Before my second visit to photograph Monument Valley, I asked Phillips Tours, if they could arrange for me to photograph some residents, rather than limiting myself to landscapes. They agreed and, as it turned out I was able to photograph my guide, Ray Begay’s mother and father at their winter camp in Monument Valley. Ray had guided me three years before on sunrise and sunset photography tours of the Valley. During our tours we talked about life in the Valley, which extends far beyond what visitors see in the Tribal Park from the loop road. I was very pleased to travel with him again.
I was not completely comfortable with my request. I did not want the Begays to feel they were on display or were objects of curiosity. Instead, I wanted to capture who they were as people, if only for a few minutes. They live in the Valley closer to Kayenta, and have two camps, each with a hogan and pens for sheep, goats and horses. They move between them from summer to winter. Although they are within walking distance of each other, the two locations experience different weather during the warm and cold seasons. Mrs. Begay is a medicine woman and healer, and she advises Navajo visitors from all over northwest Arizona. Mr. Begay is a retired uranium miner and told me he was a cowboy. He chuckled when I complimented him for being a “handsome cowboy.”
We met at their winter camp, where a fire in the small stove warmed the hogan to a comfortable temperature in the December chill. Mrs. Begay was working on a basket and I began shooting. A hogan is a small structure, maybe 20′ in diameter, and I decided to shoot with the limited natural light that came in from the door (which always faces east) and the stovepipe opening. I shot at ISO 2000 and came away with some good portraits. Mrs. Begay concentrated on her work and after about an hour I moved outside to photograph Mr. Begay, who was dressed in his finest clothing and turquoise jewelry.
Ray saddled the horse and Mr. Begay mounted and rode off, their dog at his heels. (The dog was born in the horse’s pen and is very attached to it–he never leaves his side.) I followed and we stopped under some rocks that Ray used to ride his bike down. (His brother confirmed this story. Ray was a bit of a thrill-seeker as a youth.) Mr. Begay proved to be a natural subject and I had a great time photographing him and his horse.
After a few hours it was time to go. I thanked the Begays for their hospitality (and compensated them for their time) and we parted company. Altogether, it was a humbling experience to be with them and I hope my images do them justice.
As a closing note, my great grandmother was Navajo and lived near Gallup, not that far from Monument Valley. I know relatively little about her background but have been researching it for several years. I have a better appreciation for her life now that I’ve had an up-close visit to the Begays.
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