Photographic depictions of Turtle Island (known to many as North America) have historically been controlled by non-native image-makers. From Edward Curtis to Jimmy Nelson, most of the past century’s documentation has routinely misrepresented, or exotically depicted the Indigenous people we see.
“How We See Ourselves” is a group exhibition, up at Photoville NYC this weekend, with some of the thirty members of Natives Photograph – a new clearinghouse of Indigenous photographers that aims to counter cliché, one-dimensional and insensitive portrayals of Native Americans.
The show is a deeper and more nuanced depiction of Indigenous life than you’re used to seeing. It’s an inside look at the communities, families, homes, and landscapes of this continent, created by artists using their cameras to reclaim their narrative.
Too often, media outlets turn to photos of powwow regalia and headdresses as the default images to portray Native Americans. At other times, public portrayals of Native Americans skew toward desolate living conditions, stripped down cars and the ravages of alcoholism.
PDN: One of the reasons for Natives Photograph’s existence is because, historically, depictions of North America have been controlled by non-native imagemakers. Why is this is dangerous?
Daniella Zalcman: I think we’re having a complicated conversation right now about why insider perspectives in photojournalism are so valuable. I think the other half of that conversation (that is less relevant and important in our immediate need to build a more inclusive industry) is that outsider perspectives can be valuable too — and that at least I personally believe that journalism at its best is built on a combination of insider and outsider perspectives. But the problem is that Native communities have — until very recently — almost never been afforded the luxury of having insider perspectives and stories elevated to mainstream spaces. So the information and photography and scholarship and cinema that most Americans consume that addresses Native people and places is almost exclusively from a colonial perspective, and one that arguably lacks nuance and in-depth cultural context (or in many cases, is just plain wrong or racist). We live in a country that thinks it’s still appropriate for the Washington football team to celebrate a racial slur. That is a direct consequence of a society that doesn’t listen to Indigenous perspectives.
Josue Rivas: I also think the danger of not having a balanced narrative affects native people more than it affects non-natives. We live with the consequences of been portrayed as marginalized and romanticized among other things. Our image has been sold to mainstream society without us having much of a say so now we are taking our image back. I think the industry will get it sooner or later. When you hire an Indigenous person to tell a story about Indigenous peoples you are not only uplifting us but you are also contributing to the reclamation of our narrative.
PDN: One of the problems that can arise when non-native photographers attempt to document Indigenous people/traditions is that they resort to stereotypes and tropes. Do you agree and can you discuss this a little.
DZ: I can speak to this as a non-Native photographer who has spent the past five years working primarily in Native communities. As someone who grew up on the east coast and learned virtually nothing about Native history and culture in school, there was a steep learning curve when I ended up reporting a story on First Nations communities in Canada for the first time. And early on I absolutely found myself at times drawn to the visual markers of what non-Native people think constitutes “Nativeness” — and if that’s exclusively how we see Native people portrayed, it’s definitely a reductive and unfair way to think of a group of people who also exist in a modern context.
JR: I think it’s normal that non-natives resort to the typical imagery of Indigenous peoples, especially here in North America. We live in an area of the world that did a great job at implementing settler colonialism into our programming. Non-natives by and large have little understanding of their own history and so it’s problematic to document folks that have been the most affected by the so-called dominant culture. If we want to create a healthier environment for non-native visual storytellers to tell stories about native people, we must first make space for us to lead the conversations and critiques about the way we are documented and how we can go into a deeper level with our stories.
PDN: Can you describe Natives Photographs’s mission in a little more depth.
DZ: Our goal is to provide a resource for editors, curators, and gatekeepers in the photography community who are looking to tell stories through an Indigenous lens. And while we certainly hope that editors will consider hiring Indigenous photographers to cover Indigenous stories, we hope they’ll also commission them to cover stories within any of the vast array of communities that reside in the Americas.
PDN: How many members does Natives Photograph have?
DZ: There are currently 31 photographers in the database and we’re always looking to expand!
PDN: What is the criteria to join and are you accepting members?
DZ: We are — we’re currently focused on Indigenous photographers working on Turtle Island (the Americas), but also hope to expand to be more global down the road. Anyone who’s interested in reaching out can contact us at [email protected].
PDN:What does the curated collection at Photoville represent? Can you talk about the curation of it a little, how did you pick these specific images from the members?
DZ: Josue and I asked members to submit images and then curated the exhibition together — we were mostly looking to create a show that celebrated and highlighted the diversity of genre, subject matter, and region in the work that these photographers do, but we realized after we’d made our selection that in most cases we’d gravitated towards deeply personal work — photographers who’d made images of family members, within their own communities, even self portraits. And we think that’s perfectly fitting here — after all this is about turning the Indigenous gaze inward, and that’s exactly what this exhibition represents.