Carla and I go wayyyyy back, okay not that way back but at least eight years back in time. A mutual friend of ours had brought Carla to a prenatal yoga class that I was teaching in Victoria, BC. We were both pregnant with our first babies and due around the same time too. I think we hung out a couple of times after the boys were born, I have a vague memory of them toddling around and fighting over a Little Tikes ride along car. I wonder if I have any photos of that day? Did we even talk about photography back then? I doubt it, I think the conversation was around sleep, nursing, and maybe even potty training. Carla and her son are now living in Wet’suwet’en Yintah (Burns Lake, BC). We haven’t seen each other in years but we’ve stayed in touch through social media. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that she has been taking some beautiful photos of where she’s from, the people, the land, the waters, the animals and the sky. You can see in her images that she photographs with respect. I knew that she had to be part of the conversation on Tea and Bannock so I was pleased when she agreed to be interviewed as a featured artist.
1. Where are you from?
Wet’suwet’en/Gitxsan from the House of Spook’w.
2. Tell us about your journey of becoming a professional photographer.
Growing up, my dad had an old Pentax camera. He didn’t use it much anymore, but always showed off his photos proudly. I loved the sound of the shutter and would sometimes just sit there flicking the shutter just to hear it fly. So when I was 16, I saved up money from my summer jobs and bought my first camera, a Nikon F80 SLR and that was my baby until the DSLRs came out and I switched to digital. I took one Intro to Photography course in university, but otherwise am self-taught and have mostly been a hobbyist.
So, for as long as I can remember, I had my camera with me and mostly took snapshots of my family, plants and landscapes. I took my love of photography and travel to many parts of the world. We didn’t grow up with a silver spoon, or even a copper spoon for that matter, so I found free ways to travel, like volunteering, internships, and working for non-profits oversees while I attended university.
In the beginning of my paid photography days, it was mostly for family and friends doing weddings and other life events in exchange for a small fee or I’d just ask them to buy me a new flash or something camera related. But, I think it was when social media became mainstream and I began sharing my photos publicly that I started becoming known as a “professional” photographer. It was still gradual, but as time went on, more and more people wanted to hire me to do their photos to the point where I had to make my photography a bit more structured and business oriented and has crept it’s way into my consulting business.
As a teen, I also wanted to be a National Geographic Explorer. I actually called them for my Career Prep class in high school and asked what I needed to do to become an Explorer. The lady I spoke to pretty much laughed in my face and said it was near impossible. I hung up and was like, “Whatever!” and proceeded to research it myself and found that instead of journalism or photography, it was better to have a post-secondary education in an explorer related field. So, I ended up with a BA in First Nations Studies and Anthropology and a MA in Indigenous Governance and am now totally happy not working for National Geographic, but rather working at a grassroots level towards Indigenous resurgence in my traditional territory. But if NG ever called, I don’t think I would turn them down!
3. How does your Indigenous culture affect your work?
Being indigenous makes me not only want, but need, to create images of Indigenous people that aren’t stereotypical and promote the reality and tell the true stories of our communities. I make sure that my photos can’t be misconstrued in a negative sense or taken out of context in a way that can be damaging for the individual or community. I also make sure not to romanticize Indigenous cultures like we have been in the past and to show our contemporary lives and our struggle to renew the cultures that were taken from us. I hope that all of my work, whether it be photography, research, or facilitation inspires our young people to celebrate our culture, learn about our history, and find ways to create a difference for our communities as we work to decolonize our ways of being.
In a more practical sense, my indigenous knowledge and identity require a high code of ethics when working with Indigenous people, such as not taking photos at ceremonies for instance. I’ve had some amazing experiences in my life that could have been amazing photo ops, but, I was a participant and proper protocol dictated that I put the camera down.
4. Which photo, to date, has been the one that you most connected with, and why?
I have always had a hard time picking favourites so as I reflected on this question and looked through some of my work, I have to say that hands down any photo of my son is my favourite. He has started to get annoyed with me when I am constantly taking photos but he is seriously, the raddest kid ever.
5. Who are your role models?
I have a lot of role models from the elders who show the utmost commitment and integrity to revitalizing our culture to the youth who are surviving the heavy hands they have been dealt. In terms of photography though, again I can’t pick just a few. I am always admiring other people’s work and there are so many ridiculously talented people out there that I look everywhere for inspiration.
6. Favourite quote:
“The truth about stories, is that is all we are” (Thomas King).
7. What is one of your greatest achievements in your career, thus far?
A couple years ago, I was asked to volunteer my time doing portraits of Indigenous women from my hometown after they got a free makeover. I did, because I thought it would be a fun way to give back over the holidays and I was inspired by my friend Shannon Alec who coordinated the event as a “pay it forward” type of thing. It was a ridiculously fun day and I managed to get some really unique shots just by stepping outside the hall on the rez into the -20 below, bright, and sunny day. I ran home and did some edits and posted the photos online so the girls could see their photos and somehow the media right across the country got all fired up and wanted to share the story and the photos. Many times, since then I’ve been asked if I was the one that did the makeover photos.
8. What do you do to find inspiration? Where do you find inspiration?
I am constantly looking at other people’s photography, not necessarily for inspiration but for admiration so naturally I get ideas and am challenged to take better photos. I also find inspiration in nature, my favourite thing is to take my camera and go take close ups of plants, scraggly trees, or amazing sunsets. I love that when you look to nature for inspiration you can find beauty in everything.
9. How do you want your work to be remembered?
I hope my work creates a positive change in some way whether it is just in an individual’s self-esteem or being proud of being indigenous. But, I would also love to be able to take one of those images that just shake the world into action for social or environmental justice.
10. What words of advice do you have for other aspiring photographers?
Take tons of photos, practice in manual mode, and share your photos and your skills with the world! I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like sharing their photos or doing work for free, but in the beginning this seems like a great way to build your portfolio.
Now go and check out more of Carla’s work at:
Website: www.yintah.com // Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carlalewisphotography/ // Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/carla_lewis_photography/ // Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125506682@N02/