Challenging the Misrepresentations of Native Americans through Photographs
Photography is often viewed as one of the most “realistic” components of art media, as its mechanical process captures reality authentically and without human bias; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be manipulated. As a response to the consistent misrepresentation of Native Americans, Matika Wilbur started a project to show who these people really are.
In the past, photographers have tried to capture the essence of the remaining Native American peoples. One such explorer has been Edward Curtis, a portrait photographer, who did a series showing the native people of the American West. Despite his good intentions, Mr. Curtis’s portraits were filled with staged props and false impressions, adhering to historical representations and misappropriated norms rather than present reality.
A century later, Wilbur, who started a similar project entitle Project 562, decided to counteract this. She travels across America, photographing those from the 560 federally recognized Native American tribes. Her eclectic subjects represent the real Native Americans, and not those who simply resemble stereotypes.
This isn’t to say that within the photographs familiar elements can’t be seen. There are a multitude of Wilbur’s portraits where traditional, celebratory attire is worn, a chance for the subjects to show their intricate beadwork and craftsmanship — but these are juxtaposed with other more modern portraits, ones that could also be found in a yearbook for senior pictures or used as a head-shot.
Wilbur’s more modern photos present the Native American people in a way that’s wholly familiar but in another sense. They don’t recall the common historical conceptions of what a Native American is, but rather show the people just as they are — a natural element of their society, as individuals, and not intrinsically tied to cultural veins. A simple shot of two men swimming stands out, because there’s absolutely nothing specific to associate them with their culture, yet it provides a fuller, more rounded experience in the series.
Project 562 attempts to present Native Americans with a raw honesty previously neglected. The composition is simple, and the editing is minimal, venturing only in highlighting certain colors over others. The energy of the subject transcends the photo, and interacts with the audience to share their story.
This is a project of portraits; portraits with intention. Wilbur uses photography to effectively capture the spirit and culture of the 21st century Native American. In a way, it is as if she’s let us in on a private family reunion, and we’re all just getting to know each other.