GALLUP, N.M. (KRQE) – Hearing the stories about the COVID-19 outbreak on the Navajo Nation is one thing but a young journalism student has been right in the middle of it all. She’s been capturing the pandemic through her photography. Now, her work can be seen across the country.
“I’ve seen a lot of positivity,” Sharon Chischilly said. She’s a Navajo Nation native, who knows what it’s like to face hardship. She grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation in Manuelito, New Mexico, without running water and lost her mom to cancer when she was in high school.
“I became depressed and kinda got like social anxiety,” Chischilly recalled. “So for me, picking up a camera kind of built up my confidence.”
The University of New Mexico journalism student just won the Mark Holm Photojournalism award for her sports photography for the Daily Lobo, the student newspaper.
After the shutdown started, Chischilly moved back home to Gallup to help her dad and started taking photos of the Navajo Nation, documenting history.
Sharon Chischilly said it’s been difficult seeing her community suffer. “A lot of Navajo families do live in rural areas, and there’s no great wifi, or even running water or electricity, so it is hard for them to survive during this virus,” she explained.
Chischilly saw community leaders step in to help, and pass along critical health information to Navajo residents.
“A lot of elders don’t have access to wifi, so they do have to rely on other people to tell them what’s going on,” Chischilly explained.
On a recent assignment, Washington Post reporter Robert Klemko took notice of Chischilly snapping photos. “It’s very difficult for minorities in impoverished communities to document what’s happening to them,” Klemko said.
Without an assigned photographer himself, Klemko introduced himself to Chischilly and called her photos ‘remarkable.’
“To see the dedication that she had in documenting what’s happening to the Navajo,” Klemko said. “I thought it was really important, and even more important to get her voice in the story through her photos.”
Klemko contacted his editor, and the Washington Post hired Chischilly as a freelance photographer. “I couldn’t believe it at first, I was just really shocked,” Chischilly said.
Her first assignment was a 15-hour ride-along with Klemko and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, delivering supplies, food and water to residents in six communities across the reservation.
Chischilly recalled the night before her big assignment, where she also got the news that her aunt tested positive for COVID-19.
“It was really hard trying to go to sleep that night,” she said. “I just kept thinking ‘okay, how am I gonna do this? Do I have all my stuff in my bag? Is my camera even ready to go, is it charged?'”
Filled with nerves, she said she tried to capture special moments. The experience is one she’ll never forget. “I still don’t believe it,” she said. Her photos are now featured in a national publication.
Klemko shared kind words for Chischilly on Twitter, saying, “She has sick family members and friends, yet she’s documenting this tragedy with clear eyes, a full heart, and endless drive. She knows one of the most important rules of journalism: Be There. Follow her. Hire her someday.”
Klemko said he was inspired by the helpers in the Navajo Nation. “Through the course of my reporting in Seattle, Las Vegas, around Colorado, in New Mexico and Arizona, I have yet to see leaders so dedicated with their time and their efforts into actual boots on the ground helping you know, citizens,” he said.
“The day that we spent with the Navajo President and his office lasted 15 hours,” Klemko recalled. “To see that level of dedication from elected officials is extremely rare in our line of work.”
Klemko also had a message for Chischilly. “I hope she perseveres through this. I know that she’s been affected by the virus with family members being stricken ill, and I would just say keep being there, keep documenting the things that matter to you.”
Chischilly is finishing up her sophomore year at UNM and was just named photo editor for the Daily Lobo.
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