Self Representation

I get it, on a certain level, and understand the narrative that they were going for. But I continue to wonder why we tend to fall back on stereotypes even when we’re representing ourselves.

Native Appropriations

So this is interesting.

This anti-R*dskins video is by the National Congress of American Indians. It’s very good at making its point. At the same time. Yes. It’s totally using the kind of imagery (until about a minute and a half in) which most people think of when they think of American Indians—pow wows and pageantry, reservations and poverty, historic good Indians.* If one of the chief complaints from minorities—especially native populations—is one of representation, what does it mean to have the opportunity to self-represent only to us the same representations anyway?

*Whenever I see the montage of historic good Indians, I can’t help but think of that awful quotation attributed to Philip Sheridan. I blame Tony Hillerman.

I can see using these representations as a way of tailoring the message for the audience. If your audience is expected to be ignorant of your culture, being able to make your point using visuals your audience will understand is a powerful skill. At the same time, buying into someone’s ignorance of your culture and providing them images which equate your culture with specific physical attributes takes everyone into treacherous territory.

It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have  been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.

Image on Paper

Possibly the best thing to come out of my White Guy Photography posts was being pointed toward Image on Paper’s review of Before They Pass Away. It’s not only a great primer on the history of how American Indians have been represented in the US (by white guys) but also does a fantastic job at explaining the danger  in equating of culture with specific appearances.

Which is the challenge of embracing the democracy of photography. Being able to represent yourself doesn’t mean that you haven’t absorbed the stereotyped images—whether appearance or trope based*—of your culture. Being aware of the visual culture you’ve is important for anyone representing themselves. Dealing with it is the first step in self-representation.

*See Human Zoo for a bit more on this on my blog.

I’ve seen two main ways of dealing with the tropes. The first is to go after everything the tropes miss. It’s especially interesting timing that the NCAI video came out at the same time Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 was kickstarting. Wilbur’s project is in a nutshell, Edward Curtis but by an insider. She’s explicitly looking to avoid the tropes and stereotypes and depict Indians as real people living today instead of as a disappearing myth. It’s an extremely ambitious project and I’m looking forward to the results.

The other way is to confront them head-on Carrie Mae Weems style. While I already have a writeup on her retrospective, the short version is that there’s a lot of power in taking the stereotype and just stripping it bare so everyone can see how hurtful it is. But it also takes an artist with Weems’s talent to do this well.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

8 thoughts on “Self Representation”

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