We Are Still Here, Camille Seaman’s Portrait Photography from Oceti Sakowin
by Emily Dickson
C New Critics Award
The winner of this year’s C New Critics Award is Emily Dickson, for her text on Camille Seaman’s photography series, We Are Still Here. C Magazine would like to thank all those who applied, as well as the 2017 award jury: Writers Andrew Berardini and Corrine Fitzpatrick, and C Magazine’s Editor, Kari Cwynar.
As a young child Camille Seaman’s grandfather once said to her, “Look, do you see that? That’s part of you up there. That’s your water that helps to make the cloud that becomes the rain that feeds the plants that feeds the animals.” In her recent project We Are Still Here Seaman extends this logic. Seaman was initially drawn to Standing Rock and the controversy around the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 both because of her career-long fascination with the many lives of water – a calling which has brought her from the polar ice caps of the Canadian North to the back end of superstorms – and because of her identification as Shinnecock First Nations. In the process of photographing the Standing Rock water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Seaman developed a radical idea – why not ask the sitters to send a message to their future ancestors of what they want them to know about this watershed moment?
It is along these lines that We Are Still Here has developed. Seaman imbues her photographs with agency by creating the space for transaction to occur between present and future families. In a
sense each photograph is given a mission. Seaman’s sitters demonstrate their membership in a collective, multi-generational family whose momentum is ever driven into the future. The development of this momentum provides the space for new channels of future action to develop, despite the camp’s closure.
Not only has the government response and the closure exposed the fallacy of equality under democracy, as well as Indigenous rights to reserved land, but the media’s photographic coverage demonstrates how the “partition of the perceptible” orders popular political polemics and determines what counts as viable democratic participation. That the photojournalistic coverage of Standing Rock has been largely framed in humanitarian terms – with tear-gas, batons, attack dogs
and riot police taking centre stage – focuses public concern on the protestors’ physical suffering, and away from thorny spiritual and ecological issues, not to mention issues of political accountability to Indigenous sovereignty, which should be central to the discussion.
Seaman’s portrait of Sarah Jumping Eagle demonstrates how the water protectors at Oceti Sakowin refused to frame their experience as one of physical oppression, or of pitting “unavoidable” “progress” against ahistorical “tradition.” Her future message reads, “We are here because we care about you and care about the future. We are going to keep fighting for you. These are tears of hope and of strength and of love. We know that our path is good.” Sitting in a stoic pose, hands folded and crying eyes affixed on the lens, Sarah Jumping Eagle’s self-presentation registers
metaphysical pain and sorrow at the same time that it asserts hope.
The widely-known practice of settler photographer/ethnographer Edward Curtis, who snapped thousands of images of Indigenous peoples in the name of “salvage ethnography” predicated on the vanishing Indian myth, contributed to a white imaginary where a whole continent of peoples were consigned to an aesthetic of passing. The aestheticization of the Indigenous body was handy – it served to absolve the public of guilt, thereby allowing the expansion of capital.
The media’s visual narrative of Standing Rock extends the historical impulse of deterministic portrayals of Indigenous peoples. By pigeonholing public focus on humanitarian and therefore individual concerns, the mass images of the protests similarly consign Native identity to the past by framing its agents as ahistorical, and resistant to progress writ in neo-liberal
terms. Such representations create both distance and empathy in a mass spectatorial body which reads Indigenous peoples’ lot as a tragic yet inevitable pathology of modernity – their solidarity with the earth a quaint historical footnote.
In We Are Still Here, Seaman establishes a discourse resistant to such essentialist, paternalistic and oppressive constructions with the affective power of one force – family. Seaman asserts that family is broader than the nuclear unit. We may at times forget how our destinies are mutually determined. By building her project out of portraits of individuals, couples, family units and friends, Seaman asserts that family is an extensive network of affective and empathetic trajectories bound by blood, culture, shared concerns and memory, which expands far beyond the nuclear.
Looking at family and ancestry in Indigenous art-making presents a complicated counterpoint to the West’s obsession with unique individual identity. Mohawk photographer Shelley Niro has said, “If you’re searching for your identity, that sounds kind of hopeless, doesn’t it? It just seems to have a connotation that you’re lost or you’re trying to find your way back to someplace.” By resisting the notion of the isolated, finite individual, Seaman refuses the inevitable philosophical isolationism which we invite when we lose sight of how intrinsically integrated we are with each other, and with the earth.
As activist photographer Ariella Azoulay maintains, the material photograph is only ever one potential outcome of the event of photography, and many outcomes are still to be determined. Seaman takes on Afro-futurist writer Kondo Eshun’s assignment to concern herself with “the predictive, the projected, the proleptic, the envisioned, the virtual, the anticipatory and the future-conditional,” by teasing out future messages to generations not yet born from a family of peoples who refuse to be past/sed.
If art in the public realm traditionally defines photography as indexical, as metaphoric, as aesthetic – and politics to a “what was” – then the re-defining of photography as an inter-generational familial contract releases the image from these constraints. By co-mingling affect and Indigenous futurity, Seaman secures for memory a vigour beyond the stationary planes of the photographic frame where the political (and not an aesthetic of the political) takes the front seat.
While at the camp Seaman witnessed the water protectors take part in an intervention organized by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, where, standing before riot police, they insisted, “We pray for you and your children’s children” while holding mirrors facing the barricade in all its fury. They asked, “Is this what you want your grandchildren to know?” This attenuation to a broad familial responsibility, and the hope for what hope may produce, is what renders Seaman’s project ever more useful as we face an unsure political future.