But when one mounts a photo exhibition showing continuing indigeneity in the Caribbean, that is when we will run into some of the problems raised in the Taino Revival book. I am very familiar with at least one, arguably two, of the communities depicted in the photographs, the Caribs of Trinidad and Dominica. What I noticed is a tendency to show the full face of those persons whose appearance would meet the stereotypical expectations of what a “real Indian” should look like, while others, perhaps “too mixed”, are photographed behind smoke, with their faces down. This can be a subtle, perhaps not deliberate, perhaps unconscious, way of conveying shame, embarrassment, and an attempt to disguise.
facing the camera straight
I don’t like it and I do not want to waste time making excuses for someone else’s work. I think it humiliates people I know and deeply admire, people who are proud to show their faces and would not want to be seen face down like they were bowing and hiding. It masks their identity, and obscures their self-identification, and thus offends them indirectly, but in public, online. This photographic approach surrenders to everything the Taino Revival authors have argued, and Museums and photographers working with indigenous peoples today ought to be more sensitive, more cautious, and decidedly more conscious about their practices.
The presentation of photos at the National Museum of the American Indian also speaks to the power of the photographic image in Western culture. What I mean is that it reaffirms and fortifies it, as does the Museum itself which of course bases its practice on all that which is tangible, physical and visible. In the end, it’s Western culture, Western media, and Western technology that win.
The problem with that is that indigeneity is often not reducible to the observable, to the body, the face, that which can be seen. Thus one form of visibility comes at the expense of acknowledging that which is rendered invisible by photography, or the head bowed away from the camera. The bigger problem here is that attempting to photograph indigeneity can reduce it to a physical substance, and reaffirm racial ideas in the process.
■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■