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“I believe everyone has a good story, and those who choose to share it tend to inform the picture I make,” says photographer Craig Varjabedian. He adds, “I want the resulting image to reveal a deeper sense of the person in front of the camera.” Varjabedian has worked on several projects throughout his long, successful career. In this interview, we focus on his ongoing series, Native Light. The focus is simple: turn a lens on the rich history of Native Americans, and show the world their importance in the present day. No stranger to adversity himself, Craig Varjabedian isn’t only doing this for the passion, but to ensure he gives a voice to those who are often silenced and left behind.
Essential Gear Used by Craig Varjabedian
I think adding a few words about the choice of Nikon cameras is of some value here. I have been using Nikon equipment since the early 1970’s and have come to truly love what I see in the photographs I make with their gear. It’s in the color and the contrast and the sharpness and the way a Nikon lens will describe and render space in a photograph. I like the look and it works well for me. And creating art is, in part, about the choices of tools and materials that help the artist achieve the intended expression.— Craig Varajabedian
Accessories Used by Craig Varjabedian
- Really Right Stuff Versa TVC-34L tripod
- Arca-Swiss d4 Geared Head
- Gura Gear Kiboko V2.0 22L backpack
- Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery
- Rotalux softboxes
Craig Varjabedian on his approach to photographing in the studio:
I frequently shoot against a hand-painted grey backdrop reminiscent of ones that photographer Irving Penn used years ago. The texture is raw yet painterly and supports the authentic feeling I want the pictures to have. The backdrop does a terrific job of focusing the viewer’s attention on the subject by eliminating what could be a distracting background. I decided on the neutral grey because I knew it would beautifully present the color of the regalia that these subjects might be wearing.
Phoblographer: There are many cultures photographers can focus on. Why is the Native American population important to you?
Craig Varjabedian: Native Americans have a strong presence throughout the American Southwest and certainly throughout the Americas as a whole. I have a powerful memory from the Calgary Stampede that I attended when I was six years old. It was 1963, and I remember watching a pow wow dance, standing in awe and being overcome by the wonder of it. Later my younger sister and I were invited to join the dance, and I remember the beauty of it all and the joy I experienced that day had a profound effect on me. Since that time, I have wanted to know more and understand what I had seen, experienced, and felt.
As for the images, the light in these photographs was discovered many years ago out on a vast plain just south of Santa Fe. My friend Anthony, of the Omaha tribe, walked out into the tall grass in his most beautiful regalia. The sun was low on the horizon, and the light was turning everything a beautiful shade of pale luminous orange. Just when I was about to release the shutter, my friend Sadie’s hybrid wolf wandered into the scene and joined the moment. As Chief Dan George aptly observes in the film Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” This time the magic worked.
The faces of the Native American people I photograph reveal to me a profound sense of the sacred. These people are descendants of those I first encountered in images by photographer Edward Curtis that I admired in a photo history class long ago. I remember being deeply moved by what I saw projected on the screen that day. Curtis’s photographs reveal something awesome (in its truest sense,) majestic and universally human and beyond words. I believe there is a flow of energy in the great photographer’s images that brings them into the present and, in turn, makes them timeless. It is that sense of awe and even dignity I want to bring to light in the photographs I make and present here.
Phoblographer: There’s a fine line between making your subjects feel like a novelty and making them feel included and seen. How did you build trust with your subjects and help them feel like you were photographing them with dignity?
Craig Varjabedian: In order to make what I believe is a successful portrait, it is necessary to connect in some way with the person you are photographing. You must establish trust, and this takes time. I genuinely and deeply care about the people I photograph and believe that comes across during our early interaction. We talk and share stories and discover common ground. Through getting to know each other, we eventually connect, and establish trust and respect. And because the people I am photographing are not like models in a fashion shoot, they themselves carefully choose items that hold meaning and significance to them to wear and hold for the image we make. The portrait can then take on a higher state of meaning, a more profound sense of being, an image that can hopefully touch others on a deeper emotional level.
Phoblographer: Your family is no stranger to adversity. Your grandfather fled the Armenian Genocide. Please tell us how your history helped shape your photographic identity.
Craig Varjabedian: My grandfather fled the Armenian Genocide as a young boy, being sent away by his father with a family that had been paid to take him out of Armenia. While they were waiting for a train, he was sent to get ice cream for the family, and when he came back, they were gone, leaving the young boy on the train platform to fend for himself. He made his way on his own to Greece and finally journeyed across the ocean to Canada, where he settled.
The Armenian Genocide was awful (to say the least); my own family was destroyed, and along with it, my past was virtually wiped out. This devastating historical episode had a profound impact on me, so the experience of cultural disconnection through trauma is very real and personal, not merely a concept.
There are parallels between what happened to my family and what has happened to Native Americans. The stories my grandfather and my parents told me about what happened in the old country to my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my distant relatives were just horrific. It is beyond my comprehension that one group of people could hate another so vehemently that they would try to wipe them off the face of the earth. But they did, and sadly hate continues to this day.
I’m not trying to suggest that my tragedy and that of the Armenian people is any more or any less than what Native Americans (or Jews or Rwandans . . .) have suffered. But there is a shared wound that comes from being a descendent of those who were forced to die at the hand of another because of who they are or who they were. And so I make these pictures in hopes of understanding how this group of people—these Native Americans—after everything that has been done to them—after every promise that has been made and then broken—how Native Americans have become so incredibly strong and resilient.
Phoblographer: Please tell us how you design each portrait.
CV: The process of creating an authentic photograph is a collaborative one. Participants come to be photographed with a variety of objects, clothing, and regalia – each item bearing with it a history and deep personal significance. Often, it is what the participants are wearing and how they want to present themselves, that suggests what additional objects can be added to a possible photograph. I ask people to bring items of deep meaning appropriate to what they are wearing and important and significant to them. The process of collaborating makes possible a resulting image that is true to the person I’m photographing.
Most participants are presented in precious regalia and ceremonial attire, while others are pictured in traditional attire, adorned with ornate turquoise jewelry. Some wear a delicate display of feathers in their hair, while others exhibit a striking bustle of feathers and fringe that extend outward into space. Several accessorize with beaded shell necklaces and leather moccasins, whereas a handful opt to drape themselves in the comfort of a wool blanket and animal pelts. When you take a closer look at the objects, you will find layers of meaning and symbolism – ornamental shells and animal motifs, vibrant patterns, geometric shapes, and intricate beadwork.
It should come as no surprise that many items of clothing, accessories, and ceremonial objects are deeply rooted in meaning and family heritage. These often hand-made items are emblems of self-preservation, history, and tradition. They are signifiers of tribal representation, ancestry, and spirit. They are symbols of time, identity, and personal narrative. Also they are embodiments of individuality and self-presentation. For many, the regalia is passed down from generation to generation, making its way through the hands of ancestors, grandparents, and family members.
Phoblographer: Portrait photography is intimate. Can you share any interesting stories about how your relationship evolved with your subjects after photographing them?
CV: I have heard some Native Americans speak about something they call the Great Mystery. One of my favorite writers, Chief Luther Standing Bear, explains, “From Wakan Tanka there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things—the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals—and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred and brought together by the same Great Mystery.” (Land of the Spotted Eagle, 1933) I hope these pictures offer a gift from that Great Mystery that Standing Bear speaks about. I believe the light that illuminates the people in front of my lens comes from that powerful place.
I photographed Marquel (her traditional name is Thamu Tsan) and her daughter Kai days after their pueblo’s corn dance. What I witnessed that cool autumn day on the plaza at Nambé Pueblo was as magical and transformative as communion in a Catholic church. I learned from Marquel that while the dancers and the drummers who participate in the dance work to be fully mindful and aware, everyone who attends the dance is also asked to be present in the moment; to be aware, as Standing Bear suggested, that all things are kindred and brought together by the Great Mystery. How we are being asked to attend in these moments remains a mystery to me as there is no formal request—yet it happens. One has to be open to the possibility. One has to be open to the moment.
During the eventual portrait session with Marquel and Kai, I got to know them better and hear their story. As the project progressed, I reached out on several occasions to speak with Marquel about it. After many conversations, she agreed to be on our project advisory board.
“The greatest impact of this project lies in the collaborative approach to each photo—partnering subject and artist—that shifts that power paradigm of the traditional visual representation of Native American people in American art, updating outmoded ideas about Native cultural identity and representation.”
Another memorable moment in the studio: A Diné (Navajo) woman I photographed for the project referred me to one of the last surviving Navajo Code Talkers from World War II, Thomas Begay. The Navajo Code Talkers developed and used a secret coded Navajo language for radio communication in the Marine Corps battle campaigns during WWII. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Private First Class Begay transmitted hundreds of secret messages over the radio network from H-Hour—19 February 1945 to 27 March 1945 and even witnessed the historic U.S. flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi, during the battle. “Were it not for the Navajos,” said Signal Officer Major Howard M. Conner, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima and win the war.”
We reached out to his son R.C., who schedules and facilitates all his engagements. Thomas was completely booked for about a year before we were finally able to meet and make photographs. And after the portrait session, it was an honor to sit and listen to him share stories about the incredible events of his life. He even sang the U.S. Marine Corps hymn in Navajo for us; the sound of his voice echoing throughout the cavernous studio, Tsi-di-da-an-ne ne-tay-yah . . . Ay be nihe hozeen . . . Washindon be Akalh Bi-kosi-la . . . True and loyal to our duty . . . We are known by that . . .United States Marines. God bless all of Thomas Begay’s 96+ years. It was a gift to photograph him.
Phoblographer: Projects can educate the photographer. What have been your biggest lessons from working on the Native Light project?
CV: Because photography is my way of entering the world, all of the projects I have undertaken came about from a curiosity about the world, a desire to learn and grow. And with Native Light there is still much for me to learn. I think the big takeaway for me right now is that many of the Native Americans I have photographed, while acknowledging the terrible things of the past, are focused on the future. They ask as part of our conversations. Where do we go from here? What do we do next. How can we keep the flame alive and tell the stories and share the lessons of our past? How do we educate non-Natives to better understand and be more aware of who we are? And more.
If being challenged and overcoming obstacles is a way to learn, the Native Light Photo Collaboration has had its share of them. The biggest challenge facing our project right now is waiting for the current pandemic to abate so it will be safe again to make pictures. But in order to speak further about the challenges of this project, it is important to preface these statements with the idea that, in my experience, Native Americans do not all think and speak with the same mind. What may be an issue for one person might not be for another.
With that said, perhaps the biggest obstacle we have to overcome in making these pictures is the relationship many have with photographers and photography. To a group of people who have been consistently lied to and promises (treaties) broken, it is no wonder that some are wary and even distrustful of having their photograph made. Some believe that making a photographic portrait is simply wrong for a variety of reasons, such as believing the camera will steal their soul. Others have seen or experienced first-hand contempt from photographers who make crude, disrespectful, and even sexualized images that attempt to trivialize them. And there is the backlash over the surreptitious photographing of private sacred rites, which has happened numerous times throughout the history of photographing America – the list goes on and on.
Given a long history of cultural misappropriation, Indigenous people are rightly suspicious that non-Indigenous people may abuse or misuse their traditional ways. My friend Marlene writes:
“We were never meant to be here. Through the smallpox infected blankets, stripping of language with lye soap, the long walks, massacres, and kidnapping of children, here we are now. In this now, there is a reclamation of soul, culture, medicine, and prayer. Our resurgence is molded by our past and infused with the presence. We are consistently evolving past our expected extinction, expanding our knowledge of our truth and telling our stories.”
~Marlene Bad Warrior, Diné
We hope our biggest success for the project will be through our sincere commitment to create a body of authentic and respectful images that honor not only Native American life but also the men and women who grant us the privilege of photographing them. As the word gets out, we are receiving a lot of positive support from people who might not otherwise choose to participate.
Phoblographer: In an era where people consume photos on a screen and spend less time with each photo they view, how difficult is it for important projects to be appreciated fully? In your opinion, what’s the solution to getting people more engaged?
CV: I have this sense that, because of the sheer number of images each of us is bombarded with every day from news articles, social media, and more, we have all developed a kind of shorthand to looking at and dealing with pictures quickly. There are, however, images that cry out to be contemplated and studied—artistic expressions that are layered with meaning. These types of images take time to study and to understand.
My hope is that the sincerity of the work we are creating—the authenticity of it all—will come through and will compel viewers to take the time to not only study and engage with the images but to also want to learn more.
Phoblographer: What does the end of this project look like and will you ensure people see it?
CV: Well, first, the photographs have to be made, and that is no small battle. For this project, we will continue to chronicle and photograph Native Americans across the American West, finally moving ahead after the pandemic becomes something in the past.
As you might guess, the costs involved in creating this work are extensive. Like photographer Edward Curtis did many years ago with his North American Indian project, we are paying an honorarium to each person I photograph as it honors their participation and their effort in a very tangible way. Another expense is the cost of travel and per diem, for people to either come to Santa Fe to be photographed or us traveling to them to make a portrait. Earlier this year, we had planned a Kickstarter effort to help raise needed funds for the project. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 hit, we decided to postpone our effort.
In terms of ensuring the images are seen and our message heard, we are working right now with several media outlets and magazines like Phoblographer to share the images and explain why we make them. A dedicated website is currently being developed for the project images, which will launch sometime next year. Public speaking opportunities about the project continue to come our way; most recently, we have been invited to present our work in Dubai as part of an international cultural event being held there next year. And eventually, a museum exhibition will be created to carry the photographs out into the world, and a book will be published as a remembrance of the work we did.
If you would like to purchase a signed copy of Craig’s book, Light of the Great Mystery, you can do so by going here.