Seeing the community with different eyes
By Lailani Upham
Photo taken by former TERS student, Tasheena Bigcrane.
PABLO — Middle school and high school students on the Flathead Reservation have been enthusiastic participants at Two Eagle River School for the past ten years in a personal vision and experience through a photography project called, "Our Community Record."
Last Friday, Salish Kootenai College professor, Two Eagle River School instructor and photographer in residence David J. Spear, shared the work students have been involved in the Flathead community, and included photography work he was involved with in with inner city students in Harlem, New York over a decade ago, during the SKC President's Lecture Series.
The project has encouraged students to document their community, culture and history through photographic studies. Spear led students to learn about visual communication and photographic technique by getting the student to tell their own story of their own community and land from their perspective. "It was something I could stand back and watch, it was empowering," Spear explained.
Students worked on self-portraits, learned photographic techniques, developed their own prints in the darkroom and took multiple field trips around the Flathead Reservation including western Montana to explore and record their community.
Taken by former TERS student, Charla Brown.
Spear said he wanted the kids to photograph one another and see themselves in their own society as their own "celebrities." Students see their heroes and many celebrities in photographs, why can't they see themselves in the same way, Spear asked.
Spear said in the first run of the project students constructed their own pinhole camera. It's not the most gratifying experience to the students he said, "Sometimes they would complain, and want to use the newer versions, saying the pinhole cameras were too slow, but it made them more connected to their subjects," Spear explained. Students took notes as they photographed with the pinhole cameras and when they started using regular film cameras they saw things differently, Spear described.
Spear said the project helped teach young students of the Reservation to present their own work as productive artists and storytellers and "connecting to their communities."
Spear arrived in Montana in 2000 with the passion and vision to see a photography project spark in the community such as the one in the 90's in New York, his home city and state.
Spear had a small grant to do a photography project with help from the Montana Arts Council to partner with a local program. After introducing himself to a local community program and high school, Spear finally went into Two Eagle River School where he was welcomed with open door gratitude and life impacting efforts were launched.
Photo of Johnny Arlee taken by his great nephew and former TERS student, Magnus Harlow.
Since then students of the past and present at TERS have been involved in producing visual narratives of their own lives and community and studying the work of photographers through the guidance of Spear.
Students have worked on refining black and white techniques in both traditional processing and printing with alternative and historical photographic processes, according to Spear.
During the project years TERS students have displayed their photographs at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal complex and the Sandpiper Gallery in Polson. Three of the students from the project traveled on a scholarship to the Maine Media workshops to study and practice with peers their age from around the United States.
Spear explained that the work over the years have been archived as a unique collection of photographs of the Flathead tribal community completed by young people of this community that will be powerful documented stories for years to come. What is matchless and strong about the images is the fact they are done not only by Native students but by family, Spear emphasized.
A catalog highlighting the first 10 years of the project work is in the planning stages right now and will be released in 2013.
Student photographs from 2005 to 2007, have been reproduced into calendars through S & K Technologies, Inc., a CSKT tribally-owned company.
The time to take a pinhole camera picture allowed cars to disappear like ghosts.
A VOICE-Art, "Vision and Outreach In Community Education," a non-profit organization sponsors the project with its goal to use arts education in direct social ways and to bring expressive arts programming to youth in Montana's rural communities. The organization is stationed in Pablo.
"Our Community Record" has been funded and supported both locally and nationally by the Montana Arts Council, The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, The Montana Committee for the Humanities, The Lower Flathead Valley Community Foundation, the Kite Key Foundation, The Puffin Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, Newman's Own Foundation, The Charlotte Martin Foundation and the Photographer's Formulary. Additional funding from community individuals, the state of Montana and throughout the U.S. have helped sustain the project.
Since the launch of the project, all seven Reservation communities in Montana have held regular workshops for students, Spear said.
Spear mentioned the work of historic photographer Edward S. Curtis and the astounding documented images he made representing Indian tribes in early 20th century.
According to The Library of Congress, The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis is one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced. Issued in a limited edition from 1907-1930, the publication continues to exert a major influence on the image of Indians in popular culture. Curtis said he wanted to document “the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners.” In over 2000 photogravure plates and narrative, Curtis portrayed the traditional customs and lifeways of 80 Indian tribes. The 20 volumes, each with an accompanying portfolio, are organized by tribes and culture areas encompassing the Great Plains, Great Basin, Plateau Region, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.
The question the students are to ask themselves is, ‘How can our own people photograph our own people from our perspective'?
Taken by former TERS student, Michelle Duran.
One hundred years down the road people will be able to look at the documented images of tribal people here and it will be portrayed from their modern day eye, explained Spear.
Spear said the work is not about him, he never displays the work he has done. "It's not about me, but about the work that's going to be done," he said.
Spear said he hopes those who have participated in the project that there is one or two to keep the project going, someone that will replace him, he stated.
At the end of the lecture Spear acknowledged and thanked several key people in the community; TERS and SKC that had supported his vision along the way, "I want to say, It's been a real honor to teach here."