Photographing Native Americans (I prefer American Indians) has many special challenges. Often photography is forbidden, though as more and more Indians acquire digital cameras, this is changing. In one case I was told, “you can’t take pictures.” My friend noticed all of the Indians taking pictures and quickly amended, “but we can.” So I tossed her the camera.
I’ve tried to capture the drama of ceremonies, some of which have died out since I took the photos. Dust, firelight and blurred action capture the spirit of the event, while the picture may be imperfect. By nature, I am a story-teller and photograph items to tell the whole story capturing elements that may not make perfect pictures.
I hope you enjoy them and even more that my Indian friends enjoy them and realize that I’m putting together their family album not a carnival sideshow.
Digital photographs are great because you can afford to experiment in strange lighting situations like firelight. Shoot directly into the fire and all the digital photograph will show is the fire and a shadow. Sometimes that sets the right mood. Capturing moving dancers when the shutter has to remain open a long time means the photo will be blurred. That may give a sense of motion, so don’t delete it out of hand. Flash is usually a bad idea. The air is full of soot and dust. The flash will capture this in unpleasant ways. Keep primed for your moment when the fire is bright and to your side while the dancer is facing you. Remember that your camera will be using a large aperture (large opening, f-stop with a small number) to let in the most light. That means that depth of field will be very limited. Only the target you focus on will be in focus everything else will be blurry.
Look at how the costumes move. See the details of what people are wearing and how they are participating. Try to capture that. Focus on details as well as the big picture.
Many Native American events are sacred and closed to the public. As strange as it may seem, you may see Indians with cameras taking pictures when you are told you cannot take any. Those are the rules. Be polite and respect them. Ask first if you can take pictures. Be sure. Some closed events may be open to you if you are invited by friends. Think of the invitation as being invited to someone’s house for Thanksgiving and act accordingly. It’s always best if you can go with friends who can keep you informed of the rules. Some events are wide open to the public. Indian Market in August in Santa Fe is one such. There is also a Pow Wow Circuit, much like the Rodeo Circuit, where Indians go to compete in dance, costumes and handicrafts. These events are advertised on the Internet and you don’t need an invitation. Here’s a YouTube entry from the Pow Wow Circuit.