Photography assignments with First Nations people

When working photography assignments with First Nations people for BC Housing, I find one notable aspect of each official announcement is the Land Acknowledgement and the formal welcome by an elder of the community.

Portrait of First Nations Elder Sharon Bryant in Terrace, BC

Photographing First Nations Elders

This is a portrait of First Nations Elder Sharon Bryant in Terrace, BC. She welcomed us to the territories of the Tsimshan and Gitksan peoples. She spoke ahead of the breaking ground ceremony of the rental housing project, Ksan House. As part of the ceremony, I photographed her at the podium but afterwards I approached and asked her permission for a portrait.

The warmth of her smile and personality comes through in this quick portrait. I didn’t worry that she would deny my request but I did not want to make assumptions. A comfortable subject makes for natural portraits and this is achieved through rapport, connection and sensitivity.

First Nations cultural sensitivity

Building effective and positive relationships with Indigenous people rests on an understanding and sensitivity to First Nations culture. As a person with Indigenous heritage but raised outside of the culture, I have long been interested in (and frustrated by) the process of reconciliation. I have worked in urban Native youth outreach programs, visited friendship centres and talked to healers and elders. Even so, Canada’s emerging history of colonialism and genocide continues to surprise and dishearten me.

First Nations Reconciliation

For my own journey of education, First Nations reconciliation interests me in how it intersects with those of us who connect through heritage rather than experience. For instance, what can those of us do whose parents lost their sense of heritage through the residential schools or adoption?

As I work more photography assignments with First Nations people, I hear ever more land acknowledgements. It has become clear to me that these must not become rote, token, scripted gestures. Each elder I meet has a story and relationship to the land. Getting to know them and their connection to the land is part of my own journey. Each portrait represents a relationship.

Elder Sharon Bryant welcomes us to the First Nations territory of the Tsimshian people