Heritage forward

March 2016 issue

Heritage forward

A portrait of contemporary native American life

When an elder asks you to return home to help the community, you want to do it, explains Matika Wilbur, whose roots are with the Tulalip and Swinomish Native American communities. That’s how the seasoned photographer who maintained a commercial studio in Seattle and a fine-art gallery in LaConner, Washington, added photography teacher to her resume. She’d never worked with kids before, she says. “But when I was asked to work at my tribal school, I felt compelled to be of service.”

© Matika Wilbur

During her tenure as teacher, she noticed the textbooks didn’t provide much imagery depicting contemporary Native American life—something she viewed as harmful to the students and the community. She had a bright idea: create a bank of photography and videos that tells an uplifting and inspiring story about contemporary Native American life that could be shared in the classroom.   

And so her journey and photo series “Project 562” began. She sold her belongings, packed up her Volkswagen Rialto, and hit the road with the intent of capturing portraits of Native Americans in 562 tribal nations across the United States. Over the past three years on the road, she’s visited and made photographs in more than 250 of those nations. 

© Matika Wilbur

When capturing portraits of her Native American subjects, it would be perceived as disrespectful for Wilbur to ask a tribal member to stand in a particular place for a picture or pose a certain way. “I am just a visitor in their land,” she explains. Instead, she asks, “Is there any story that I could tell? Is there someplace that you would like to have your photograph taken?” Sometimes those are not the places she would choose, she admits. But that’s when her skills and background have the opportunity to shine. “I have to do my best to use the skills I’ve acquired to make the photograph.”

The nicest thing about her three years on the road, she says, is that she takes photographs every single day. There was a time during the grind of her career when she wouldn’t take her camera out of her bag unless the work was going to fetch at least $1,000. “That is wrong. That is wrong thinking,” she says. “I have to remember at my core that I do this because I love this. The practice of shooting every day is something that I had not been able to do for a long time and it has taught me a lot.”

Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.

Tags: personal photography projectportrait photography

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