Diversity Symposium keynote discusses process, lessons behind powerful portrait series

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(DEVIN WEEKS/Hagadone News Network) Acclaimed documentary photographer Daniella Zalcman discusses several of the portraits she took for her “Signs of Your Identity” project, where she interviewed First Nations Canadians and overlaid the photos with images representing their cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. This portrait is of Indian residential school survivor Gary Edwards, who remembers being locked in church after Mass with other children and being subjected to chemical experiments.

COEUR d’ALENE — If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the portraits taken by Daniella Zalcman would tell stories that go on for generations.

Her award-winning ongoing photo project, "Signs of Your Identity," presents images of First Nations Canadians who survived Indian Residential Schools. These portraits are overlaid with images of sites and memories of their boarding school experiences to convey the impact of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma that continues to affect them and their families today, 23 years after the last residential school in Canada closed.

"Fundamentally, to me, the story is a story about memory and intergenerational trauma, the things that we pass on from generation to generation without even realizing it," Zalcman said.

Zalcman, a documentary photographer, was the keynote speaker at North Idaho College's fourth annual Diversity Symposium, a day-long event held at the Edminster Student Union Building last Tuesday.

Zalcman spoke to a full Lake Coeur d'Alene Room about her experiences getting to know her subjects and diving into Canada's grim and often unspoken history of taking young indigenous children from their homes and assimilating them into western Canadian culture.

The repercussions of this practice, which began in the 1870s, are still evident today, although nearly all of the residential school buildings have been razed or burned to the ground in efforts to remove their black marks from the communities where they once stood. Zalcman's creativity in telling the survivors' stories through visual work includes photographing the cemeteries near the school sites where indigenous children were buried and otherwise finding powerful images to portray the pain felt by the survivors and their families through the generations.

She heard stories of medical and chemical experimentation, routine sexual and physical abuse and other harrowing tales of broken spirits and stolen youth.

"For most people, I think storytelling is a part of the healing process," Zalcman said, adding that many of those she interviewed opened up about their pasts for the first time when they spoke to her, while only a few refused to speak about it.

She encouraged her listeners to be critical of the context in which they view images, and to be mindful how they themselves convey images and tell stories. She said it's especially important to be safe, careful and respectful when talking with people who have experienced severe trauma.

"Our ways of storytelling in this country, for so long, have been in the hands of one group of people," she said. "We say that phrase, 'Victors get to write history' … that needs to stop. That is neither good nor accurate. If we only hear about our histories from one group of people, which, to this day, has been predominantly white and male, that means the vast reality that we understand, and those are the things that we perpetuate."

"I say to all the students here, it is on you guys. It is your responsibility to make sure that you grow up to be storytellers. I don't mean you all have to be journalists, there are a million different ways. All of us are storytellers in different capacities.

"We have to make sure, in this country, that we are doing a better job of telling our complete history, because we have not done that so far."

Jo Lien, Diversity Symposium organizer, said she had first seen Zalcman's work on display in the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and the idea to base this year's event on cultural identity grew around her work.

"It's really interesting to consider not only the work itself, but her role in the work as an outsider," Lien said. "One thing I enjoy is she confronts the idea of what it means to document from outside of a community and she’s willing to engage in tough conversations about that."

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