Visualizing Histories: Experiences of Space and Place in Photographs by Greg Staats and Jeffrey Thomas
Andrea N. Walsh
Two Iroquoian photographers, Greg Staats and Jeffrey Thomas, create narratives through their photographic essays that challenge traditional perspectives of First Nation society. Dominant narratives historically portray Iroquoian people through the lens of post-colonial government agendas. Staats and Thomas attempt to counter these popular historical narratives with photographs that signify an intercultural understanding of identity and place.
“The images in Thomas’s Memory Landscape impact of a sense of transience and human mobility on small and large scales (abandoned buildings, closed shops, graffiti of gangs passing through, families who have themselves or generations before them migrated to this place) (41).”
Thomas incorporates aspects of nonnative society in these negotiated spaces. His work represents the dispossession and migration characteristic of First Nation people in the urban landscape.
Bear Thomas is Jeffrey Thomas’s son and a main subject of many of his photographs. “This body of work documents Bear Thomas growing up as a third generation urban aboriginal person. The images present an argument for a sense of continuity of aboriginal presence and identity in such spaces, but they resist being cast into categories of sameness or difference that the previously discussed colonial images portray (43).”
His photographs embody the impermanence and pressure from consumer culture that his people experience through the juxtaposition of father or son, and the symbols of collective Canadian ideology. This project questions the validity of such ideologies and the institutionalized historical disposition against displaced societies.
“The viewer has a space and is conscious of the ambiguity of the image which allow access to the experience of a situation in all its complexity rather than the pretence of surface understanding (48).”
Staats contradicts Thomas’s approach by presenting his experience of memory, loss and renewal through composition and rhythm in his photographs. His work is not as politically charged. He purposefully avoids any stereotypical representations of First Nation people. These photographs are mostly comprised of wide landscape and interior home shots on the Six Nation’s Reserve.
Both Thomas and Staats provide the public with a new understanding of Canadian history. They counter the typical historical metanarratives that were meant to serve post-colonial government agendas. The most unique aspect of these projects is their effort to include both individual and societal narratives. Their stories run parallel to, while intersecting with dominant truths of history, identity and place.