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Photography and Civic Engagement

Troubling NDN Pictures: Challenging the Historic Representation of Indigenous People

by Holly Stuart Hughes

Photo of Will Wilson

Will Wilson

Will Wilson’s art projects center around the continuation and transformation of customary Indigenous cultural practice.  He is a Diné photographer and trans-customary artist who spent his formative years living on the Navajo Nation.  Wilson studied photography, sculpture, and art history at the University of New Mexico (MFA, Photography, 2002) and Oberlin College (BA, Studio Art and Art History, 1993).  In 2007, Wilson won the Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum, in 2010 the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award for Sculpture, and in 2016 the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant for Photography.  Wilson has held visiting professorships at the Institute of American Indian Arts (1999-2000), Oberlin College (2000-01), and the University of Arizona (2006-08). In 2017, Wilson’s received the NM Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.  In 2020, Wilson was the Doran Artist in Residence at the Yale University Art Gallery.  Wilson is Program Head of Photography, Santa Fe Community College.

With your Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange [CIPX] project and the Talking Tintypes app, you have used a 19th century wet-plate process to make portraits that challenge 19th century representations of Indigenous people.  Why did you feel this vintage process was the right medium? 

The historic wet-plate collodion process evokes history and embeds my contemporary work with meaning that transcends the present day. Wet-plate was the process used to make the first known photographs of Diné people. Significantly, these first photographs were created during a period known as the Hwéeldi by Navajo. The Hwéeldi, or place of suffering, refers to the Long Walk of the Navajo to Bosque Redondo or Fort Sumner in what is now eastern New Mexico. Beginning in I863, the U.S. Government orchestrated a scorched-earth campaign of deportation and attempted ethnic cleansing against the Navajo people, resulting in a series of forced marches from Dinétah (Navajo homelands) to the U.S. military garrison, Fort Sumner. The Navajo were forced to endure five years of internment, miserable conditions, and near-starvation at Fort Sumner until June 1, 1968, when a treaty was signed between the Navajo and the U.S. Government (photographs were taken, marking this important event.) As a Diné photographer, I feel the legacy of Hwéeldi looms large in my understanding of the history of photography to Indigenous people. My engagement with this process—and by extension its relationship to the traumatic history of U.S.-Diné relations—binds the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange to history and meaning in a way that other processes simply can’t.     

How are your methods of working with your Indigenous portrait sitters different from those of the 19th century photographers whose work you were critiquing? How were the results different? 

"As a Diné photographer, I feel the legacy of Hwéeldi looms large in my understanding of the history of photography to Indigenous people."

CIPX is premised on exchange and reciprocity. It is meant to be an antidote to the extractive history of photographic practice that takes representation away from the subject and transforms it into a commercial, sociological, or bureaucratic enterprise. I strive to share agency with my photographic collaborators and hope that they come away from the experience with the sense that they have determined how they are photographically depicted. In my project, the sitter or subject is gifted the original photographic object, the tintype, in exchange for a scan of the tintype and a non-exclusive photographic release.

I also hope that I am referencing histories of process and representation in order to subvert and transpose them: Invoking history through the process to unsettle colonial narratives of nostalgia and erasure set my work apart from my 19th counterparts.  

© Will Wilson, Enoch Kelly Haney, citizen of Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Artist, former State Senator, and Principal Chief of Seminole Nation (2016), Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange [CIPX], Photo/Synthesis.

Download and experience the Talking Tintype of Senator Enoch Haney via the QR code below.

What do you mean by “nostalgia” in colonial narratives? 

I was thinking about something I recall critic and essayist bell hooks saying about nostalgia as apolitical memory. She was referencing the idea of “imperialist nostalgia” that anthropologist Renato Rosaldo described as “a process of yearning for what one has destroyed that is a form of mystification.” It’s a way of thinking about the “good old days" before settler-colonialism, though the ones who changed the culture are the ones pining for a previous time. Nostalgia can be adopted by people as a way of thinking about the past without thinking critically about whether they were actually good days. 

I’ve heard a lot of scholars talk about Native American artifacts, the processes required to make these beautiful objects, and their role in Native American culture without talking about how they were acquired. Most Native American artifacts in museums today were acquired during the "Indian Wars" when the U.S. military was becoming a hegemonic power in Indigenous territories. Edward S. Curtis used a Pictorialist vocabulary to present Indigenous people in a romantic and beautiful light, but he was not illustrating Indigenous people's struggle to preserve their land or to stop their children from being taken away.  

This comes back to why I’m drawn to using these 19th century photographic processes. It offers a way to think about that time in a more critical way.

Can you describe the “treaty portraits” made in the 19th and 20th centuries? How were they used? What do you think their influence was?

I am co-curating an exhibition called "Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography" at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which will open in October of 2022. John Rohrbach, Senior Curator of Photographs, and I have created a prologue to the exhibition, titled "Prologue: State to State", by way of introduction we state:

“Indigenous cultures have lived across Native North America for thousands of years. As late as 1800, Indigenous people controlled more than 80 percent of what is now the contiguous United States. Tremendously varied in language, custom, and culture, these communities have always been sovereign entities whose leaders have met repeatedly over the years with United States government officials to find solutions to mutual problems. Such engagements continue today through events like the Biden administration’s November 2021 Tribal Nations Summit.

During the middle and late 19th century, faced with a rapacious American citizenry that thought little of dismissing their rights and taking their lands, Indigenous leaders repeatedly came to Washington, DC, to negotiate agreements and treaties with U.S. Presidents. During their visits, these leaders often had their portraits made. They may not have been happy about what they were hearing from United States officials, but they brought strength, agency, and dignity to their sittings, choosing what to wear and how to present themselves to the camera.”

These photographs are foundational to American democracy, not only as evidence of a young U.S. Nation learning to exercise its powers diplomatically, but of the innate sovereignty of the Indigenous Nations upon whose land the U.S. is founded. These treaty delegation photographs are visual evidence of the legal acknowledgment and consultation that resulted in binding agreements around U.S.-Indigenous coexistence.  

© Charles M. Bell (1848-1893), Navajo chief Manueltio's wife Juanita with Indian Agent W.F.M. Arny, Washington, DC, 1874, provided by the Palace of the Governors Archives

How have you responded in your own work to those portraits of treaty delegations?

By placing my Talking Tintype portraits of modern-day Indigenous leaders in conversation with the historic delegation photographs I am demonstrating a through-line of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. The 19th century delegation photographs present a visual record of Indigenous leaders fighting for their people's rights under extraordinary circumstances. These photographs are evidence of state-to-state relations. My Talking Tintype portraits of Enoch Haney, Principal Chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State Senator, and John Shotton, Chairman of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, carry the weight of those 19th century encounters into the present. Through a marriage of 19th century photographic process and 21st century augmented reality, I am giving voice to contemporary Indigenous leaders while referencing the long history of Indigenous advocacy for political and cultural sovereignty.

There's an uncanny moment when something you have been trained to understand as nostalgic breaks through the past into the present with a voice that talks to you about sovereignty today. I like the idea that these are contemporary portraits seen through the lens of a historical process to emphasize the point that these people are present today doing important work. Through a multi-sensory aesthetic, I am suing for a contemporary awareness of Indigenous presence and self-determination.

In an interview, you said a subtitle for CIPX might have been “What if Indians Invented Photography?” How do you imagine a 19th century Diné artist might have employed early cameras? 

When I developed this question as a way to speculate on how photography — particularly of people, and portraiture — might be understood and practiced in an alternative manner, I was thinking about the importance of representation to cultures based on oral tradition, where descriptions of history and our relationship to the world get conveyed through story and are embodied in the tellers and audience. How do people who understand knowledge as dialogic and contingent on the conditions of the telling deal with the photographic process and object and its powers of “indexical description”?  A power that fixes the telling of a story in such a permanent way.

Your work heightens our awareness that in much of photography, there is a power imbalance between photographer and subject. It also heightens our sensitivity to the untrustworthiness of some images because a photographer’s preconceptions about their subjects can produce a misleading or hurtful photographic record. What do you teach photography students about ethics and their responsibilities to the communities where they photograph? 

"Through a marriage of 19th century photographic process and 21st century augmented reality, I am giving voice to contemporary Indigenous leaders while referencing the long history of Indigenous advocacy for political and cultural sovereignty."

I do try to give examples of how photography has been used by the state or other powerful interests to construct a vision of reality that aligns with its own and that serves its needs and desires. I am a big fan of Alan Sekula’s essay, "The Body and the Archive", which exposes how various state entities used photography to “image deviance,” in order to establish visual regimes of criminality and orderliness. More often than not, the image of deviance and/or criminality became a portrait of difference measured by its dissimilarity from wealthy, white, male, protestant Christian, heteronormative identity.  

I also encourage students to think critically about how their own communities have been photographically represented historically. I also try to show examples of how photography can be used as an empowering storytelling device, either through its capacity to shed light upon injustice or to create empowering, self-affirming visions of who we are in this world.

© Will Wilson, Mexican Hat Disposal Cell, cylindrical projection, Halchita, UT, Navajo Nation, 2021,
provided by the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard and Ronay Menschel Fund for the Acquisition of Photographs

What advice or caution would you give viewers about how to interrogate and interpret photographs they use to understand history?

I think it is essential to understand the perspective of the photographer and how the images they are creating fit into their broader practice. Also, the conditions under which the photographs were taken. Were the photographs made as part of a commissioned project? If so, for whom? I also encourage folx to critically consider the manner in which the images are presented and their circulation.  

You have done projects about environmental injustice and the damage done by mineral extraction near the Navajo Nation using several media—including drone-based landscape photos, film, and installation. Do you consider these projects art, advocacy, or both? What sort of action or reaction do you hope these works inspire?

At the moment, I hope that the work inspires Diné art and art history students to take a critical and complex look at the history of resource mis/management and believe that this kind of critical cultural practice is a viable avenue of creative practice. I also want to show folx that artists can communicate the need for change in quiet and forceful ways and that we can use our creative powers and voice to help dream into being solutions to complex problems.

At other times, it’s very personal and it’s about exercising demons through creative practice that demands determination and hard work. What an amazing privilege it is to learn new techniques, work with others to tell complex stories, and, once in a while, bear witness to the sublime.


Scan the QR code to download the Talking Tintypes app.

Talking Tintypes is an augmented photographic experience and collaboration created by Diné photographer, Will Wilson, Indigenous artists and leaders, and a broader public. Using the app, scan any photograph from the Talking Tintypes collection to activate the photograph.

This interview was conducted by Holly Stuart Hughes, Independent Editor, Writer & Grant Consultant, Former Editor-in-Chief, PDN, in June 2022.