Chancy J. Gatlin-Anderson
Special to Colorado Community Media
In 1977, writer and philosopher Susan Sontag said in her book, “On Photography,” that “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
Photography can tell a thousand stories. Throughout the past several decades, visual anthropologists have studied Sontag’s work along with that of other writers, researchers and philosophers. Some anthropologists argue that the purest form of photography is that which is captured by the individual, documenting their own life and shining a light on selfhood, human behavior and even deep, personal struggle.
At the Denver Art Museum’s newest photography exhibition entitled “Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous photography,” more than 30 Native photographers have come together to tell their own personal stories of struggle, erasure, anger and stereotyping. They’ve also visually depicted their stories of humor, joy, perseverance and the Native spirit.
“As an exhibition, one of the aims of the artists is to reclaim and takeback the narrative about Indigenous people in North America. It is people who are given a voice and an opportunity to make pictures that address a lot of historical issues about stereotyping, invisibility, poverty and violence. But it isn’t all about that,” said Eric Paddock, curator of photography at the Denver Art Museum. “It isn’t all about blame or throwing the darker parts of our history into high relief. It does that, but there are also pictures that express the importance of family, and of community, and the value of memory in the everyday lives of Indigenous people. In those respects. They’re not that different from the needs and hopes of other people.”
“Speaking with Light” is one of the first major museum surveys to explore the practices of Indigenous photographers working over the past three decades. The exhibition was organized by the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where it debuted before its presentation in Denver. It includes new commissions and recently acquired works from the Amon Carter Museum’s collection alongside loans from artists and other institutions.
The colorfully curated exhibit is divided into four sections. The exhibit takes visitors on a journey of the Native experience, beginning with depictions of Native people taken by White photographers, and ending with a story of resilience.
The first section entitled Prologue: State to State features photographs made by White photographers when Indigenous leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. for treaty negotiations. Those leaders may not have been happy about what they heard from the U.S. government, but they projected strength, agency and dignity in the photography studios. Indigenous photographer Will Wilson’s “Talking Tintype” portrait of Enoch Haney, former principal chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, vividly carries these early photographic encounters into the present day, tracing a through line to questions of identity, governance and sovereignty in the 21st century.
In the second section entitled Survivance: An Ongoing Process, Native photographers use humor, pathos, anger and declaration to defy erasure and stereotyping, and to demand recognition of Indigenous existence, rights and cultural commitment.
Section three is called Nation. In this section, photographs depict the relations Native individuals have to their communities and show that they are central to Indigenous identity. Artists delve into what it means to belong and question how dislocation, forced assimilation or disconnection impact the concept of nationality.
Indigenous Visualities is the title of section four. It depicts photographs that lift Indigenous voices, embracing spirit and a deep connection with the natural world. The works push back against colonial narratives to demonstrate that Indigenous voices are integral in the ever-evolving social landscape.
“Speaking with Light” concludes with an interactive touchscreen where visitors can explore the work of many more Indigenous photographers through the online database, Indigenous Photograph. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will encounter short videos and hear insights about the work from artists themselves.
“This is a pretty special thing that doesn’t come along every day,” said Paddock. “The people of Denver should come see this exhibition because it shows that there is a huge realm of photography that isn’t on everyone’s radar, that we haven’t been seeing in museums, or reading about in the art press until very recently.”