light of the great mystery | faces of native america

In Partnership with the Museum of the Southwest, Midland, TX


 

 
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ABOUT |

In Light of the Great Mystery | Faces of Native America, portrait photography serves to explore cultural self-identity in the wake of historical trauma, including how social, familial and ceremonial artifacts facilitate an understanding and rebuilding of fractured cultural identities. 

Portrait photographs have a remarkable power to bear witness to an individual’s cultural identity, and in that service can stand alone. However, many such portraits, together in a curated exhibition and contextualized by intensely personal stories, build a larger, compelling and unifying picture—one of contemporary Native American families, pueblos, tribes and nations across the American Southwest re-asserting ancient cultural identities.

View Faces of Native America photographs on this web site

PROJECT PROPOSAL |

There is a tradition in photography of preserving images of indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, for historical purposes because they are seen as “the exotic other;” a people in decline and in need of documentation before extinction—or extermination.

I wish to reverse that concept. Through portrait photography that includes cultural, familial and ceremonial regalia and objects, and personal interactions resulting from such portrait sessions, I will collaborate with Native Americans who want to celebrate their traditions and their past and/or who have been disassociated from their heritage by historical genocide to rebuild and sustain their cultural identities. We will help them reassert their power over how they are represented to the rest of the world. 

I am compelled to enable these efforts by my portrait participants on THEIR terms, and as a part of THEIR process of either celebration or bridging the cultural disconnect visited upon them, because I am also a member of a people that were considered “the other” and targeted for extirpation—my grandfather fled the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. That devasting historical episode had a profound impact on my family, so the experience of cultural disconnection through trauma is very real and personal to me, not merely a concept. 

Thus, my own familial and cultural experiences have led me to focus my life’s work in search for harmonization of the complex relationships between historical traumas and cultural self-identity, and how the visual representation of self can rebuild cultural identities for individuals and, critically, for future generations. 

To date, this project has encompassed visual documentation, through digital photography, of Native Americans living in or visiting New Mexico, and I have traveled the state to facilitate the portrait sessions. I meet my portrait participants through word of mouth—a network grown over many years on a foundation of mutual respect, transparency and trust.

In the next year, I will expand the number and diversity of participants, and continue building relationships with pueblos in New Mexico and throughout the American Southwest. I will process image files, making small reference prints for an ongoing, continually growing portfolio to share with potential participants. To ensure a truly participatory and culturally sensitive project, we are assembling an advisory board of scholars and lay people, including Native Americans. 

Portrait sessions provide unique opportunities for deep personal connections. In the best circumstances, the participants open up to me, revealing something deeper about themselves and their experiences. These revelations may come in the form of a gesture, smile, stance, glance or some other nonverbal expressions, but also arise through the stories they begin to tell me. These face-to-face interactions can thus illuminate who the participants truly are, revealing more than is represented solely by their physical portraits. I will collect these stories and recollections that my subjects willingly share with me, and these story fragments will be transcribed and included with the photographs when they are presented, helping viewers and readers make the same connections that I am privileged to experience. Through this visual storytelling the project seeks to foster a better empathic understanding of contemporary native America.

PROJECT SPONSORSHIP |

Light of the Great Mystery | Faces of Native America is a project that was created in partnership with the celebrated Museum of the Southwest of Midland Texas. The museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and is a 501 c3 non-profit institution.

BECOME A PARTNER IN OUR SUCCESS |

There are many ways to give to Light of the Great Mystery | Faces of Native America—whether you are an individual, a family foundation, a corporation, or somewhere in between—we appreciate all levels of support and will recognize your generosity. All donations are tax deductible through the Museum of the Southwest, a 501(c)3 nonprofit. We thank our donors for their loyalty and enthusiasm, and look forward to keeping our new friends updated on the progress of the Light of the Great Mystery. Please contact our studio for further information.

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