On multiple occasions I have sat on a plane next to a person who asked me where I call home. The usual “Arizona” answer is enough for 80% of those conversations to end, while 15% require a more geographically narrowed answer of “Scottsdale.” However, there is always that remaining 5% that jump off the logical bridge and into the question, “what kind of horse do you ride?” The kind of question for which the meme crowd would warrant a giant facepalm.
The people that extrapolate the Old West out of one born in Arizona commonly regard my “I have never ridden a horse” response as blasphemy towards my own culture. Very little water is carried in this conclusion, but to the residue that remains in the all encompassing quagmire that an Arizona native has not experienced the (improperly named) Indian culture, I offer resolution:
A little while ago an opportunity approached in the form of an assignment to photograph across the northern regions of Arizona. I was to document the life, culture, and details of the land and people we know as Native Americans. Timing was critical, as my assistant and I would inadvertently be engaging in a race against the onset of winter. If there was one thing I knew less that the Native American culture, it was how to drive in the snow.
Rental car rented and fully insured, we set off for a day in Shonto, Arizona; a place that even Google maps hasn’t found yet. Along the way we passed many empty trading posts, all foretelling what our future held in a colorful yet desolate manner. We were out to capture the romantic notion of people still untouched by Western civilization. People still living off of the land with only what Mother Earth had given to them. Unfortunately, I had not accounted for how deeply entwined the tourist’s pocket was with this concept of trade, rendering our attempts to capture the native people moot. The first day about the land had produced great imagery, but the landscape was barren of the people I was there to photograph. This quest to fulfill the client’s needs contrasted by the white weather that was not on the call-sheet made for stress, fast driving, and the need for luck.
At our hotel one night, a craft’s fair was taking place. It was for the Native Americans to exchange goods and gifts with one another as Christmas was approaching. I attended out of sheer desperation, and fortune ensued in that we received an invitation to the house of a local artisan the next morning. Amazed at how remote the town was, we often had to use the “insert point” function of the GPS just to determine the general location of our host.
Photographing the people that came to weave, carve and sow seemed more like documenting history than creating portraits. Profound was the thought that the “modern” art of photography was capturing the lost arts of our land. A concept that seemed to play over and over was the idea that we were photographing in a modern house (since the weather was approaching) which then tainted the images with some sense of modernism. Gratitude goes out to those who then invited a complete stranger into their home to capture their traditional culture, knowing full well this stranger would abruptly depart and never return. Thank you.
Leaving Shonto for Window Rock played out like a made for TV action movie…. you knew it was going to be a disaster, we just wondered if we would be able to finish off the carton of Hagen Dazs before it became unbearable. In our case, not a chance. The clear skies that had made for beautiful backdrops the day before were pouring out so much snow that the “clean” photograph of Window Rock would be described merely as “it’s there behind all the white stuff.” Knowing that all other photo opportunities were over, the task of getting home safely became priority, and we left fighting time and traction all the way back to Scottsdale. Stopping briefly for McDonald’s drive-thru and fuel, we then proceeded nine straight hours in a rental car void of a working defrost.
The experience of this trip and the portrait photoshoots within it showed me that I (like many) have become spoiled with convenience. Subscribing to a creature comfort-centric way of life, my genetic wiring won’t let me live on the land. I don’t find it abnormal that I have never camped; I find it ironic that my existence is only made possible because someone along the way did.