In His Own Words: Navajo Photographer Brandon Dugi

Brandon Dugi, Navajo photographer and adventurer

Brandon Dugi is more than just a photographer. He’s an adventurer, athlete, and ambassador of sorts for Navajo Nation, the place that he's always called home. When Brandon first picked up a camera for a high school photography course, he didn’t expect to find his calling. But he soon realized how much he loved to communicate with the world—and showcase the land and stories of Navajo Nation—through imagery. We caught up with Brandon to learn more about his work, passion for the outdoors, and perspectives on recognition and respect for indigenous peoples and cultures. 

On his relationship to the outdoors:

Being outside for me is everything. Growing up as a little kid, that’s all we had. We didn’t have video games. We didn’t have TV. We had to be outside, and we had to do work. That work became fun—we started to do hikes. On the reservation, every Navajo family has sheep. They have herds and herds of sheep. My grandmother had a bunch of sheep, and as little kids, work for us was to herd the sheep in the morning . . . We would be out all day looking for them. They wander over the hills and the rocks, and that was our time to adventure and have fun. You know, we were always outside, and still today, we’re always outside.

A lot of people haven’t grown up like that. They’ve never been outside when they were young. To change that and show that people can find happiness being outside, that it makes you feel good, and it’s healthy for you—if we can get everybody to do that, that’d be nice.

On his photography work:

In the beginning, I was doing a lot of night photography. That was so fun. I enjoyed going out and staying out late at night and capturing the Milky Way. What got me into night photography was learning that Arizona happens to be one of the darkest places in the United States, and for taking Milky Way photos, it’s the best. So I was like, “I’ve got to do that.” I also noticed that there weren't a lot of people in the area of Page, where I’m living, that are photographers and that photograph this stuff. There’s so many people that come from all over the world to visit this area, but there isn’t an artist or photographer that captures stills that lives in this area, so I decided to take that on . . . I want to motivate people to go outside and be outside.  

About a year ago, I started photographing my own culture and my people. That has been another cool thing to do—to show that there’s still people out here living these lives and believing these traditions. I get a lot of feedback and positive mentions of that—people saying, “This is so beautiful,” “This is awesome,” “We didn’t know people live like this.” It’s cool to see that stuff.

Navajo Nation, photography by Brandon Dugi

On what makes the land of Navajo Nation special:

You’ve got these huge sandstone rocks that just come out of the ground in weird places. There’s stuff you would never see anywhere else—and there’s a lot of it out here. The rocks are all different colors. You’ve got the different layers of rocks, and they represent the time when this used to all be sand covered by ocean. It’s something unique and different that you don’t see anywhere else. That’s one of the reasons why I think this place is really beautiful. And on the Navajo Nation, what’s special—it’s the stories that you hear. It’s hard to explain. You’ve got to be out here to feel it.

On the Navajo community’s perspective on tourism:

Some are not aware of what tourism brings to the table and, of course, they want to keep the land the way it is. The other half get the fact that tourism brings growth and income to themselves and their families. 

There are some elderlies here who will say, “Why are these tourists here?" and stuff like that. You’ll hear that every now and then from the elderly. I understand their anger, because again, the Navajos, the Natives, the different tribes out here, they lived all over the place. We didn’t just live here. That’s one thing that’s mistaken. The tourists that come and visit here, they just think we’ve lived out here all our lives. They come out here and they’re like, “Why do you guys live out here? There’s nothing. It’s just desert.” And we’re like, “We were put here.” If we weren’t put here, we would be living up in the mountains, in the Yosemite area—lots of Navajos lived up there—we would be in California, Oregon, Washington. We all got put here and were sent to live here. 

But the Navajo people, they’re not people to be angry or mad. We’re happy people. When we have outsiders come in, we welcome them. We want them to be happy here and feel welcome. All the tourists that come here, we’re like that with them.

Arizona landscape photography by Brandon Dugi

On the importance of recognition:

The only thing we ever really wanted was recognition. The Navajo people, they never asked for a lot back in the day. One, we weren’t educated, so we didn’t know any better. But seeing the [more recent] recognition from the outside world, knowing that we are here and our land is beautiful and that they enjoy it and they feel welcomed, that’s really cool. That’s one thing that I love to see. 

I just want people to know that we’re still here. Us Navajos are still here. There’s still a lot of people living the way that people used to live back in the day. And that’s really one of the main messages for me: to respect us and to respect our land when you come visit. We do that—we are one of the first ones to live on the land and care for the land, and all we really want is to just have respect and give respect to Mother Nature.

All photographs courtesy of Brandon Dugi and used with permission. To learn more about Brandon and his work, follow him @brandon_dugi