Photographer Craig Varjabedian is working with indigenous people around New Mexico to celebrate their past and their culture with the Native Light Photo Collaboration Project.
When you look at the portraits, however, you don't see just the subject. You also get a glimpse of the bond they share with the photographer. After all, both of them have equal control of the end result. One takes care of what's behind the frame — operating the camera — and the other is responsible for everything within it — choosing clothing, regalia, and other objects that are important to them.
This collaboration is precisely what allows the image to truly represent the person being in front of the lens.
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It is special for Varjabedian himself, too: the photographer is also a member of a group of people that were considered 'the other' and targeted for extirpation. His grandfather fled the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. Varjabedian said that the devasting historical episode had a profound impact on his family, so much so that cultural disconnection through trauma is not merely a concept for him. It's part of reality.
"In order to make what I believe is a successful portrait, it is necessary to connect in some way with the person being photographed," he told Bored Panda. "Trust must be established 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 trust and respect is established."
Varjabedian believes that ultimately everyone has a good story and for those who choose to share it, oftentimes it creates the picture he makes. "I want the resulting image to reveal a deeper sense of the person in front of the camera. 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."
The photographer usually finds the models through word of mouth from a network of people across the American Southwest, which he has built over the many years he has been working there.
Yanabah Moonsky (Sky Warrior), Diné
Men, women, and children are prominently positioned in front of the camera against a simple backdrop; front-and-center — the focus is squarely on the participant. "Their posture is stoic and strong, their facial expression powerful and vital. Some are posed in profile, in a stance momentarily frozen in motion. Others gaze elsewhere, away from the camera, their eyes concentrated far from the viewer’s line of sight. In contrast, some peer straight into my camera lens — a penetrating gaze most notably directed at the viewer with an expression layered in meaning," Varjabedian explained the visual structure of the project.
Tsiguwaenu Ohuwa Munu (Turbulent Lightning Cloud), Tewa, Nambé Owingeh
"I frequently shoot against a hand-painted grey background reminiscent of ones that photographer Irving Penn used years ago. The texture is there but I believe not distracting to the image, the neutral grey chosen because I knew it would beautifully present the color of what these subjects would be wearing."
"Most participants are poised in precious regalia and ceremonial attire while others are pictured in traditional dress, 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. Upon taking a closer look at the objects presented in the images, one may discover layers of meaning and symbolism—ornamental shells and animal motifs, vibrant patterns, geometric shapes, intricate beadwork and more."
The photographer pointed out that many of these clothing items, accessories, and ceremonial objects are deeply rooted in meaning and family heritage. "These 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. They are embodiments of individuality and self-presentation. For many, the dress and regalia are passed down from generation to generation, making their way along the hands of ancestors, grandparents, and family members," he said.
The goal of the Native Light Photo Collaboration Project is to create awareness of the beauty and dignity of Native American culture at a time when the U.S. seems culturally divided. That being said, having little knowledge on the subject won't take away from experiencing it. It's still authentic. "I think what the viewer should understand is that these images represent one facet of a person's life and there are still many facets that the images do not reveal," Varjabedian said. "The people too are not costumed in the sense that an actor might be in a play or movie. What you are seeing is the result of someone's personal devotion; the response of something deeply felt and believed and elaborated upon with the colors and objects chosen for what they are wearing."
Larry, Eagle Dancer, Meskwaki
Varjabedian thinks that much of what contemporary society has seen of Native American culture was created by the Hollywood movie industry and wild west shows and is often erroneous. "It is an indigenous culture that is centuries old, with much individuality and diversity, is multifaceted and deeply layered with meaning, deeper in fact than what most people might imagine or even understand," he said, adding that in the end, it is simply beautiful.