Original Culture in Photographic Art: the Native American Perspective

Technologies that produce images, or any photographic art have always been a form of cultural hybridity. Over time, photography in culture has allowed us to see the progression and change within certain areas or within particular groups around the world. In America, many cultural values are associated with photography, film, or video clips, and these values are effective even in today’s society.

One specific example that sets the stage for cultural values as well as a representation of hybrid beliefs within a specific society is Project 562, “A photo project dedicated to photographing Native America.” Project 562 was created and is being conducted by a Native American woman, Matika Wilbur. Wilbur’s dedication and drive to this project is explained when she says, “I have been fulfilling the project’s goal of photographing citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566)…My hope, I that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities.” The number 562 came from, at the time, the number of federally recognized Tribal Nations in the United States.

(To see a video summary, Click Here: Matika Wilbur Video )

In Plato’s work, he mentioned the simulation and reproduction of images, including indexical function (a pre-existing reality outside of the image). Wilbur is the first artist and photographer to start a project like this in 100 years, reproducing images that are attempting to give Native Americans a better reputation. The cultural values she integrates and mixes together throughout her work is the modern Native American with their traditional values still in tact. Wilbur wishes to reproduce Native American images in order to show the world how Native Americans can still maintain their original culture while adapting and succeeding in today’s technological society. The wary, disliked savage is no longer the message being sent about Native Americans.

Malraux relates to reproduction and Project 562 in several theories. Malraux mentions that today we face the issue of access to cultural history because we use technologies of representation that “dislocate the objects reproduced from their historical and material contexts, and position them in a regulating narrative…” A narrative that is someone else’s idea, instead of, in Wilbur’s case, what originally took place. Furthermore, Malraux argues that in the artworks of the past are coming into view through technology – especially photography and it’s improving quality of color, clarity, and mass-produced reproductions. Photography today not only has better quality and color, but can be marketed to the masses as well as mass-produced.

Wilbur says, “Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other time I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings.” The cultural values associated with photography are ones of culture, societal norms, or news information. It uses visuals, for example, to show the poverty in fourth world countries or to exemplify the norms of a community. This continues to work in a digital era because it promotes different causes, issues, and opens the eyes of the people to new information. Furthermore, photography can now be unveiled through the Internet in blogs, through social media, and can also be shared by millions of people each day, throughout the world. Relating back to marketing, the Internet has allowed for marketing an artist, and his/her work through technology to become an easy feat.

Wilbur forms a positive image of the Native Americans’ heritage, race, and ways of life, unlike many people before her. She is showing what is real. This is where Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality comes into play. Many representations of a set group of individuals can be made to seem a certain way, and people can’t understand if it’s real or fake – kind of like reality TV. Many people still squabble over whether a show like the “Jersey Shore” is using real footage or if the scenes are actually set up scene by scene. The Native Americans were portrayed through the media and through history at times as burdens to American soil and were given a bad reputation through means of stories, newspapers, and photography of old, unsuccessful tribes. The audience this information reached was unable to decipher what was real or fake. What are Native Americans really like? Wilbur has begun to spread the positive aspects of the real day in the life of Native Americans in order to diminish that hyperreality. Human intelligence on this topic will begin to cease to be artificial thoughts and preconceived notions. And like Baudrillard’s hyperreality theories, what’s seen in Wilbur’s photos is arguably more powerful through media than in one individual’s direct experience. The “realism” of her photos is becoming a social reality; in other words, visual mediation is the medium of the cultural ideology of representation.

(For a thorough representation of her work, click here: Matika Wilbur’s Blog)

Wilbur’s work is ultimately allowing for intertextuality to take place between worlds – the mix of modern ways with traditionalist values of the Native Americans. The awareness she is creating in today’s society modifies the images of the past and puts a positive spin on the changes being made of the representation of Native Americans. Malraux noticed, “a universalizing abstract idea of ‘art history’- an abstract “cultural encyclopedia” that could be instantiated and represented in art history books.” Wilbur is creating her own art history through the technology of today’s photography, upholding and attempting to tear down some of the theories of reproduction in photographic art.

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Works Cited

Brooks, Katherine. “Project 562 Aims To Photograph Every Native American Tribe In The United States.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/14/project-562_n_4768484.html>.

Irvine, Martin. “Malraux: Imaginary Museum – Google Drive.” Malraux: Imaginary Museum – Google Drive. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <https://docs.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/document/d/1LpdIN44T1DstgYO0BBtRlEO1qQ1Rm6bdnQ24AKfNSls/preview?pli=1>.

Irvine, Martin. “Mediation and Representation: Plato to Baudrillard and Digital Media.”Georgetown.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014. <https://docs.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/presentation/d/132ei8iKjwqWKx3BISLwBBUO-KTFBIR1dIeJuhCujwZ8/pub?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000#slide=id.i0>.

Lamour, Joseph. “It’s Been Over 100 Years Since An Artist Has Done This In America. About Time Someone Did It Again.” Upworthy. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.upworthy.com/its-been-over-100-years-since-an-artist-has-done-this-in-america-about-time-someone-did-it-again?c=ufb1>.

Malraux, André. The Voices of Silence. French, Les Voix du Silence, 1951. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, NY; repr. Princeton: Doubleday; Princeton Univ. Press, 1953.

Wilbur, Matika. “Project 562 – Project 562- A Photo Project by Matika Wilbur Documenting Native America.” Project 562 Travel Log. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://matikawilbur.com/blog/>.