The case of Edward S. Curtis is complex. He was no dilettante: He made serious ethnographic studies of indigenous communities, from the Piegan of the Great Plains to the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. And in the 1920s in New Mexico, he became involved in political initiatives that sought to defend Native Americans against government control. But the general tenor of his work idealized Native Americans in the name of preserving vanishing ways of life. He was not above removing, through later photographic manipulation, an offending clock from a carefully arranged scene. Curtis, a knowledgeable and determined man, knew exactly how he liked his Indians.
Horace Poolaw, in contrast, made pictures that were great in their testimonial simplicity and democracy of vision; a relaxed group of Kiowa and Cherokee deacons in slacks and jackets, his son Jerry on leave from Navy duty in his sailor’s uniform and a feathered headdress. Curtis, meanwhile, was inclined to invent scenarios, expunging inconvenient details in order to emphasize a concept of primitivism. One photographer thus gave us lively pictures of life as it was being lived, and the other, at much greater cost and with much more ambition, ended up delivering stilted images of dubious value. Is the lesson here that the truth of a given community can only be delivered by an insider?
A century on, the conundrum remains. There are now many Native American photographers doing outstanding work, bringing to their seeing all the advantages of insider knowledge. Brian Adams is an Inuit photographer of Inuit culture, with a body of work characterized by inquisitiveness and joy. Some of the most rousing photographs of the Standing Rock protests were taken by Josué Rivas, who is Mexica, and Camille Seaman, of the Shinnecock tribe.
But for outsiders to any culture, the situation remains tricky. Take the British photographer Jimmy Nelson, whose “Before They Pass Away” was published as a lush large-format coffee table book in 2013 and has since become ubiquitous in bookstores around the world. “Before They Pass Away” is made explicitly in homage to Edward S. Curtis, whom Nelson often cites as a hero. It proceeds from the same idea as Curtis’s: that certain peoples, on the verge of disappearing, must be captured in illustrative, archetypal photographs. “Before They Pass Away” is accordingly full of postcard-pretty images of the Mursi in Ethiopia, the Huaorani in Ecuador, the Dani in Indonesia. The sitters look out mutely from Nelson’s ark, and scant concession is made to the fact of their contemporaneity. They occasionally tote guns, but do they use boat engines or watch television? If they have any mobile phones, they’re hidden away. What we get, instead, is feathers, fur, cowrie shells, leaves and lots of body paint.
Like Curtis — but without Curtis’s ethnographic rigor — Nelson places his subjects in a permanent anthropological past, erasing their present material and political realities. He is sentimental about those he photographs and often proclaims their beauty, but having invested himself so deeply in the idea of their “disappearance,” he is unable to believe that they are not going anywhere, that they are simply adapting to the modern world. No wonder he is flummoxed by the various tribal leaders who have protested the inaccuracy of his pictures.
What a relief it is then to consider a markedly different project, by the American photographer Daniella Zalcman. In 2016, she published “Signs of Your Identity,” a book featuring First Nations Canadians. But by her own admission, she had a false start. For a month in 2014, Zalcman (who, I should mention, was an acquaintance of mine in college, though I only recently re-encountered her through her work) photographed indigenous Canadians who were struggling with substance abuse and H.I.V. The images she came away with, she thought, risked further stigmatizing the community. When she returned the following year, she began to explore a different story, one that was urgent but that also allowed her to focus on individual experience.
That project was about indigenous people who had been forced to attend Canada’s Indian Residential Schools during the 19th century (the last of which closed only in 1996). Young children were taken from their families and placed in these institutions to enforce their assimilation into mainstream Canadian culture. Indigenous languages were suppressed, and physical and sexual assaults were common. Zalcman interviewed several dozen people, of varying ages, who had spent time in these schools and were haunted by their memories.
Zalcman’s challenge was how to make these memories visible. Her solution, as old-fashioned as it was elegant, was to make double exposures, joining two instants into one by overlaying images of places with portraits of people. She presented these double exposures with written fragments of her interviews with the sitters. Looking at the doubled images, you imagine that the mind of the person pictured is literally occupied by space on which it is overlaid: the decrepit school buildings, the grass where a demolished school once stood. But you also sense that this could be you, that these images are not a report on tribal peculiarities but on the workings of human memory. Uncertain about her right to shape the story, Zalcman lets the subjects speak for themselves. This hesitancy is productive: She manages to accomplish quietly forceful reportage from material that could easily have been sensationalized.
Sympathy is often not enough. It can be condescending. But taking on the identity of others, appropriating what is theirs, is invasive and frequently violent. I have heard appropriation defended on the grounds that we have a responsibility to tell one another’s stories and must be free to do so. This is a seductive but flawed argument. The responsibility toward other people’s stories is real and inescapable, but that doesn’t mean that appropriation is the way to satisfy that responsibility. In fact, the opposite is true: Telling the stories in which we are complicit outsiders has to be done with imagination and skepticism. It might require us not to give up our freedom, but to prioritize justice over freedom. It is not about taking something that belongs to someone else and making it serve you but rather about recognizing that history is brutal and unfinished and finding some way, within that recognition, to serve the dispossessed.
Photography is particularly treacherous when it comes to righting wrongs, because it is so good at recording appearances. Capturing how things look fools us into thinking that we’ve captured their truth. But appearance is bare fact. Combined with intuition, scrupulous context and moral intelligence, it has a chance to become truth. Unalloyed, it is worse than nothing.
Continue reading the main story