Manataka American Indian Council
By Toyacoyah Brown
Heidi Laughton has always had a fascination with world culture and has used this inspiration in many of her photography projects. After spending time on projects in China and Kenya, Laughton is now turning her attention to Native American culture. Her latest exhibit, “Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture” features portraits of Native people from tribes in New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Laughton told The Navajo Times that she’s seen a lot of photojournalism stories about the issues facing Native American culture and she didn’t want to focus on that. Rather, she wanted to create something that was positive and celebrates the cultures.
Laughton’s background includes a successful career in creative services, commissioning and overseeing music video shoots, documentaries and web content, for world-renowned recording artists at Sony Music UK. She has worked as a professional photographer, shooting and writing for magazines, advertising campaigns and working for non-profits. Her advertising and editorial clients include such prestigious names as Fortune (Time Inc.), Enterprise Holdings, Forty Forty Advertising Agency, Cannonball Advertising, American Red Cross, Save The Children (China), Kisumu Medical and Educational Trust (Kenya), Keen Footwear, Israeli consulate, EMI music and Official Playstation Magazine. In 2008, she also curated and produced a three-day juried event of photographers from around the world “Fresh Photo Fair” on behalf of the Lucie Foundation and last year she was a judge at PX3, Paris Photo Prize.
Laughton’s real forte lies in the way she gains the trust of her subjects and her in-depth research for fully integrated storytelling. While working in Los Angeles, she noticed a less talked-about side of Hollywood that grabbed her attention. Los Angeles has the largest number of Native American communities, more than any other city in the U.S. Her fascination with world culture and the knowledge that her own grandfather was a Native American soldier based in England during the second world war, only made her want to learn more about this heritage and to produce a project that celebrated the culture in an inspirational way. “Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture” celebrates American Indian culture with a series of portraits that reveal aspects of present-day cultural practices and lifestyles, remarkable individual stories and colorful, spiritual and artistic elements of native communities.
Embedding herself within the culture, Laughton was taken under the wing of a few Elders and museum curators, who advised and helped support this project. She photographed a diverse selection of people that create a glimpse into different facets of life and also includes successful and influential people who are inspirational to Native youth. The images present a mix of modern and traditional regalia, with the traditional regalia not necessarily being a true representation of the wearer’s tribe, but often an amalgamation of different tribal influences as is often the case today.
“I was looking to produce a photo story that didn’t focus on the many issues facing Native Americans today, but instead concentrated on the positive aspects of an extremely varied and beautiful culture. The series is meant to be a celebration. I’ve always believed that the best way to engage viewers so they can relate, is by focusing on personal stories. It’s these details and anecdotes, even though just a small glimpse into these diverse communities, which make the wider learnings more memorable,” says Laughton.
With a project this expansive, Laughton faced many challenges. Once she started shooting, she was virtually a one-person crew, often having to drive long distances, sometimes as much as 5,000 miles to reach reservations. Shooting with medium and large format film cameras – no digital was used on the project – also brought its own obstacles. Dust storms and wind were a major factor in shooting with lights on location in Arizona and New Mexico, but she determined to stick to her visual aesthetic.
“Sometimes, I didn’t have the shoots confirmed until about half an hour before the sun went down by the time all the negotiations had been completed and contracts signed with the tribal officers” explains Laughton. Although people were always enthusiastic to participate, she had to confront work schedules, people having to look after children, and locations were very hard to come by with permits and location fees required when using pro lights. Laughton often felt honored by the faith the participants had in her work right from the start, and for allowing her access into many spiritual situations and locations, and she would always follow the protocols with utmost respect.
Even though the project is ambitious, and budgets are extremely tight, Laughton relishes in the challenge, “I have learned so much and met so many amazing and interesting people, that the hard work is worth it. The project has taken me on my own personal journey” she says.
“Spirit Hawk Eye: A Tribute to American Native Culture” started in California, Arizona and New Mexico and intends to reach further into other U.S states in order to create more compelling portraits of inspirational people, who have success stories to tell and who continue to promote the ways of their heritage.
Currently the project is being produced as a traveling exhibit for galleries and museums. Each framed, museum quality, limited edition, archival pigment print is displayed with a text panel alongside, explaining educational and anecdotal information relating to the portrait. There is also the option to include public speakers, dancers, crafts and musicians at the events, culminating in a visually compelling and complete cultural experience. Looking to the future, Ms Laughton hopes to acquire sponsorship or funding, to help continue the project and to expand it into different formats, for example, she would like to add videography and interviews to the show, and to create a smaller, more mobile exhibition, made from portable canvas pull-ups for schools and educational centers (at the moment the images and text panels are being used by some public speakers in schools as powerpoint presentations). Based on the stories the participants have to tell, a documentary would seem an ideal outcome to the project, especially with Laughton’s many years of experience on film sets from her previous career, however Ms laughton instead has ideas for several short films to be made which could lead to a factual TV series.
Ms Laughton has received letters of appreciation from people who have viewed the website or seen the show in galleries. Daniel Ramos, Navajo spiritual healer wrote to her, “It is that time in the world. Time must be made for the work you are doing.” Curators such as Jina Brenneman, of The Harwood Museum of Art, University of New Mexico, Wendy Earle, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of the Southwest, James Nottage of the Eiteljorg, Travis Suazo, Executive Director, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and Carolyn Gilman of NMAI have all expressed their appreciation of the work.
Laughton will continue her journey with more shoots and exhibitions, and plans a possible book publication in the future. More portraits can be seen at the website: www.WaysoftheWorldExhibits.com
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