INDUSTRY INSIGHTS

NADYA KWANDIBENS

 WRITTEN BY: OLGA BERGMANS

'The Red Chair Sessions', Waawaate, Anishinaabe from Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, photographed on Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot & Tsuut'ina of the Dene Nations, Treaty 7 Territory, June 2019
'The Red Chair Sessions', Waawaate, Anishinaabe from Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, photographed on Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot & Tsuut'ina of the Dene Nations, Treaty 7 Territory, June 2019

Q+A

Can you talk about how your vision for Red Works photography has progressed over the years?

“I formally named my practice in 2008. I recall that when you dedicate your mind, talent, and creativity to something that ignites passion in people, it naturally earns a name. Before that time, I had been engaged in a variety of endeavours and projects. I had been an independent artist for the majority of my life. I picked up the camera for the first time in 2000 when I was going to a film production school in Thunder Bay. That program is no longer there but I’m so glad I went through it. Now, a lot of the work that I do derives from a place within myself and a need to reconnect with my culture, because I didn’t get to grow up with my people. I wasn’t brought up with my biological parents, but instead within the foster care system. That reconnection with the Indigenous community made me able to use my talents to accurately portray them in a more positive light than what mainstream media had been doing for so long. That narrative was never fully in our control. It was never in our hands to tell our own stories. I mean I wouldn’t say never there are so many artists picking up that narrative and artists before us that have forged that path. Walking that path, and making it easier for the next generations of artists to wear that path down is something that is significant and instills a lot of meaning in what I do. I think overall my work educates. It empowers, and advocates. It’s political. I would say that even just being Indigenous today, alive and thriving is a political act. That’s sort of what Red Works is about. I’ve toured all over the place, I’m so lucky but I worked hard for it. I work hard and I’m very proud and I give that same pride into the work I do.”

'The Red Chair Sessions', Dr. Nel Wieman from Mishi-Baawitigong First Nation, photographed on Unceded xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh & Səlilwətaʔɬ Territories, January 2023
'The Red Chair Sessions', Dr. Nel Wieman from Mishi-Baawitigong First Nation, photographed on Unceded xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh & Səlilwətaʔɬ Territories, January 2023
'The Red Chair Sessions', Miskobinessik from Sagkeeng First Nation, photographed at Bwaan Odaazhewe'onaaning on Anishinaabe Aki, Treaty 3 Territory, October 2020
'The Red Chair Sessions', Miskobinessik from Sagkeeng First Nation, photographed at Bwaan Odaazhewe'onaaning on Anishinaabe Aki, Treaty 3 Territory, October 2020
'The Red Chair Sessions', Melaw Nakehk'o, Dene and Dënesųłiné Liidlii Kue from Denendeh, photographed at Animikii Wiikwedong on Robinson-Superior Treaty Territory, February 2020
'The Red Chair Sessions', Melaw Nakehk'o, Dene and Dënesųłiné Liidlii Kue from Denendeh, photographed at Animikii Wiikwedong on Robinson-Superior Treaty Territory, February 2020

Did you have a defining moment where you realized Photography was more than a hobby for you? 

“There definitely comes a time as an artist where you have to throw caution to the wind and just go for it. You only have one life, and it’s very short. You can feel so small and the contribution that I want to make to society is showing the beauty of the Indigenous people. It’s the basis of how I create different series or approach different sessions. I remember that moment specifically; It was the spring of 2006 when I was still living in Arizona at the time. Up until that point, I was only taking street photography and a lot of still life. I was just a sponge, really looking closely at the quality of light and what it does at different times of the day on different angles, and buildings. I’ve always been the type to just go out and shoot. Although I did have formal education, I taught myself a large part of the practice myself. My partner at the time encouraged me to take it to the next level and I felt like I wanted to push myself to keep taking those steps forward and never stay stagnant because it can almost stunt your growth creatively. I’m always going for it you know, just leaping, bounding, sometimes I don’t even know what I’m doing but I do it anyway. The simple act of holding a camera is something so intimate. People are seeing the way I see the world through my eyes. They’re seeing my vision and that’s something I don’t take lightly. It’s not just about sharing a photo, it comes with a story, and learning so much about different people from all over the place. During the tour, I would be on the road for nine months of the year which I did for 14 years. Photography has given me that and has also taught me so much. Not just about the art form, but also about myself.”

'Concrete Indians', Laura Grizzlypaws, Kelowna, BC, March 2015

A lot of your work is centred around amplifying Indigenous voices. In regards to photography as a means of storytelling, how do you think it can connect people?

“I think I want people to be able to understand and appreciate humanity, and that basic need to want to be understood and relate. I think that’s at the core of what photography means to me. There’s so much power in that simple act of picking up a camera because years from now people will look back at imagery of what happened within the Indigenous community in this time and space. They’ll look back and see so many artists doing so much beautiful, and powerful work, I consider myself honoured to be a part of that circle. So when people can look back and see all this resurgence and abundance, of Indigenous creativity, and our lifestyle, our people, our cultures, our languages, our lands, elders, our youth it’s the whole scope of everything. I want people to understand what the Indigenous realities are about today. So that’s what it’s about for me. You know what, I’m just gonna say it. Despite what Canada tried to do to us, we’re still here. But the responsibility is not on us to teach. If true reconciliation were to happen there are a lot of recommendations from various federally commissioned reports over the decades that should be implemented, but haven’t yet. We are not just our trauma. But I feel like this generation and the older generations are still in the process of picking up those fragmented pieces, and making that path like what I was talking about before even easier to walk through.”

Gathering of Nations Pow-wow, Albuquerque, NM, April 2007
Gathering of Nations Pow-wow, Albuquerque, NM, April 2007

We have one of your works here at TMU. Can you talk about that photograph, and what your hope is for students to take away from it? 

“That image was photographed in the subway, I believe in the Spadina station. The series itself was about Indigenous identity and decolonization. It’s asking specifically how Indigenous people feel living in an urban centre. It asks participants, “Who are you and what do you do to hold on to your culture, traditions, and values and what would that look like?” A lot of portraits in this series are of people in partial or full Regalia. The woman in the photograph is a dear friend from back home in Northwestern Ontario. She wanted to be a part of this series. When I launched this series, I got all these emails back for the open call, and she emailed and I thought it would be so powerful. It worked out at that TTC station. It’s a long exposure shot and I can’t remember the specifics but I believe it was a 3 second exposure so she had to hold very still. Meanwhile, there was wind gushing in the corridor and you can even see some of the feathers sort of blur from the length of the exposure shot. But she’s perfectly still. Her eyes are in sharp focus, there’s such a demanding and powerful presence to it. All the people around her look like spirits of some sort, or as if they don’t belong. It’s almost an otherworldly sort of look to it. She’s surrounded by commuters who are spirits and she’s perfectly still. Her idea was that she wanted to be photographed as she was heading to her Powwow dance troupe, which she was a part of at the time. That was the main idea of the portrait. I heard her jingle dress before I saw her. It was so beautiful.”

'Concrete Indians', Tee Lyn Duke (née Copenace), Toronto, ON, March 2010
Nadya Kwandibens

Nadya
Kwandiben

Nadya Kwandibens is Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) from the Animakee Wa Zhing #37 First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is an award-winning photographer, a Canon Ambassador, and the current Photo Laureate for the City of Toronto. In 2008 she founded Red Works Photography. Red Works is a dynamic photography company specializing in natural light portraiture, headshots sessions, plus event and concert photography. Red Works also provides image licensing, workshops, presentations, and print products. Nadya’s photography has been exhibited in group and solo shows across Canada and the United States.

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