I’m not a photographer

I remember nervously loitering around the entrance to the photography lab in my first year of classes at the University of Saskatchewan. I almost didn’t go in. It was the fall of 2000, I was 18 years old, and I had recently moved to Saskatoon from my home of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation about 100 kms north of the city. I attended high school in Leask, a small town school that offered no creative outlet (let alone art classes) past Grade 9.

I thought I’d be waaaaay behind the city kids who probably had art-focused high schools (I’m thinking of the school from FAME) with functioning dark rooms and enthusiastic art teachers that wore berets. After some coaxing from a friend, I walked into the darkroom and stayed there for the next 4 years.

In one of my first photography classes, the instructor talked about the work of Jeff Thomas and showed slides from his Indians On Tour series. I remember feeling for the first time that I could be an Artist with a capital A. At school, I devoured the work of Indigenous artists using photography to share their contemporary realities. Some major early influencers in art were Shelley Niro, KC Adams, Lori Blondeau, and Dana Claxton, among many others.

My earliest art school projects were probably out of focus and underexposed. I don’t consider myself a Photographer (with a capital P), but an artist that works with photography. I found the camera was the most effective way I could get my story across. Everyone in my family became unsuspecting subjects of my art projects (they still are). Most importantly, I found an outlet for my views, ideas and experiences. Photography is a powerful tool in the hands of Indigenous women.

I’m glad I walked into that photography lab, I’m grateful to the instructors that pushed me to tell my story and to the artists that paved the way so that I could add to the conversation. I’m also grateful to my first-year advisor that told me I should go into Math & Sciences! I probably should have! I kid.

Thanks to Tenille for inviting me to share my experiences with photography. I’m looking forward to getting to know the work of the other contributors to this blog!

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From one of my first (successful) art school projects. Postcard Series by Joi T. Arcand, 2004

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“you don’t look like an Indian…”

I was eighteen before I had to really think about what being Indian meant.

I thought I knew. Growing up on a small Dene reserve located in Northern Saskatchewan, I grew up listening to Cree in my Métis community of Beauval and Dene in my home reserve of English River. I thought I knew what it meant to be Indigenous. To realize that there was pride in my land. To see the subtle difference between Metis and Indian. To listen and be able to hear the different dialects of language even though I didn’t speak them. To be able to look at a person and see where they were from, or who they came from. I thought I knew.

But at eighteen, I left home and attended college. At a small Roman Catholic German town where I was the only Native in Native Studies 110.6.

And I realized that the way the outside world sees Indian and the way I see Indian are completely different.

They don’t see a difference in our accents, the way our lips curl around language, the way we shrug our shoulders and the way our laughs boom. They don’t see the difference between Swampy Cree and Plains Cree, between Salteaux and Dene, between Southern First Nations and Northern Indigenous bands. They don’t see.

So me, with my pale skin and wavy hair, I didn’t fit the ideal they held in their head. The warrior. The stoic. The maiden. The headdress and the pony.

When I left the reserve, I left behind the people who looked like me, who thought like me. I left the only place where I didn’t constantly have to question my visual identity, or defend my Indigenous claim. I left behind the only place I felt safe.

Throughout my youth, I read. I read late into the night. I listened. I grew up on stories about my dad’s youth on the lake, my mom’s horse racing days, and stories about my ancestors and relations. And I wrote. I wrote bad poetry. I wrote love poetry. I wrote little fiction stories. I wrote diary entries I later burned. And looking back, although I wrote about the people in my classes and the boys whose hands I held, I never once mentioned “he’s Metis” or “he’s Cree” as it was a given he was Indigenous, that he was like me.

My writing ambitions took me to Vancouver, to attend the UBC MFA in Creative Writing program. I spent two years on the coast. It was a beautiful time, and a lonely time. Although I made many great friends, and my sweetie was by my side, we would sit on the couch after work and school and just miss the familiarity of the North. We missed our families. We missed the land. We missed being able to go skidooing or walking around town and knowing everyone. I missed being able to go to the store and catch up on all the local gossip. I missed the familiar skyline and sunsets.

But all my friends, they had rarely travelled and Vancouver was ever farrrrr. So I took pictures. My dad bought me a Canon Rebel T1i as a graduations gift as I was the first in our family to attend a Master’s Program, and I snagged a 50mm lens as I heard they were the shit to start with, and I started taking pictures. From mountains to beaches to forests to friends to strangers to the Olympics to the small three bedroom walk-up in lower Vancouver that we lived in. I photographed it all. I developed my eye. I kept making mistakes. I kept learning.

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Vancouver, 2010. Cousin Alex visiting. Shot on Auto. Didn’t save originals JPG’s.

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Vancouver, 2010. New friend and Tahltan student, Natasha. One of my first paid sessions.

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Vancouver, 2010. Author Liz Ross.

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Vancouver, 2010. Anishnabe friend, Brittany Luby. Obviously, I had a fondness for back alleys even back then.

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Vancouver, 2010. Chelsea. One of the very first to agree to be my test model. Session took 2+ hours, shot on automatic and in JPG format.

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Vancouver, 2010. Michelle and Matt. My very first couple. Shot in Auto.

Photography made it bearable. Made me smile again. Photography made me crave the outdoors again, to leave the house to go on adventures. It seemed like a natural addition to what I already wanted to be, and was – a storyteller.

Now, years after I first picked up my camera and started my business, I make it a point to keep photographing my people. To keep presenting visuals that press against the stereotype. To keep visually identifying the numerous cultures and indigenous communities we have in Canada. I have worked from Walpole Island (Ontario) to Ittatsoo (Ucluelet, BC). I have photographed the laughing, smiling varying faces of our Indigenous nations. And I keep smiling. I keep sharing. I keep making connections. We – my daughter and I – have been invited into homes, band halls, women’s shelters, communities and traditional lands. We have made friends who share food and story and trust me to document them.

It’s a blessed life, a good life.

 – t.campbell