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A lesson on cultural respect

Edward Curtis is a name in American photographic history that will not be soon forgotten, for good or otherwise. His photographs are poignant, human testaments to a culture that he felt was on the brink of extinction. As with other contemporaries of his time controversy abounds at his methodology and cultural sensitivity to the project he undertook. However the legacy of his project is undeniable as it has forever shaped the modern image of Native Americans. Modern discourse is mixed on the work Curtis did in his lifetime.

Some Natives and scholars are grateful for the work he did as it does, indeed, capture a culture that has unfortunately been in some ways lost to time and progress. The photographs have been criticized as romantic, but it is a romanticism for the past that finds empathy with descendents of the people he photographed. We can look at these photos and find documentation of traditions and culture that would have been lost, possibly forever, had they not been recorded.

The other side has a more socially progressive argument, that these are not accurate representations of the actual culture in existence when Curtis was alive and that they represent a recreation as if in memorial to something that was not yet dead. They argue that these photos were staged and in some cases exploitative to a culture being destroyed, subjugated, impoverished and denied their cultural traditions by the same hands that were welcoming these photographs.

Beyond merely being exploitive in some cases they say that the photographs violate their respective cultures’ beliefs. That Curtis instead of documenting the horrors the government was committing against the Native American communities he photographed decided instead to focus on an outdated image of living Native Americans perpetuated a stereotype of the luddite Native and in a sense helped in destroying the very culture he sought to preserve.

Curtis’ photography, more than it is anthropological is a work of art and art is subject to the interpretation of the viewer. I think in a way this is the worry of such portraiture to a Native American viewer because Curtis has captured such supposedly exposed and vulnerable subjects with his lense with little guidance on what interpretation is expected that the possible viewer reactions are multiple and deny the subject the control that would be more respectful.

To me, there is a sense of prideful beauty in most of his photographs and I would hope a Native American viewing the photos could take a sense of pride from their heritage from these photos because the people Curtis documented and the things they were willing to share on film should really outshine Curtis and his questionable methods. As for criticisms regarding Curtis, I think they’re very valid but I think you’d be hard pressed in his time to find anyone so culturally sensitive.

Curtis was following acceptable anthropological methods for his time period. I feel the most insulting part of his methodology is an utter lack of names on his photos for anyone besides the most famous of Native Americans. All other Natives in his treatment seem to be assigned based on their race and gender and little else, which to me shows a patent lack of respect to his subjects.

But, again, these are methodologies that would have been accepted in his times and the idea of doing anything different might sadly have been seen as a waste of time. More than any criticism we can levy on Curtis as to what he should of done in a time when he wouldn’t have, we really should take this as a lesson for future treatments of cultures, whether they be indigenous, subcultural or otherwise, when we are allowed a chance to photograph or otherwise participate in their worlds.

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