Photography helps Native youth enrich their lives
Friday, January 09 2015
Written by Deanna Standing Cloud,
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photography helps native youth enrich their lives.jpgBefore the cold winter season claimed its place in the Twin Cities area this year, six Native American high school students from across the area were able to enjoy a memorable experience.

On an October afternoon, participants in the Mazinaakizige: American Indian Teen Photography Project and their mentors connected with the elements on a canoe journey down the Mississippi River.

The students were armed with 35 mm film cameras and anticipation for whatever this journey may have brought. Second year participant, Breanna Green shared about her experience, “Being on the water is healing and so calming.”

Participants and mentors alike carefully moved along one of the largest rivers in the world across the glistening sparkle of the reflection of the sunlight with wonderment and curiosity. This incredible opportunity was the perfect environment for connection to the natural world, the basis for creative thought which is fertile ground for photographic practice.

On Nov. 22, six Native American high school students celebrated the completion of their participation in the Mazinaakizige: American Indian Teen Photography Project at the Minneapolis Photography Center. Rainey Rock (White Earth Ojibwe), Sage Mills (Lakota), Breanna Green (Red Lake Ojibwe), Andrew Fairbanks (White Earth Ojibwe), Lupe Thornhill (Red Lake Ojibwe) and Elizabeth Santana (Hunkpapa Lakota) invited their families to their very own gallery opening featuring their work. Hoka Hey drum group, a collective of young Native men, recognized the students and families with an honor song. Dozens of supporters from the Native arts community came to support the young artists as well to share food, stories and prayer for this project.

The word “Mazinaakizige” is an Ojibwe word meaning, “the act of creating pictures.” Mazinaakizige: American Indian Teen Photography Project launched a pilot program three years ago in collaboration with the Minneapolis Photo Center and the Minnesota Historical Society with sponsorship from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Maren Levad, Museum Outreach Specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society took on stewardship of the program, since its inception. The focus was to provide Native students with historical background of photography as well as to build photographic skills. In order to implement a more cultural approach to the program, Levad connected with Indigenous Visual Artist and Filmmaker, Missy Whiteman to bring cultural dimension to this work.

For those that have had the opportunity to work with Whiteman, they know her work comes from a deep grounding in her identity as an Indigenous person. She is from the Arapaho and Kickapoo Nations and she finds a natural spiritual healing through her art and she shares that insight with the students participating in the program.

Elizabeth Santana, a junior at South High All Nations, was accepted into Mazinaakizige this year describes her experience with the cultural aspect, “There are really good vibes with everyone here. We are all very productive together, it’s like we’re family.”

This years’ program offers Native youth a unique opportunity to learn more about film photography, a dying art form. With digital photography ingrained so much in everyday film making, film photography is becoming a specialized discipline. Throughout the three years of the program, American Indian students spent 10 weeks together, learning, creating, sharing and connecting to the film photographic process through an Indigenous lens.

This year, participants delved into early photographic methods and ultimately producing Van Dyke style photos themselves. Named for its brownish overtone after painter Anthony Van Dyke, this process originates from argentotypes invented in 1842. One of the unique signatures of this style is the use of a variety of different kinds of paper, typically watercolor-compatible textures. Digital negatives were implemented into this year’s process, bridging the present with the past offering participants a rich photographic education.

Program mentors and photography specialists Nathan Lewis and Stefanie Motta brought a wealth of knowledge of the Van Dyke technique to the program. Coral Moore, mentor from the Minnesota Historical Society shared how photography can help Native students focus their energy in a healthy way, “Photography is a powerful tool for self-expression for Native youth.”

“This is a tough medium to work with. This process teaches our students humility and patience. They become attached to the images they want to produce, so when it doesn’t work out, it’s a humbling feeling.” Whiteman said about the student’s experience with the film process.

Disappointment is not always comfortable, but can help a young person grow and mature. Rainey Rock, a senior at Harding High School, spoke about what she took away from the program, “I learned how to take constructive criticism without taking it personally.” All of which, can be important lessons for the development of high school students in order to prepare them for the future.

When asked about what went well with the program, one of the common themes that came from students and mentors is the overall welcoming feeling and gratuity for creative environment. Moore credits Orin and Abby Rutchick, founders of Membership for the Minneapolis Photography Center for providing a creative space for the program, “It is such a beautiful space and I’m thankful to them for always showing such kind hospitality to our program.”

Participant Breanna Green felt strongly like she belonged there, “The food and love they showed us helped me to be successful in this program.” An act that can go a long way to proving that Indigenous values of giving can be a best practice to support Native youth.

Santana reflects on her personal development thanks to the program, “I learned that by keeping your mind open to new things, that you can find that you’re really great at something.”


PHOTO: Mazinakizie participants (left to right): Rainey Rock, Lupe Thornhill, Andrew Fairbanks, Sage Mills, Elizabeth Santana and Breanna Green. (Photo by Deanna Standing Cloud)

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