In Alien Hands: The Zig Jackson Interview

Carlyle Schmollinger - August 15, 2012

"Because you have a camera, it doesn’t give you the right to shove it in someone’s face"

The American Indian has quite literally been wiped off the map. At the time of the early colonists, tens of millions of indigenous peoples occupied North America; a fraction of that number remains. The contrast between the native peoples of the land and their European counterparts has been emphasized and exploited throughout the centuries.

The American Indian has become an object at which tourists, government officials, and ignorant bystanders gawk. Photography is the leading force behind this phenomenon. In the hands of those in the white majority, the camera adopts a new identity—it becomes a manipulator, portraying long-held stereotypes. The photographic  relationship—or rather, abuse—imposed by whites onto Native Americans is that of predator and prey, respectively.

Zig Jackson, an American Indian of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara descent, exposes the inhumanity portrayed not only toward his culture but toward all tribes and persons of American Indian descent. Jackson captures the stark and unsettling reality of Euro-American relations with those whose country they overtook. An exhibition of photographs by Zig Jackson will be on view at Andrew Smith Gallery, 122 Grant Avenue, Santa Fe, from Friday, August 10 to August 31. Reception: Saturday, August 18, from 2 to 5 p.m.

TM: The reasoning behind the series Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian?

ZJ: Ever since I was young, tourists would come to the reservation to take photographs of Indians, and as I got older wherever I would travel I would see people taking pictures of Indians. So, I started taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of Indians. It wasn’t spite—it was done just to see what they were shooting. Before that, I did a series called Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Sacred Sites. I traveled the country taking pictures of sites that were sacred to Native Americans. I would see tourists at Native dances, and then I would take pictures of the tourists taking pictures of Indians. I use that body of work in my classes to talk about the sacredness of photography—just because you have a camera, it doesn’t give you the right to shove it in someone’s face.

TM: Do you consider your work to be political?

ZJ: I’m fine with being called a political artist, although I don’t buy into labels, so I won’t lose any sleep over it. People always try to put me in the category of a political artist. I don’t see myself as a political artist, but more as a teacher. I want people to learn. There is a political undertone to my work, and that’s okay, but my main thing is to teach. I’ve become more political in my work in the sense that I’ve become more environmental. I will take my war bonnet and photograph myself sitting next to a power plant. On my website there is an image of me sitting next to the Kennecott Copper Mines. In that respect I’m becoming more political.

TM: Speaking of your war bonnet, there are also images on your site of you wearing it in San Francisco, one under the title Indian Man in San Francisco. Did you get comments from people when you were walking around?

ZJ: I got a few comments. But it was San Francisco, so people thought I was just another crazy person. But that whole series—Entering Zig’s Indian Reservation—is about reclaiming the land, taking back what belonged to us.

TM: Do you consider yourself an artist?

ZJ: I do fine art. I have a Holga camera in my car and I use a Hasselblad to make pictures. If I see something artistic on the side of the road, I’ll take a picture of it. I consider myself more an artist than a photographer.

TM: So when do you actually go out and photograph since you are a teacher at the Savannah College of Art and Design?

ZJ: After school is out, I pack up my van and head across the country, stopping at reservations, power plants, and various Native American sites. If I get a photograph, that’s fine; if I don’t, that’s fine too. I have to respect the people and the land. You have to know about a culture before you go on their land. Stereotypes are what I try to break. My photographs are real. There have been these stereotypes made of us—like Indians always have stoic faces.

TM: Reminds me of Edward Curtis.

ZJ: Oh yes, Curtis. Definitely. And it is from Curtis that Hollywood draws its ideas about Indians.

TM: I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a part of a culture. Being white, I don’t really feel that I have a culture—or at least I don’t know what it is. I have a close friend who is Mexican and she is so into her culture. I feel like it’s the same for Native Americans—there is so much to be proud of.

ZJ: Of course you have a culture. You find culture wherever you are. It is not just who your ancestors were. You are a student in a university—that is a culture. You are from the Bay Area—you are an urban American. Cultures are a proud thing to have, whether it is Native American, Irish, French, Mexican, or whatever. Everyone has a culture and they should be proud of that culture.

TM: You went to a boarding school as a child. What was that like?

ZJ: The boarding schools were awful. They were like concentration camps. They used religion to break down our culture using the divide and conquer technique. A lot of child molestation happened at the school. Priests did bad things to tribal people. And then I was shipped to the Intermountain School, in Utah, which was much better. It was a tribal school, and that’s where I really learned about Native Americans. Everyone had stories about where they came from. We all experienced the same thing; there was a spirituality shared among us.

TM: Who do you look to for inspiration? 

ZJ: I was influenced greatly by my peers and by my photography instructors: Tom Barrow for his way of pushing the limits with photography, Betty Hahn for non-silver techniques, Linda Connor for her way of teaching me to stand up for myself, Rod Lazorick for being raw on his subject matter, Patrick Nagatani for his love of his culture in picture taking, Joel-Peter Witkin for his craziness in subject matter and for not backing down, and Ansel Adams for his landscapes, his ability to bring me back to life and keep me grounded, and for his love of the land. I also like Lee Miller because of her beauty, her strength, and what she had to endure as a woman trying to make it in photography. Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Francesca Woodman, Jack Fulton, Hank Wessel, Ann Chamberlain, and Jock Sturges—these people are all great mentors. I could go on and on. I also love a great many painters besides many photographers.

TM: How do you feel about white people who want to do what you do? In other words, those who want to learn about Native American culture and various tribes and take photographs. Should they?

ZJ: More power to them. Who said I have to give permission to everyone to shoot tribal peoples? I am just a person who loves to take pictures who just happens to be a Native American. The number one thing a photographer has to remember is that we’re educators.

TM: Meaning?

ZJ: Meaning that we educate people about culture. A photographer always wants his images to be seen—“Hey, look what I photographed!” We are educators. We teach people by what our subject matter is. People need to learn about the Native Americans, and who better to show them than photographers? It doesn’t matter what race you are. If you do your craft with dignity and respect you should be free to take pictures of any culture.

Carlyle Schmollinger studies Art History and Curatorial Studies at Brigham Young University.