. Entire communities upstate were eliminated to create reservoirs to support the vertical expansion of New York City, which was only possible because a barrel-maker figured out how to use gravity for water storage, making the humble water tower the critical key component to New York’s water.

GLB: How do these relate to your new project? 

RF: I have continued photographing and interviewing Native women over the past two decades with the sole focus on water. I have also been exploring ways to further the conversation about water and New York’s water supply.

The pipeline protest at Standing Rock came about in 2016 and my experience there further cemented some ideas I was having about water. Watching people in prayer—both young and old, get sprayed with fire-hoses reminded me of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Police from several states over were driving to North Dakota in their local municipal vehicles, getting paid overtime to suit up robo-cop style to ‘defend’ a multi-national corporation against U.S. citizens practicing their given right to protect their drinking water. The water protectors were rounded up, zip tied (their arms numbered with black sharpies) and placed in large cages at a local Bismarck facility, with little heat. This further sealed my commitment to water.

We are experiencing a serious shift in this country and you have to place yourself on the frontlines, whatever ‘the frontlines’ translates to be for you. For me, taking pictures is not enough. I think water is a great leveler. It is something all life depends upon and it is something that does not recognize politics, gender, race or creed. It is the very core of life itself. I wanted to use water as a bridge between diverse ways of thinking, and I wanted to fully comprehend the properties of water as a living entity—from the molecule to the metaphysical. So I decided to just physically put myself out there. Inspired by the Anishinabe women Nibi Walkers of Minnesota, I decided to talk to people about water by walking. I received a grant from the Catskill Watershed Corporation for my photo documentation/water-walk called Know Your Water(shed). With the intention of raising awareness about New York’s water supply and the supporting communities within the watershed/aqueduct routes, I collected water with a few friends in a copper bucket at New York City’s northernmost reservoir in Schoharie County on April 27, and have been walking it 150 miles down to the city, following the Catskill and Old Croton Aqueduct routes. I’ve been documenting the walk with the intent of producing a book and a short film of imagery stitched together from mountain to city. Employing my previous technique of portraits and quotes from individuals, I have also been taking portraits and interviewing people en route as well as the co-walkers who join me.

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With Laura Potter

GLB: Does your visual art feed your writing? In what ways?

RF: The two have always gone hand-in-hand for me, starting with receiving a thesaurus and camera on my 10th birthday. I have been shooting and journaling since then. As a photographer, I have an innate sense of detail and description simply because I often have to assess a situation—the light, composition, mood, all within split-second timing. With photography, I feel the image should be able to stand on its own, with or without text.

But usually the story behind the image is equally compelling. Much of what I have experienced I cannot and would not photograph—the ceremonies of Native communities, the private dramas, the hardships, a lot of death. I write all that down. Words can take you places that images cannot and vice-versa. I think it all depends upon what you are trying to convey and which is the best medium for sharing that message or experience.

I am thrilled with the swell of writers, writing workshops, reading groups and open mic sessions taking place here in Beacon. It is a comfortable place for me to explore these avenues as another form of expression. Through others sharing their knowledge and talent, my world has opened up to the complex language nuances of poetry, prose and memoir, allowing a sense of freedom in sharing my experience. This has given fresh breath to the possibilities within my work—past, present and future. As an artist it is important to always keep evolving and pushing beyond one’s safety zone. There is where the magic happens. I am looking forward to what will result a year from now from the seeds planted today. I have the utmost gratitude towards this community I call home for its unwavering support of my work for over a decade. Beacon truly is a special place.

On Friday, July 12, Ronnie will present Know Your Water(shed) for the first time and share stories from her water-walk, including the history and infrastructure of New York City’s water system, and experiences with Native American communities that have shaped her world view about water and inspired this project.

Beacon Yoga Center, 464 Main Street.

Doors open at 7:30 pm

Event is free and appropriate for all ages

Ronnie Farley is an award-winning fine-art and editorial photographer whose published works include; Women of the Native Struggle: Portraits and Testimony of Native American Women (Crown), Cowgirls: Contemporary Portraits of the American West (Crown/ Thunder’s Mouth Press), Diary of a Pedestrian: A New York Photo Memoir (Third Eye Press), New York Water Towers (KMW studio) and Ghost Plane (Third Eye Press). 

Farley’s books have been critically acclaimed by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and featured on NPR’s 360. Her photography has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and is included in the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, The National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland. Her images have also appeared in Rolling Stone, USA Today, Sierra Magazine, Western Horseman and The Sunday Times of London. 

In addition to her own photography, Ronnie Farley’s career includes working for the Associated Press in New York City over a span of twenty years as a photographer, a photo librarian, and a national photo editor. She currently resides in Beacon, New York.

Her books are available at No. 3 Reading Room & Photo Book Works in Beacon and online queries: info@ronniefarley.com.

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