The image was intended to be a simple way to capture a big moment, said photographer Shane Balkowitsch, not a message that’s meant to be read in any particular way.
“My job as a photographer is to capture the history, and I’ve done that," he told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
But when Balkowitsch decided to turn the image into a seven-foot mural outside a bakery in downtown Bismarck, N.D., it transformed into something far more controversial — so much so, he said Wednesday, that he has decided to abandon his plans for the mural entirely.
After a local TV station, KFYR, reported on his plans earlier this week, both he and the bakery whose exterior brick wall was supposed to feature the mural have been inundated with attacks and some threats calling the teenage activist a “propaganda machine from the Left.”
“People want to think it’s about something else,” he said. “This isn’t a swastika that I’m installing, or something with nudity. This is a young girl standing in a field.”
But Thunberg is not just any teenager. Since her 2018 protests outside the Swedish Parliament in which she urged a “school strike for the climate,” she has spoken before the United Nations, been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year and twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her outspoken criticisms of world leaders on the environment have alternately earned her praise and condemnation — including from President Trump, who said the teenager, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, has an “Anger Management problem.”
In a place like Bismarck, where much of the economy is tied to North Dakota’s lucrative oil fields, it seems the mere sight of her face has taken on a divisive tenor too.
When the world-famous Swede visited Standing Rock last fall, one of several stops she made after traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat, Balkowitsch jumped at the chance to photograph her.
A 51-year-old business owner and Bismarck native, he spends much of his free time partaking in wet-plate photography, a painstaking practice that predates film and captures images using silver nitrate on glass. In 2016, he used it to capture the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, and more recently, for an ongoing effort to photograph 1,000 Native Americans.
In October 2019, Balkowitsch drove his truck, with a portable darkroom set up in the back, to Standing Rock, where he captured two images of Thunberg: One, a close-up photo of the teen, and the zoomed-out photo with her looking out at the reservation.
Struck by her quiet, understated energy, he titled the picture “Standing for Us All.”
Weeks later, as Thunberg departed North America, she posted the image on Twitter and it went viral overnight. The Library of Congress later asked Balkowitsch to send the original plate to Washington, he said, where it became the first submission of its kind from North Dakota.
I want to thank all the people who I’ve met I North America for their incredible hospitality. And thank you all for your amazing support!— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) November 13, 2019
(This wet plate photo was taken by Shane Balkowitsch on Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.) pic.twitter.com/ZFAEqM5RPZ
The outpouring of support for the photo — and the moment it captured — was so strong that Balkowitsch decided to preserve and commemorate the moment in a more public place, for all of Bismarck to see. He had previously adapted two other steel-plate photos into other murals around town, and this time, he found a possible site on the side of Brick Oven Bakery, off Bismarck’s Main Avenue.
“I’m proud to be able to do this for my city,” he said. “The fact that the city embraces this and allows this: It’s an honor. It’s a privilege.”
He went through necessary regulations, getting a green light from Bismarck city planners and preparing to commit $1,300 of his own money to bring the otherwise empty alleyway to life, with a mural, just over 7-by-5 feet, that would light up at night. Just as he was set to receive final approval from a city commission this week, a local TV station reported on his plans.
The report blew up a storm.
“There is no way I will patronize or recommend the business to anyone if that mural goes up,” one person wrote in a comment on Facebook. The Bismarck Tribune reported that another critic wrote to the bakery’s co-owner, Sandy Jacobson, telling her that the bakery was “an embarrassment to our state” and vowing to “put efforts into public shaming” her business, which had opened up just five months ago. There were threats of vandalizing the artwork, too.
On Wednesday, both Jacobson and Balkowitsch agreed that the mural was no longer worth it.
“This wasn’t something that I was willing to do to someone else for my work,” he said. “I can take it on the chin, but I can’t let someone else take it on the chin.”
On Instagram, Jacobson said that the brick wall outside her business would remain reserved for their own art or advertising. Their landlord, Rolf Eggers, was “passionate about climate change,” but the backlash was unexpected.
“After we realized the emotional impact that this photo may cause,” a post from the bakery’s account said, “we have asked the landlord to reserve the side of the building for future use by us.”
View this post on Instagram
We want to start by thanking all our customers and all of Bismarck for your continued support. We realize that recent events have caused a debate about a mural being put up on the building that we lease. Our landlord is passionate about climate change and stated he would like to put up a mural on building we lease from him, after we realized the emotional impact that this photo may cause we have asked the landlord to reserve the side of the building for future use by us at brick oven bakery for advertising or art work of our choosing.
By Wednesday, both Balkowitsch and the bakery had asked city officials for the mural application to be withdrawn. Instead of putting the image up in Bismarck, he said, he’s already received offers do so in three other places, including Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates and a site in Fargo.
He has been disappointed by the reaction in his hometown, he said, tying it to “ignorance” and a failure to accept the science around a changing climate — but most of all, around trying to ascribe meaning to the mural in the first place.
“Nobody’s changing the fact that Greta Thunberg came to Standing Rock last year. People can take Greta’s message and read it however they want,” he said. “How can this incite something so strong? It shows just how powerful a work of art can be.”