Kali Spitzer and Alana Paterson reveal portraits of Indigenous resilience at the Capture Photography Festival
“Photography is a tricky medium, and I think that it’s not always used in a good way,” says Kali Spitzer, and for proof of that one need only look at the steady stream of deceptive, altered, or stereotype-reinforcing images being pumped into our homes every minute of every day. And so Spitzer, in her exhibition An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance, as elsewhere, is trying to do something different by applying Indigenous ethics to an old but alluring technology.
Spitzer is a devotee of a 150-year-old photographic technique called tintype, which uses a layer of emulsion on thin sheets of metal. She calls the resulting images “the most fancy kind of Polaroid you could ever do”, and indeed they combine the slightly smeary look of old instant photos with the layered, chiaroscuro quality of large-format black-and-white camerawork. Not coincidentally, the process is similar to that used by the turn-of-the-20th-century ethnographer Edward Curtis, famous—or infamous, depending on who you ask—for making beautiful but romanticized and unrealistic images of Indigenous people from the Pacific Northwest, perpetuating the stereotype of the so-called noble savage.
Spitzer’s images are also primarily of Indigenous people: often women, and frequently individuals who identify as trans or nonbinary. Her richly textured black-and-white photographs are also often beautiful, but she doesn’t romanticize her subjects. In fact, she doesn’t have subjects, per se; she has collaborators. “We’re making these tintypes together, and then we go into the darkroom to develop them, and that person’s able to look at that image and they can critique it on the spot, if they want,” the artist—whose heritage is Kaska Dena on her father’s side and Jewish-Romanian on her mother’s—tells the Straight in an interview from her Vancouver home. “So I really view it as a collaboration between me and the person I’m making images with. And I think that part of making this practice in a good way is giving people autonomy over image—which also means that if I get a model release signed but a few years down the road the person doesn’t want the image used, I don’t use it anymore.”
This consideration extends to the often autobiographical voice recordings that accompany each image in An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance, jointly presented by grunt gallery and the Capture Photography Festival. These offer a more in-depth and intimate look at what’s being shown than the usual artist’s statement or curatorial essay. Spitzer’s cocreators are invited to provide their own audio statement, in their own voice, without editing or time limits.
Does this consideration reflect a specifically Indigenous way of making art?
“I don’t speak for any other Indigenous people, just myself,” Spitzer says thoughtfully. “But I feel that the values that were built into me growing up by my Indigenous roots—and also by my mother, who’s Jewish—were that you listen, and that you do things with respect, and that you try to do things with the least amount of ego possible.”
Alana Paterson is not Indigenous, but the subjects of her contribution to the Capture Photography Festival are. In her gallery show and public-art initiative Skwxwú7mesh Nation Basketball, she’s looking at young female athletes, with the express intent of empowerment and encouragement. That they’re from the Squamish First Nation is incidental—up to a point. One of the side effects of showing these teenagers outside a readily identifiable cultural context, beyond their satin uniforms and brick-orange basketballs, is to highlight their individuality. Shown in starkly lit, three-quarter-length portraits of the kind sometimes used on sports trading cards, they’re not stereotyped “Natives”, but self-possessed young women on the verge of moving into the adult world.
Dismantling stereotypes is not Paterson’s main concern, though, although she considers that “interesting”. Instead, she hopes to honour the role sports can play in encouraging self-awareness and self-assertion.
A skateboarder herself, she has a knack for capturing bodies in motion, and when a 2017 photo series focusing on women’s hockey caught the attention of a Squamish youth counsellor, Paterson was invited to shoot the young women’s side of 2018’s Junior All Native Basketball Tournament, made up of over 80 teams from 50 nations.
“She had seen the hockey project, and it got her a bit excited,” Paterson tells the Straight from Kelowna, where she’s on her way to a shoot. “She thought [the photo shoot] would be a cool way to keep the girls excited and interested in sports, ’cause keeping teenage girls in sports is really difficult. They drop out at a rate six times higher than boys their age.…But, keeping them in sports, their chances of graduating college skyrocket. Their chances of getting a job in a male-dominated field skyrocket. If you’re a high-level female executive, your chances of having been involved in sports is 92 percent. If you’re a CEO or higher, it goes to 96 percent. That’s pretty incredible. And who knows if the cart comes before the horse or how it works, but why not hedge your bets and try and keep your kids in sports, right?”
One thing that links Paterson and Spitzer’s work is that both photo series depict people as they would like to be seen. But while the young women in Skwxwú7mesh Nation Basketball are looking boldly into the future, the historical connections that emerge in An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance are among its most moving aspects.
“A lot of the time, when we’re developing these images, people have told me that they look like their grandmother, or they feel that the images really represent them, or that they feel strong or beautiful,” Spitzer says. “There’s a lot of really positive things that happen in that darkroom.”
That’s the “resilience” part of Spitzer’s equation: the survival of Indigenous beauty and Indigenous values under a colonial system that continues to work against such things.
“Being alive today: that is resistance in itself,” Spitzer adds. “That’s through the resistance and the strength of our ancestors, who fought for us to be able to be here today. Existing in this colonized world, we are inherently resistant. And the people in the images, a lot of them are doing language revitalization in their communities, and art, and advocacy. I also feel that the mothers in these images are teaching their children to be strong, proud Indigenous people—and that is a form of resistance, too.”
An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance runs at grunt gallery until April 27. Skwxwú7mesh Nation Basketball is on view at the Polygon Gallery from April 13 until May 12, and at Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain Station through March 1, 2020.