Nadya Kwandibens shines light on contemporary indigenous experience
Ojibwe photographer Nadya Kwandibens relentlessly criss-crosses this country, camera in hand, with the aim of promoting a positive image of indigenous people.
The results are striking photos brimming with life, reflecting the motto for her touring photography company, Red Works. It includes this statement: "If our history is a shadow, let this moment serve as light."
Kwanibens' series Concrete Indians captures the urban aboriginal experience in a series of striking portraits. And her latest project, Out Takes, showcases First Nations from across Canada in candid joyful shots.
Kwandibens currently lives in B.C. but CBC Aboriginal caught up with her, via email, on the road.
When did you start the yearly photo trek that you do, across the country, and why?
This is my seventh year of touring and booking photo shoots, event coverage, and concert photography across Turtle Island. I've travelled across Canada multiple times and have visited some U.S. cities as well. I tour because I love being on the road, and it's partly how I grew up; I was never in one place for too long so being on the move has always felt like home.
Understanding that the focus of my work is to promote a positive image of indigenous people, touring provides me the opportunity to photograph a diverse range of Indigenous people from all walks of life.
What are the joys and challenges of being on the road
Recently I photographed indigenous business men in downtown Vancouver; a Métis actor on Commercial Drive; an elderly couple at Vancouver General Hospital; an epic group portraiture session for indigenous grandmothers, mothers, and daughters in North Vancouver; then in Keremeos portraits of a woman who is highly revered within her community. So I find it both a challenge and joy to be put in so many types of situations.
Being a touring photographer means you're always on. I meet and engage with several people and/or groups every day, and when I need to retreat there's no place for me to find solitude. But the past few years have been easier. I've found a solid balance and when I start to feel overwhelmed I make sure to get in some alone time, somehow.
Your portraits capture so much personality. What’s your secret to getting a great shot?
There is a phase during a photo shoot when everyone is relaxed and we all start laughing, all the best shots happen after that. A great attitude can make or break a shoot.
I've also learned to watch body language for hints of nervousness. And I tend to ask questions as I click the shutter to get a good flow of conversation going which can put people at ease. So there are a few elements at play during a shoot that I watch out for to get a good shot.
What is your vision for Red Works?
There are times when I need to be inspired, and I always come back to my artist statement which was written when I first started shooting.
"We, as Indigenous people, are often portrayed in history books as Nations once great; in museums as Nations frozen stoic; in the media as Nations forever troubled. These images can be despairing; however, my goal seeks to steer the positive course. If our history is a shadow, let this moment serve as light. We are musicians, lawyers, doctors, mothers and sons. We are activists, scholars, dreamers, fathers and daughters. Let us claim ourselves now and see that we are, and will always be great, thriving, balanced civilizations capable of carrying ourselves into this bright new day."
This is the foundation upon which I base all my work which will eventually include several series I've had in mind for years, film making, and workshop development. I'll be on the road for a long time.