Photography as Storytelling

Ghost’ by Charlie Scott MS’19, honorable mention, URI Research, and Scholarship Photo Contest.

Several months ago, I submitted the above photo in a contest sponsored by URI Research and Scholarship. It was the first time that I shared my photo without filtering my audience. The photo submitted was also my re-entry into photography, as I have been neglecting it since I graduated last year.

I am happy to share that I received an Honorable Mention for the submission of my photo. It was after the contest that I started to seriously identify as a “photographer”. Yet, the reason I hesitated with calling myself a photographer is because of the history of photography and its exploitive relationship with Indigenous Peoples.

Researching Photography

My entry point into photography was researching the history of photography, particularly the impact of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century photographs on the portrayal of Diné (Navajo) concepts of gender and sexuality. The intention of the project was to challenge my communities’ homophobia and transphobia by using historical artifacts, such as photographs, to understand and reinvigorate traditional knowledges.

I found photographs that arguably displayed what I was researching, but I was unable to use them due to a lack of  relevant theoretical frameworks for the intended research. Yet, what I did learn from this project is that the portrayal of photographs informs the viewer more about the photographer than it does of the photograph. Oftentimes, images and photographs are situated within an existing structure of understanding ways of being. The photos of Indigenous Peoples in the nineteenth century became a means of differentiating our communities. There was a distinction between the colonizers and the colonized. There was a phenomenon of romanticization of peoples holding onto traditions while they face settler colonial violence. There was a consumptive aspect towards Indigenous Peoples. Many communities became easily digestible and/or flattened to create a narrative of savagery whether it is ‘noble’ or not, for the gaze of the colonizer.

Photography increasingly became a tool of settler colonialism.

(Brief) History of Photography Towards Indigenous Peoples

The earliest known photograph was taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, which is on a permanent display at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The photograph taken by Niépce was made on a pewter plate that was coated with an asphalt derivative of petroleum and was exposed for eight hours. About 20 years later, the earliest known photograph(s) of Indigenous Peoples was taken by Thomas Easterly in 1847. The photo was of Chief Keokuk (Sauk). Some notable photographers who were fascinated with Indigenous Peoples were John K. Hillers, Simeon Schwemberger, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, James Mooney, and Edward S. Curtis to name a few.

These photographers portrayed their fascination with Indigenous communities through their photography. Tropes like the Noble Savage and Indian Princess were reified in these instances as more and more non-Natives consumed and imagined what Indigenous Peoples were like. In spite of this fascination, photography continued to colonize Indigenous Peoples in a very particular way during the educational assimilation period. Photography became a mechanism of portraying Indigenous Peoples’ transition into “Western Society”. For example, the Carlisle School hired a photographer, John Nicholas Choate, to regularly photograph Indigenous Youths as they arrived onto the campus, and then photographed them again after spending several months at the school to portray aspects of civilization.

In both of these instances, names were withheld or words like savage, sq*w, brave, etc. were used to describe photos of Indigenous Peoples. That type of development suggests a sort of unwillingness to recognize the innate humanity of Indigenous Peoples. There a sort of framing of an object used for consuming a sensory of emotions unique to the colonizer’s gaze and desires.

This sort of historical portrayal of Indigenous Peoples continues to this day. Colonizers continue to portray Indigenous Peoples within tropes of savagery, whether noble or not, to appease a sense of differentiation between themselves and Indigenous Peoples. This was most particularly at Standing Rock. Tailyr Irvine (Salish and Kootenai) shared that many non-native photographers took photos of Indigenous Peoples horseback riding, in regalia, praying, etc. while Indigenous Peoples resisted the construction an oil pipeline and ongoing settler colonial violence.

Photography participated in the curation of a  settler colonial imagery.

My Aspirations | Amásání Gallery

The reason why I engage with photography is that I wanted to work against the consumerism and commodification of Indigenous Peoples. I became invested in challenging and disrupting the stereotypical narratives and caricatures of Indigenous Peoples. I started an Instagram page that is exclusive of my digital photography, Amásání Gallery. In English, Amásání means Grandmother. Amánásí Gallery is an homage to my grandmother, who very rarely allowed photographs to be taken of her only with her consent. It is also an honoring to my ancestors as well, who saw the beauty in all of creation and were committed to internalizing that beauty. It is my grandmother’s, her mother’s, and her mother’s mother gallery. Not mine. 

In a lot of ways, the way I interact with photography is that of storytelling. Personally, storytelling is a means of knowing and transferring personal understandings of knowledge, culture, and power. Storytelling from an Indigenous perspective requires more than just listening. It involves building a relationship with the people around you, the world one creates, and a collaboration of constructing realities. It is because of that connection between storytelling and photography that I strongly believe there are social responsibilities when sharing and consuming photographs, just like when one shares and consumes stories. I cannot ignore the history of violence that co-exists with photography. I need to acknowledge it and use varying methods to disrupt the narratives, teachings, and practices of photography that have been so ingrained in the colonizers’ imagination.

I wanted my type of photography to be a means of expressing the beauty and stories of the land and ourselves. I prefer portraits of landscapes that do not romanticize the land that showcases the dynamics that occur in the everyday life. I prefer portraits that allow the subject to retain their subjectivity and engage with the lens in their own unique manner. Meaning, it is the people who are deciding when and where to take their photos. In the photographs, I have been able to create, there is a sentience imbued, stories heard and seen, an intimate relationship with the people and land. I am merely providing a memorial reflection of what the camera captures.

This is not so much a rallying call for Indigenous Photographers, rather it is sharing my reason(s) for using a tool to reflect a sense of a diné aesthetic. I want to share the memorial reflections of the internal and external beauty that I have experienced and that I hope that each of you are able to experience, especially as I continue to theorize who I am, who I was, and who I will be through the storytelling of photography. 

Ahé’hee’ | Thank you.

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