Toronto’s new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens shares 10 of her most powerful images

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Toronto’s new photo laureate, Nadya Kwandibens, shares 10 of her most powerful images

By Caitlin Stall-Paquet| Photograph by Eray Guler
| May 3, 2023

Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America, taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories. A member of the Animakee Wa Zhing #37 First Nation in northwestern Ontario, she now makes her home in Toronto, where she was recently named the city’s newest photo laureate. One of her goals for the three-year appointment is to use photography to spur conversation about social issues, especially as they relate to Indigenous communities. It’s a natural fit for an artist whose work fearlessly tackles hot-button topics. “You can’t be Indigenous and not be political,” says Kwandibens. “Our very existence is political.” 


 

As an Indigenous photographer, what do you want to accomplish with your work?
I do what I do because there aren’t a lot of spaces for our stories or even acknowledgement of Indigenous people in mainstream media. I want to offer a more positive depiction of who we are as distinct and beautiful nations. When I first started out, I wrote an artist’s statement. It says, “Let us claim ourselves now and see that we are, and will always be, great, thriving, balanced civilizations capable of carrying ourselves into that bright new day.” I come back to it a lot. 

You’ve travelled extensively across Canada and the US taking portraits. How do you decide on your subjects?
I don’t choose them unless I’m working on a specific series. Mostly I’m in touch with people through word of mouth. I’ll put out a call saying that I’ll be visiting their community for a week or two and asking if anyone wants to be photographed. My practice has been built over time, and it hasn’t been glamorous. Just me, my camera, my bags and Greyhound buses—or flights, if I have enough money. 

Related: Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and 70s

What are your tips for taking a great portrait?
What comes after picking up the camera isn’t even half the job. For me, it’s about connecting with people and building a rapport. They need to be able to trust me and open up, so holding space for them and their stories is crucial. It’s a great responsibility to stand in front of someone and say, “I’m going to take your photo.” 

What have you learned through that process?
I’ve learned how to truly listen. Photography is a form of improvisation, especially the way that I shoot. I don’t use any lights—it’s just me and my camera. You have to be in the moment. 


Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Rosary Spence, Toronto, 2010: Taken near Union Station, this photo is part of my series Concrete Indian, which focuses on decolonization and contemporary Indigenous identity. The series started off in black and white, giving it an archival feel, and then I switched to colour to place it in the here and now. The subject, my dear friend Rosary, chose to wear a floral top similar to what her kokum (grandmother) or aunties would have worn in their trapline days.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Ascension Harjo, Na-Me-Res Powwow, Toronto, 2017: Na-Me-Res is a residence in Toronto for Indigenous men experiencing homelessness. I love shooting powwows because there’s so much movement. Photographing men’s fancy dancing, which is what’s going on here, is hard because the dancers are moving and flipping and doing all these cartwheels.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Marlene Jack, Vancouver, 2019: The federal government commissioned this series, Sacred MMIWG, leading up to the national inquiry’s final report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Marlene’s sister and brother-in-law and their two sons went missing in 1989 after being offered jobs in a work camp. More than 30 years later, Marlene is still trying to get answers and justice for her family. After this photo was taken, we gifted her the shawl she’s wearing—it represents being comforted and taken care of.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Gathering of Nations Powwow, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 2007: The Gathering of Nations was held in a huge stadium, and it was completely full. There were so many Natives in one spot! It was definitely the biggest powwow I’ve ever been to. I used my telephoto lens to pick out certain sections of the crowd. Everyone was looking forward, but this one woman was looking back, almost right at me.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, 2018: This moment was a surprise to just about everyone in the room. When the model, Cleo Keahana, spread their arms to reveal designer Tania Larsson’s full message, you could hear a pin drop. I was at the very end of the runway, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Autumn Peltier, Ottawa, 2020: “This photo is from The Red Chair Sessions. Autumn, the daughter of a friend of mine, is the chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation. She’s very inspiring—she’s still a teenager, but she has already done so much advocacy and work around the protection of water.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

27th Annual Women’s Memorial March, Vancouver, 2017: All marches and protests are emotionally charged, but this one especially because it’s for missing and murdered women. All the people who gathered wanted justice, and you could smell sage burning everywhere. I’ve travelled by myself so much and for so long—there are moments when I remember that I could have been one of the missing women too.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Shirley White, Roseanna Cowley and Caroline Shasha White, Naotkamegwanning First Nation, 2019: “This photo is from the series Shiibaashka’igan: Honouring the Sacred Jingle Dress. The jingle dress is part of a healing dance. People will approach a jingle dress dancer with tobacco and ask, ‘Can you dance for my family?’ The eagle feathers the women are holding here honour the dance. In the past, material like elk hooves were traditionally used to make the dresses, but now they’re made out of tin snuff cans.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

Buddy Cardinal and his son, Vancouver, 2013: “Buddy works for the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society in Vancouver, and he reached out to ask if I could take family portraits. We went down to Spanish Banks Beach with his son, who was so vibrant that I suggested photos of them running through the water.”

Toronto's new photo laureate Nadya Kwandibens has spent the past two decades criss-crossing North America taking pictures of Indigenous people and sharing their stories

George Paul, Metepenagiag First Nation, August 2017: “George, a Mi’kmaw elder, is a really solid human being and a respected artist. That’s his drum in the corner. He pulled it out for me and started singing the Honour Song, which has been recorded so many times—but he’s the originator.”


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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