Will Wilson X Heather Shannon

Published on 04/17/ 2021
Will Wilson

Will Wilson is a Diné photographer and trans-customary artist who spent his formative years living on the Navajo Nation. Wilson studied photography, sculpture, and art history at the University of New Mexico and Oberlin College. In 2007, Wilson won the Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum, in 2010 the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award for Sculpture, in 2016 the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant for Photography and in 2020 Wilson was the Doran Artist in Residence a the Yale University Art Gallery. Wilson has held visiting professorships at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Oberlin College, and the University of Arizona. In 2017, Wilson received the NM Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. His work is exhibited and collected internationally. Wilson is program Head of Photography at Santa Fe Community College.

Heather Shannon is the Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at the George Eastman Museum. Prior to joining the staff at George Eastman House, Shannon was the photograph archivist for the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. She also worked for many years in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University Library, cataloging rare books and the Western Americana photographs collection. She specializes in photography of the 19th century, particularly photography of the American West.
Heather Shannon

Before we get to the interview: Wilson's Talking Tintypes are a series of images that include augmented content. To experience this content, use your smart device to scan the QR code. This will take you to the Talking Tintypes app on the Apple App Store.
Download and install the free TT App.
Scan any photo below from the Talking Tintypes series to listen to the voices of remarkable Indigenous people telling their stories through a blending of 19th and 21st century photographic technologies.

Heather Shannon: Will, you and I have known each other for about 10 years. But I have never asked you what originally drew you to photography and what compelled you to make photographs.
Will Wilson: When I was a kid, growing up in San Francisco, my best friend Aaron’s mom was an aspiring photographer. We lived in this apartment building on Clay St. near Nob Hill. They lived downstairs, we lived upstairs, and I would go down and hang out with Aaron. One day, I found this giant bin of Lee Ann’s contact sheets, and I knew, as soon as I looked at them, that there was something there that I wanted to do, that I wanted to learn. Another draw, I think, was that when I was nine, my parents split up, and I moved back to the Navajo Nation with my mom. Before that, I had been spending summers there but was going to elementary school in San Francisco. I was doing really well in school, and I was really captivated by it, but when I got to the reservation there was a major shift. I'm not a fluent Navajo speaker, so my ability to express myself through language was very limited. I definitely wasn’t used to this and I longed to be able to communicate at a high level with my family who was all first language Navajo speakers. Half the time I was living in translation, trying to figure out what people were saying, and I didn't want to constantly have to ask. So I lived in a state of perpetual translation, and I think, because of that, I became keenly observant of details around me. The words that I did understand would give me context and I was able to translate a lot visually. The process was similar, in some ways, to how a contact sheet functions. Even if you don't know what that photographer was specifically assigned to do, you can piece together this narrative, visually, of what's going on by looking at the contact sheet. I think those two things primed me for when I went to high school and was able to enroll in a photography course. Everything came together and I started to tell my own story.
Auto Immune Response 2

HS: Do you continue to make photographs for the same reason— to make sense of the world and to find your place in it through imagery? Why do you make photographs now? What motivates you?
WW: I do it as a way to process, not only things that I don't understand but things that I want to learn more about-- histories that I'm interested in interjecting into and potentially shifting. When I went to Oberlin, I started thinking a little more critically about how I was using photography to tell a story. I had been taking photographs and stories and delivering them from one community to another. Looking at the history of photography in relation to these communities, the Indigenous and the academic, and thinking about power in relation to how photography was used, I became more critical of what I was doing. Adding that element to my understanding of how photography has operated historically was really important to me and motivated me to potentially change that history or alter it. I wanted to situate my practice, not totally in opposition, but in a different place.
HS: To trouble it.
WW: Yes, I wanted to trouble it for sure. And this is where ethics and aesthetics come into play, I think. On another level, I've always tried to think about whether there is a uniquely indigenous or Navajo/Diné way of seeing the world that I can include in the work that I'm doing. Dylan Miner, who teaches at Michigan State University, coined the term “Indigenous Visuality.” Is there a particular way that photography operates in the world that comes from this position that's unique to indigenous communities or cultures or, maybe even more specifically, to Navajo? But even deeper than that, me, my voice in relation to all of that because I am also Irish and Welsh. It's this interesting intersection of positionalities.
How the West is One
Ihanktonwan Nakota delegates Si-ha-han-ska (Long Foot), left and Wa-jin-ka (Little Bird), right by Alexander Gardner, 1867. (National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution)

HS: It calls to mind your double self-portrait How the West is One, which, of course, is a wordplay. In one photograph you're wearing, a squash blossom necklace, and, in the other, you're wearing a cowboy hat. And that says a lot about your photographic practice and some of your goals, but I think it also is a nice jumping-off place to talk more specifically about the historical relationship between photography and indigenous peoples, and how your work engages this history and uses it as a point of departure. A history that is not past, but still current. how does your photography interject into this history or use it as a point of departure to critique it, at the same time that it allows for this indigenous visuality that you were talking about?
WW: If you think about some of the early well-known examples of landscape and portraiture, like Matthew Brady's Gallery of Illustrious Americans or something like that, when those images were made, portraiture was being used to glorify and honorifically portray, mostly white men, but... people, right? And thinking about how photography, at that historical juncture, was being used to represent Native American people, there’s a tension there. I'm thinking about the delegation portraiture. We have these leaders of tribal nations coming to Washington to hash out peace treaties between government bodies about how to share resources, but the writing was already on the wall, and dominance was coming. When a lot of those delegation portraits were made, these other “illustrious Americans,” these indigenous Americans, were trying to make a case for, You respect our nation, respect our sovereignty, and we’ll work with you. A lot of those images were made to honor those experiences and those events, but at the same time, they were also meant to function as these ethnographic or anthropological records of types. It brings to mind Allen Sekula's The Body and the Archive and how photography was used by the state to image deviance. For me, that's still in play in a strong way, and now it's happening through facial recognition and what's happening with Uighurs in China, or, who knows what's going on in the United States, but I think that legacy is still alive and well and needs to be talked about and critiqued. And that's where the portraiture project, the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX) comes in. One tagline for that is, What if Indians invented photography? It's about this different relationship. It's about reciprocity. It's about a discussion. It's about generosity and sharing the original object.

HS: Can you talk through your process for CIPX, so that people can get a sense of that project and of its goals and ambitions?
WW:  When I first wrote it up, I did it quickly. And I did it because I wanted it to fly and function, and I wanted to get funding for it. I linked it to Edward Curtis's The North American Indian and a contemporary indigenous response to that. Unfortunately, if you're an indigenous photographer, and you invoke Curtis, the spotlight immediately shifts over here to this dead white guy and away from the contemporary work. Mr. Curtis did this grand opus and made these remarkable images of a really resilient community of people. I do want to do something different. I want to have a dialogue with the people that I'm photographing. I want to show them this remarkable technology that is alchemic and beautiful. It's such a joy to be able to share that process with somebody who's never experienced it. it's not something a lot of people have exposure to. I love that part of it. I love the sharing of the image. The tintype, the way that it resolves people is unique and strange and definitely invokes this history. It's that relational process and then the generosity and the giving. It's also incredibly beneficial for me and an honor for me to aggregate all of these experiences and these images. That project is perfect because I'm happy to do it for the rest of my life and to keep working on it whenever I get a chance. It’s on a hiatus because of the pandemic, but I'm looking forward to the day when, even if we're wearing masks, I can invite people to experience that again.
Winfield Scott, in military uniform by Mathew B. Brady, circa 1849. Gallery of Illustrious Americans. (Library of Congress)
Sandra Lamouche, First Nations Citizen of the Bigstone Cree Nation by Will Wilson, CIPX SFAI, 2012.

HS: So you invite native and non-native people to sit for you, and I've had the experience. We worked together to pose me in the style of a Julia Margaret Cameron image. You use the wet collodion process to make a unique tintype of the sitter and then scan that tintype. So you retain the digital image but give the original object to the sitter as a gift. There's this wonderful reciprocity, one is giving one's image and receives back the unique object. This, to me, is a very collaborative process. Can you talk about the role of art and the artists in these collaborative projects like CIPX and your newest project Connecting the Dots for a Just Transition? What do you hope to achieve through collaboration? In some ways, I understand you're looking at the past and seeking to up-end exploitative practices and relationships between subject and object. How does this complicate your artistic practice or what challenges do you face and what are the benefits?
WW: In terms of the CIPX project, I just get to meet people and I get to have this wonderful exchange, we both get a (hopefully) beautiful image at the end, and just that shared experience is enough to be a driving force for that project. The next project, Connecting the Dots, is a photographic survey of over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. I started the investigation right before the pandemic hit, so it hasn't developed as quickly as I'd hoped. There’s something amazing about being by myself out in the landscape. I like to have a very focused project when I'm out there in this really beautiful place. So I've shot about 50 of these sites, but what I would love to do is work more closely with Diné people who have been affected by the legacy of uranium extraction and processing on the Navajo Nation. Not a lot of people know that a huge portion of the fissile material that fueled the development of the first atomic weapon was sourced from the Navajo Nation. They started mining in earnest in 1942, I think, on Navajo and then also on a number of other native nations in the southwest. And then during the Cold War and the run-up to the nuclear arms race, a lot of that material was sourced from the Navajo Nation as well, and even though the US government fully knew that this material was highly toxic, they didn't tell people who were doing the mining, You have to wear a respirator. You cannot go home covered in uranium dust and expose your family to this. You can't use the tailings as a building material in your house because it is constantly emitting toxic radiation. So that history is particularly unknown and also traumatic. It needs to be told.

Atsina Man by Edward S. Curtis, published in The North American Indian, 1908. (Library of Congress)

Andy Everson, citizen of the K’ómoks First Nation, CIPX.

HS: And it's present. It hasn't gone away. It's not ancient history, right?
WW: Yes, there's the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, and it tracks Navajo mothers and their infants. It's showing that there are elevated levels of uranium in their blood, and there are all kinds of diseases that are associated with having that in your blood. And it's from environmental contact. There's this map, and it's just a bunch of red dots. I want to use photography to dive in there, to illustrate these places, and then hopefully to start talking to communities about it and hopefully propose some changes— at least warning signs and some fencing. A lot of these places are depressions in the landscape now from when the mining occurred. They haven't been remediated, and the reservation is super dry, especially these days, because we're going through this historic drought.  When it does rain, those depressions fill with water, and the livestock are drawn to the water sources, and then people eat the livestock, so there's this direct association or chain of exposure ingestion. I'm hoping to work with Diné College which is a tribal college at the heart of the Navajo Nation. I'm trying to frame some grant proposals right now where I would do workshops, and possibly structure a class in the photography department around it where we use landscape-based photography and drone-based photography to illustrate this, and potentially go and interview some people who have been affected, I don't think it will be hard to find those people. Building out the framework so that we can do it in a responsible, respectful way is critical. The Navajo Nation and Diné College both have internal review boards that require a very intentional process for doing that, especially when doing research with human subjects. They are very cognizant of our traumatic history of people just going in and invoking this trauma, taking pictures, and then leaving. The proposal includes a plan to create a center for indigenous remediation, and the landscape photography will be about cartographies and thinking about new indigenous photographies that support new indigenous remediation ideas. And again, thinking about the history of photography— we talked about portraiture before, but landscape also plays a huge role. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, The United States all of a sudden owns this vast landscape that was formerly northern Mexico, and the history of those survey photographs— they are beautiful landscapes– but they are completely empty and devoid of anybody. 
Desireé Beltrán and Maria Elena Beltrán. CIPX 516Arts, 2016.
Cara Romero, citizen of the Chemehuevi tribe, CIPX, 2012.

HS: Quote unquote empty.
WW: People lived there and they still live there, and they're still being affected by that history of resource exploitation. I think that this project could speak directly back to that.

HS: Aside from the west being where you live, what does the western landscape state mean to you? And what does it mean to photograph it? Working both within the tradition of landscape photography, but also, again, outside of it as a critique, what does it mean to take a photograph of a landscape?
WW: That's a good question. I think that, from an indigenous point of view, it's understanding how that object, that photograph, has functioned as a possessive marker. This is mine now because I have photographed it. I can take this with me. I have it in my catalog or my archive, or, as the US government did, Okay, this area is ripe for development, for exploitation. I would hope that when I'm photographing landscape that, especially on the Navajo Nation, I'm invoking a different sense of place and my relationship to that place. I think just in terms of the way I understand the world, at least from the Navajo side of things, I'm rooted to that. That's part of me or I'm part of it more. We have this grandiose notion that we're running the show, but the earth will be here if we make it uninhabitable for ourselves. When a child is born on the Navajo Nation, their umbilical cord is buried near the hogan or at the sheep corral, and that literally ties you to the earth. When I'm thinking about photography, I'm trying to process that connection through what I know, and really think about how I'm saying that we need to protect what we have or pointing to these histories and saying, this damage has occurred, let's figure out how to heal our relationship to the land and move forward. And move forward in better ways. With Auto Immune Response, the protagonist builds a house and then the house becomes a greenhouse, and the greenhouse is hopeful because of the possibility of bringing back indigenous food species and having this more holistic relationship to the land. On the Navajo Nation, there's a shift occurring right now, moving away from coal extraction and, hopefully, away from fracking. There has been a moratorium on any uranium extraction since 2005. Now, there are these amazing fields of solar panels, green, electric generation going up in different sites, and people are talking about wind power, and, with Connecting the Dots, I want that stuff to fold into that protagonist’s roamings as a better solution or a better path.
Shiprock Disposal Cell, Shiprock, New Mexico, Navajo Nation, 2020. Connecting the Dots
Casey Camp-Horinek, citizen of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. Talking Tintype.

HS: All of your series seem to have a beginning, but they don't seem to have an end. And I really love the way your work weaves in and out of these ideas, and you come back to ideas and rework them or expand them over the course of time. So I'm wondering where your protagonist is going to show up next? I know he's in Connecting the Dots to some degree. Can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist and why you photograph yourself?
WW: One thing that I've always thought about in terms of art, this maybe goes back to this notion of indigenous visuality, is that Navajo or Diné language, Diné Bizaad, has been the primary vehicle for transfer of culture and history and song. In an oral tradition, the things that you inscribe and make semi-permanent or you really make and create with love and meaning and power, those things have the potential to come to fruition in some form. By using art and photography and creativity to put these things out in the world, I hope that I'm doing my part to make meaning in that way. My aunt was the bearer of this really important bundle that my family has— that's got earth from the four sacred mountains and other ceremonial items, and, if you are the bearer of that, for the family, people really believe that you have to be very careful about what you say, because, literally, it can come true. I'm not a bearer of one of those bundles, but it's in my family, and I firmly believe that what you put out in the world, on that creative level, or with that amount of love and respect, has the potential to come true. I think that's one of the reasons I'm situating myself in these images and why the protagonist has found his way into the Connecting the Dots project. On another level, artists are really good at imagining solutions to complex problems and should be, at least, included in the policymaking realm in terms of imagining a potential solution. So, I guess that's what is behind that. I think, also, there just seems to be a strong relationship between the AIR project and the Connecting the Dots projects, but Connecting the Dots is more of a real-world survey, almost a scientific analysis of a situation. The AIR project is much more of a creative, personal mythology narrative. There's a place where those things can intersect and, that keeps me excited and interested in both projects, too.

Tracy Rector, Citizen of the Choctaw Nation. Talking Tintype.

Storme Webber, an artist and poet of Sugpiaq, Black, and Choctaw heritage. Talking Tintype.

HS: You talked about working with your hands and shaping material. You experiment with historic photographic processes, namely, the wet collodion process, and you blend the digital with the analog. Can you talk about the technical and conceptual challenges that you face as an artist as you transgress these quote-unquote boundaries and why you're compelled to do that?
Madrienne Salgado, Citizen of the Muckleshoot Nation. Talking Tintype.
Mijan Celie Tho-Biaz, CIPX O’Keefe, 2013.

WW: I think again, getting back to the materiality of photography, all of my work up until the advent of digital was shot on film, and I developed it and made prints, and there was a period when that wasn't happening in my practice, and I really missed it. When I moved to Santa Fe, I got a studio and it happened to be right around the corner from Bostick & Sullivan, who has been the premier producer of these historic, photographic chemistries for a long time. One day I went over was like, "What do you guys do?" They invited me in, and, by the end of the day, I had made my first wet plate. Dana [Sullivan] took me under his arm and was like, “Come here. I've got to show you this,” and I was just hooked from that moment on. There is something really magical about the photographic process of making your own film in real-time and working with the physical material. I'm also interested in the technological history of photography. Now, in the digital age, we have augmented reality. You can scan an image, and then, on your device, it will come to life and talk to you. When I saw that, it unlocked something for me. And this does go back to Curtis. I remember being a kid in San Francisco and my mom hearing about this book. It was an early re-issue of a collection of Curtis works that showed these honorific, native images, and she really wanted to find that book because it was important to her to have visual examples of Indigeneity for me, for her child. And so we went from bookseller to bookseller, and finally found this beautiful book, and I remember just spending hours with it, wondering who these people were. And more than anything, I wanted to hear what they would have to say. So when I ran across this app called Layar, and the last AR stands for Augmented Reality, I realized that I could make a tintype, invoke that 19th-century history, and then have the tintype come to life and talk to you through this device that everyone has. That would give me the ability to give voice back to the sitter in a different way. You could just make a video but I love invoking that history and going through the process and the work and making this collaborative portrait together and then being able to reactivate it with this thing. Layar went out of business, so I worked with a colleague at Santa Fe Community College, Alison Johnson, and her partner, who have a digital company, and they built me an app. So I have this app called Talking Tintypes now and you can go to my website, download the free app and then hear these people tell their own story. There are violinists, political leaders, a water protector... there is an amazing dancer. And again, it's also about that collaboration. I ask, how do you want to represent yourself? Do you want to say something and tell the world something? The pandemic hasn’t allowed me to keep expanding that but I’m hoping to add more soon. I collaborated with a friend, Adam McKinney, who is an amazing dance professor at Texas Christian University. He has done a project around a traumatic episode in history in Fort Worth. There was a man named Fred Rouse, who was lynched by a mob in 1921. He was African-American. He worked in the meat processing industry and he crossed a picket line. He brought a gun with him because he knew there would be trouble, and he ended up in the hospital. A mob came for him and they lynched him. So Adam did all of this research. He created costumes and choreography at important sites in Fort Worth, and he asked me to come make talking tintypes, but rather than talking, they are dancing tintypes. You will be able to scan the images, which are really powerful and beautiful, and then see Adam's performance. He and his partner, Daniel Banks, have an organization called DNAWORKS and they're putting together a tour based on this history. They just got this really amazing grant and bought the site where the lynching occurred, and they're going to turn it into a memorial park. I hope that, through collaboration, my little part of it can expand the idea or the notion for the memorial. I'm excited about that. 
Adam W. McKinney, as Mr. Fred Rouse, standing in the site in which Mr. Rouse was lynched (Fort Worth, TX, 1921). From the series SCAB.

HS: Can you talk about your new drone? How does that fit into the work you are creating? Or is that just a tool that you use?
WW: It's a tool, but it's a fascinating tool to me. And again, this goes back to technology. I would love to make— I don't know if they'll be talking landscapes or what because you can shoot amazing video from a drone. You can fly over a remediation site and zoom out to the middle of it. The Mexican Hat, in Utah, is one that I've shot recently. It's this big area, something like 10 football fields wide and 10 football fields long, and it looks like this crazy earthwork from the 1970s on the land. When I flew a drone out over it, I noticed that there was something in the middle of it. I zoomed down, and there is this memorial plaque in the middle of this sea of gravel on this remediation site. It says that there are 4,400,000 tons of radioactive waste interned under this thing, and I never would have been able to get that picture without this drone. It's just really remarkable, because, especially in the West, or out on the Reservation, it’s hard to completely understand the area spatially if you're on the ground with photography, because you're really limited. Even if you make a panorama, you're not getting the depth of the space. But if you take your camera and you bring it up, even 100 feet, it opens up the world and gives you this new viewpoint that's just really remarkable. I think about it as having an out-of-body experience. I’m up there looking down at myself and the world from this totally different perspective. It's an empowering tool to image environmental injustice, so I'm super happy about that, and I've got a small fleet of them. Now I've got four drones, and there's another one I want to get soon. I think we're just scratching the surface of the capabilities now but I'm excited because I've always wanted to incorporate video.