A look into Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana

In our new monthly series, Early Careers, we talk to a photographer from the PHmuseum community about a recent series and how they created the work. This month: Felix von der Osten’s The Buffalo that could not Dream.

He hasn’t even graduated, and yet Felix von der Osten is steadily making a name for himself. Currently studying a BA in photography at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Dortmund [he finishes in 2016], von der Osten is midway through a project that took him to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.

The reservation is home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Native American tribes, and it was there that the German photographer began The Buffalo that could not Dream, which explores the lives of the people who live at Fort Belknap and their tribal culture. In the past, the tribes were enemies, forced to live together after the American Government passed the Appropriations Act of 1851 (the Act led to the creation of reservations for Native Americans). Life remains hard for these people, says von der Osten. There are problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and the repercussions of gang culture ripple through the reservation. But, rather than approaching the project as a reportage photographer might – by going straight in and covering the most newsworthy stories – von der Osten favoured a slower, more contemplative approach.

Image from the series The Buffalo that could not Dream by Felix von der Osten

He lived at Fort Belknap for a month towards the end of 2014, gradually winning the trust of the residents, who he says opened up and welcomed him into their community. His aim was “to show the beauty and richness of the Native American culture, [giving it] the dignity and respect it deserves… Shining a light on the faces, the lives and the roots of this culture might help to better understand these people.”

Through a combination of posed portraits, landscape images, and still life studies, von der Osten captures the essence of daily life, alluding to the difficulties people face without directly focusing on them. He returned to Fort Belknap this summer [2015] for a little over a month, and says his time there not only helped to progress the project but also allowed him to grow as a photographer. “For a lot of people, I wasn’t ‘the photographer’ anymore; I was just the guy who was there. I was included in everything and it was very family-like.”

He didn’t have a car to travel the vast distances across the reservation, but it turned out to be an opportunity, he says, as relying on others for lifts meant he got to know new people and places. “I made a lot more portraits this time, because I met more people… Almost everyone knew me, and I was accepted; I could go everywhere.”

Von der Osten is currently editing the images from his most recent trip – a time-consuming but necessary process – combining them with his previous shots. “On my previous trip I was more about showing the beauty [of the place], but this time the images are a bit more rough in the sense that you can see rubbish lying around, for example.” The suggestion that all is not well at Fort Belknap is more evident in the images now, he adds, giving an example of a portrait of a little boy wearing a balaclava and holding a baseball bat, which is playful yet “dark”.

“I got a lot deeper this time… My confidence grew and I took chances – knocking on people’s doors for example, which I’d never have done before. I really want to go back again.”

To see more of Felix von der Osten's work visit his PHmuseum profile

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