Meaning is in the eye of the photo beholder

Bryan Myles, director of the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Studies, will be presenting Early Photography of Northwest Coast First Nations and narrating historical photos of First Nations communities dating back to the 1850s. The talk will be held on March 7 at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

Myles’s interest in historical photography started when he met George MacDonald, a pioneer in archeological work on the Pacific Northwest Coast.

“I started scanning [and digitizing prints] back in 2007 for George, who I met in Ottawa when I was doing my master’s,” says Myles. “I’m familiar with the over 60,000 images in his research collection.”

Coast Salish salmon weir on the Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, 1866 | Photo by Frederick Dally, courtesy of Royal BC Museum

Myles was further inspired by an article from the Royal British Columbia Museum that described the journeys of photographers in government sponsored expeditions called ‘tours of inspection.’ While the research notes contain details unavailable in any photo collection, they lacked the imagery available in the photos that Myles was digitizing.

“So I started going through our image collection and attaching information provided in the article,” he says. “It presents a narrative that a lot of people would find interesting.”

Reinterpreting our relationship with First Nations

Myles has a Master of Sociocultural Anthropology degree, but his focus shifted after meeting MacDonald and moving to Vancouver.

“Now my work is focused on how museums are opening up and how objects in their collections are being reinterpreted,” says Myles.

His presentation is an example of this reinterpretation.

“Part of what I talk about is how these pictures go from being symbols of colonial authority to later becoming commercial products, and then being repurposed again to become sources of indigenous pride,” he says.

The presentation primarily deals with photos that originate from a series of government expeditions between 1856 and 1881.

Inhabitants of Chief Weah’s “Monster House” pose with Israel Wood Powell in 1866 | Photo by Richard Maynard , courtesy of Royal BC Museum

“The tours of inspection in 1873, 1874 and 1881 were done with Israel Wood Powell who was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in BC. He had initiated these trips to persuade the First Nations that there was a strong force watching them,” explains Myles.

Besides this show of force, Powell needed to report back to the federal government of progress in pacifying the First Nation communities. He hired photographers to take pictures of the ships’ officers standing among the sitting First Nations people to show that they had been ‘subdued.’

Yet, society’s engagement with photographs is constantly evolving.

“Now we’re using them to show cultural continuity, pride and identity,” says Myles. “It’s almost a subversion of the intent of the original image.”

Meaning is not static

What caused this change in the use and interpretation of these photos? Myles believes that the answer partly lies in increased First Nations activism and involvement in curating museum exhibits, in more collaboration between First Nations artists and museums and in our society’s changed attitude towards indigenous cultures.

“Now we have political and ethical will, as well as the technology, to add the voice of First Nations,” he says.

Myles further explains that meaning is not static. He argues that photos are not fixed representation of reality, and that viewers should consider the context and negotiations that would have occurred between photographers and their subjects.

“You don’t see the pictures where indigenous people refused to be photographed in the archives and you don’t get to see their agency in rejecting colonialism,” says Myles.

In displaying these historical photos, Myles hopes to start a discussion with the intent of instilling respect and understanding of a shared colonial past with First Nations. He also hopes to create access to material locked away in archives.

“These objects and images show how First Nations society and culture have a totally different outlook on world values that are as equally important as ours,” he says. “There’s a lot to offer on our understanding of ourselves and what we value as truth. I like calling those claims to truth into question.”

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