Colonization’s Lasting Impact on Photography

Words by Jesse van‘t Hull

photographs by josué rivas

The language to describe the photographic process—taking, shooting, capturing an image—is rooted in the violence of colonial practice. Indigenous artists Josué Rivas and Rose B. Simpson reflect on the brave act of breaking free.

This conversation was brought to you by NATV, in light of the annual NATV Awards. NATV is a platform that champions the perspectives of Indigenous artists, knowledge holders, activists, leaders, and cultural practitioners. Their goal is to uphold and protect the Right of Self-Determination for Indigenous Peoples as stated in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The NATV Awards are the annual celebration of Indigenous artists, art and cultural practice. NATV and the NATV Awards are initiatives from The Sinchi Foundation.

The language of photography is aggressive. It is predatory, militaristic—imperialistic. In some cases the camera is likened to a gun, something to shoot with; in other instances, it is nothing short of extractive, a piece of equipment that takes or grabs from its surroundings. The people in front of the camera are often referred to as subjects, a term that carries connotations of subjugation, of oppressive powerlessness. Even exposure—a photographic term that refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor—suggests vulnerability and risk.


But photography can exploit as much as it can celebrate, uplift, and respect.


It’s a reality that Indigenous futurist Josué Rivas, who is Mexica and Otomí, has had to come to terms with over the course of his creative practice. As an Indigenous visual storyteller, Rivas describes the default language of photography as deeply colonizing, one built on pain and violence. It is why he has spent years reimagining his relationship to his camera and, in the process, reconsidered what drives him to make an image. For him, the act of photographing is intentional—sacred. It’s an outlook that resonates with sculptor and mixed-media Santa Clara Pueblo artist Rose B. Simpson, whose time in Western education was spent stigmatizing her cultural and religious practices. Now, she is using chisels, knives, brushes, and clay as tools to heal the inter-generational traumas of colonization.


Below, Rivas and Simpson are in conversation with NATV’s Jesse Van‘t Hull about language, bearing witness, and how their Indigeneity influences their practice—and the future of our planet.

Jesse Van‘t Hull

Hi Rose. Hi Josué. Thank you so much for making the time for us. To start, for the readers not familiar with your work, I would like to ask for your reflections on what “decolonization” means to you?

Rose B. Simpson

“Decolonization” or “decolonizing” has become a buzzword. A lot of times I think about shedding the ideas that are imposed from external sources—even from the English language such as the term “decolonizing”—and looking to our ancestral knowledge or the ways of thinking that were prevalent before colonization.


Take feminism as an example—feminism doesn’t exist in our tribe because, ancestrally, there were very clear gender roles within the community. What we understand as feminism today is a Eurocentric concept because it stems from a community that decentralized women and femmes. In my community, feminism feels like an absurd term, ancestrally, because women were innately powerful. Why would you want to be like a man when the woman was actually who you wanted to be like? And so, when I think about “decolonizing” it implies the removal of something, instead of looking at what is already there and building that up. I like to focus on the thinking patterns of our ancestors—like nurturing the internal being and consciousness—rather than engaging with externally-imposed concepts.

Josué Rivas

Thank you for that, Rose. Similarly, I think that the word “decolonization” or even the concept of “decolonizing” has become trendy. But there is also an opportunity for education, especially in how we translate that word now and in the future. Why do we have to decolonize now? It’s because of what is still happening and has been happening for the last 500 years in this continent. And then: Are we going to have to decolonize in the future? I think about that a lot—about what that word means will be different in 10, 15, 20 years.


How are the people of the future going to interpret this idea of “decolonization”? Maybe they won’t have to decolonize? Maybe we are now doing the work so that they don’t have to? Maybe we’re planting the seeds for descendants to focus on living in an Indigenous way of life, instead of needing to focus on the need for healing.


Thank you both so much for this. Do you have questions you would like to ask each other?


Rose, I was looking at your work, which is so dope. How does your work and your practice channel through you? Is your art a healing process? What happens to you when certain ideas or feelings channel through you?


I’m blessed to have some parameters that I have to work within. The history of colonization, exploitation, and extraction of Indigenous consciousness and thought patterns and imagery and symbols means that my tribe is really strict on what can be told and that’s kept us as traditional. There is a need for secrecy of our cultural information. And so, I’ve had to really search for ways to communicate without being extractive.


I’m trying to portray my journey of evolution, growth, strength, and vulnerability as abstractly as possible, so that it is accessible to more people without it becoming a collector’s item. I’m trying to have a bigger conversation. I’m trying to communicate with a different language rather than staying in the consciousness of extraction, colonization and the pain it breeds. My work has helped me release some of that. Also, if I am strong, my people will be stronger. The people with whom I’m in conversation with will be stronger. I’m not doing this for art’s sake. We are going down with the ship and we really need to make some lasting change. Now, can I ask you a question?


Go for it.


The act of witnessing is vital—but people often use the term “capture” for photography and I wonder about that language of “grabbing.” How do you feel about that?


My relationship to language has transformed through photography. When I first started this journey, I wanted to document people in the shadows of society. I was houseless between the ages of seven and 11, so when I picked up the camera at 21 I worked a lot with folks that lived on the streets.


Through that process, I learnt that what we’ve been told about photography and the image-making process is deeply colonizing. It involves a language of “capturing” or “shooting” or “taking” and refers to people as “subjects.” It’s the same colonial language people used to describe their treatment of Indigenous peoples and other folks from around the world. What I’ve tried to do is shed that energy. For example, when I documented Standing Rock, I was there for seven months. I was there in prayer. I had to be deeply rooted in listening to the voices that were guiding me—where to be, how to go there, who to photograph, who not to photograph. There were a couple of times where I could have gotten really hurt, and this voice—I don’t know whether it was my ancestors—was guiding me.


Regarding the process, my goal is to transform it to show people that there are options to choose from when making an image. We award, for example, the Pulitzer Prize to war photographers: This photographer went to Iraq and photographed this little kid dying. But if we can award war photographers, then why can’t we award peace photographers? There are people that are documenting peace and creating peace with their images.


But then I also like to think about what photography is going to look like in 100 years. Already TikTok is changing everything—the average person is trying to tell a story without realizing that they’re actually in a very sacred process of documenting themselves. This is colonization 2.0 for the medium. My question is: How do we do that in a way that is actually sustainable and regenerative for the people that are being photographed?

“I believe that the creative process, if we’re conscious about it, is prayer and what we do and what we put out there matters.”

Rose B. Simpson


I really like how you talked about the spiritual process of making photos; that this is a sacred process of documentation and, probably, self-realization and witnessing. Having been to art school in the Western colonial art world, I found it’s taboo to talk about spirituality or religion. I’ve tried to find language around that in so many ways without just saying, What I’m doing is a prayer and a story. I believe that the creative process, if we’re conscious about it, is prayer and what we do and what we put out there matters. You have to be careful with it.


So, with TikTok, we have five seconds to be creative and there’s not much consciousness. It’s moving faster and faster, so we’re less thoughtful about what we produce. With photography, what I’m interested in is the thoughtfulness and the consciousness and the witnessing that it can demonstrate. What have you noticed when using spiritual vocabulary around your creative process?


Before Standing Rock I was really afraid to talk about  these voices that I hear in my head when I’m photographing. What I realized later on, after healing from being at Standing Rock and going through a lot of ceremonies, is that we can’t be afraid to talk about spirit anymore. Period. Especially when we are creating art.


A lot of people are going to catch up to it. A lot of people are going to appropriate it. They’re going to turn it into this new age thing. But if we don’t say it out loud, then spirit is being withheld from being present in their practice. For me, I talk about it in a way that makes sense for people, but I’m not going to stop talking about it because it literally is what wakes me up in the morning and says: You’re here to do some stuff and you happen to do it through photography and storytelling—now go do it. Even getting on this call with you. Why should we even have the time to talk about this thing? It’s because this is our purpose. This is what we came here to do. We need to talk about spirit and not be afraid of some people that are going to get scared—because some people are going to be; they’re not going to understand channeling something when you make your artwork.


We’re going to return to Indigenous ways of being in much of the world. We’re going to see the value of the artist and we’re going to see the value of the person who is two-spirited. We are going to see the value in the people that can take us on journeys. Medicine women and men and LGBTQIA+ folks are going to take us to completely different places that we haven’t even been to before. That is the future of humanity. Therefore, if we can apply it to our personal practice and be proactive in saying that it’s okay to talk about spirits, it is important that we do. Because if we don’t honor those spirits and those guides and those ancestors that are coming through our work, then we are doing a disservice to them. We’re not allowing them to express themselves in this realm.


You brought up fear and I am trying to grasp: Why am I scared to talk about it? It’s because of ancestral colonial trauma where, when we practiced our beliefs, we were enslaved and murdered. And we have that genetic memory of silencing that to a whisper so that you stay alive and safe. My elders were saying, “Don’t share your culture because that will get all of us in trouble. It will hurt your whole community.” So, maybe decolonizing is about facing that fear because our ancestors are leading us into this new world that is actually built on the old way. After all, what you and I do is a form of remembering how we once knew to be in the world.


I can understand that there’s a lot of tact that we have to be conscious of so that appropriation doesn’t happen. That we’re not expressing ourselves not to be used and exploited. But rather, to remind people of their own accountability and responsibility and awareness because a lot of our ancestral trauma is just based on this deep lack of grace and respect. How do we reconnect with that? In a way we are building a new language to stop hurting each other.


For my people, the Mexica people and Otomí people, there are some things that we can’t talk about. But what’s interesting is that there’s this bridge being built right now with, for example, with your peoples and different tribes in the Southwest that have been very private. I think that certain people will bring the light of their communities into the world. And it just happens to be that you’re doing it through art because some people cannot speak the language of the ancient. It’s beautiful to hear that there is a fear, and that fear becomes the bridge for people outside or even within your community. I’m sure it’s really difficult within your own community. But then eventually, people you’ll never meet, your descendants, will be like, They changed the narrative for us, now we’re not afraid to share our ways.


Is creating art a form of radical love and hope for the future?


I think it is a full circle. I think we’re coming back to the beginning again. What do you think, Rose?


I often think about what it would have been like if I wasn’t raised a part of my community and practiced my religious belief systems, my spirituality. During my lifetime, I’ve seen incredible change in my community. Lots of things have already been lost. But I’ve also seen young people become healthier, and more empowered in ways that my generation wasn’t. I want to believe that the work that I’ve done has helped them. I have a five-year-old daughter, and I think often about my role in protecting her and guiding her to her future: the remembrance of timelessness where we are not victims, we are the purveyors of health and change.


My experience of American culture is very fast, unconscious, and disrespectful in how quickly it gobbles things up and spits it out without considering cause and effect, without considering their place in the world, without taking five steps back and looking at how we’re all linked together. Everything that we do affects other people. And American culture to me feels very individualistic. I keep going back to the words tact and grace and how you need to slow down to remember how to move through something and how to engage and build a relationship in a way that is truly mutual. And sometimes we have to let go of what we ever thought was right and true.


A lot of my work is about that moment of witnessing, of watching. And photography is, essentially, about the act of witnessing; how do you look at something? How do you stop and listen and pay attention to something long enough for you to find a nugget of enlightenment, of truth, of purity? My sculptures are like those eyes. And your photographs are what they see.


It sounds like we need to collaborate. You’re using these tools to hopefully heal yourself and help other people heal. We think a practitioner needs to go to Harvard and get a medical school degree. But we can be practitioners through our artwork, through our creativity. That’s why they call it creative practice, right?


Maybe we are also servers—we are in service to our people and to ourselves. That’s hard because in a lot of our communities you’re supposed to be giving. And, of course, you should. But that comes through you. And if it comes through you then you, the vessel, needs to be healed. Because the more powerful you are, the more clear your vessel is, the more powerful the medicine is.


I really hope the two of you will collaborate, I would like to see that. I want to thank you both so much for allowing me to witness this conversation.


Yes, thank you so much and, Rose, I’ll be in touch with you. I appreciate you.


This is great—thank you. Have a lovely day.

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