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Striving for inclusion in photography history

Portrait of Joe David, part of Martin Akwiranoron Loft’s Urban Indigenous Portrait project. Courtesy Martin Akwiranoron Loft

When Martin Akwiranoron Loft was starting out in his photography career in the late 1970s, opportunities for Indigenous artists to showcase their work were hard to come by. “I would almost say, conclusively, that the doors to the museums and places that showed this kind of work were basically closed to us,” he said.

This lack of inclusivity in turn shaped widespread narratives surrounding Indigenous communities.

“Photography’s played a key role in describing who Indigenous people are, who we are,” he said. Sometimes, these works have been accurate depictions, but other times they’ve instead reinforced false and damaging stereotypes, Loft said, even if inadvertent – “the law of unintended consequences” he called it. 

Much of what he saw in the field was lacking proper representation of Indigenous communities. But he’s glad to say he’s seen a shift in Quebec’s landscape over the past couple decades to include authentic representations of Indigenous cultures in the province and to make space for Indigenous artists themselves.

Now, part of Loft’s Urban Indigenous Portrait project will be featured in a pedagogical resource on the history of photography in Quebec to be made available to CEGEP teachers and students.

“It’s an honour, and I’m really very pleased,” said Loft. “By including us, I would say, it’s kind of like an acknowledgment that we can participate too. We have a voice in these places, and it’s a specialized art, too,” he said. 

The photo series, which dates back to around 1985, consists of portraits of Indigenous figures in and around Montreal, illustrating the social fabric of local communities. 

Titled Mise au point sur la photographie québécoise, or Focusing on Quebec photography, the resource will feature the work of about 100 photographers in Quebec spanning from 1839 – the year popularly associated with the birth of photography – til the early 2000s.

“The whole point was to try to show as best as we could the diversity of photography in Quebec, so we have people from all sorts of horizons,” said Michel Hardy-Vallée, project manager for the Centre collégial de développement de matériel didactique (CCDMD). “We’re trying to make this history that’s inclusive, a history that’s diverse, and a history that also helps students get started on finding out more.”

Funded by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of Quebec, CCDMD is a publishing organization managed by the Collège de Maisonneuve mandated to produce pedagogical materials across all disciplines for the province’s entire CEGEP network.

This project was proposed to CCDMD by Cégep de Matane to serve as a resource in the photography and visual arts programs. In line with CCDMD’s customary two-year production timeline, the projected publishing date for the resource is set for 2025, which will also be made accessible online for free on CCDMD’s website. Although the original edition will be in French, Hardy-Vallée said an English translation will be in the works as demands for it arise.

Loft’s work will be featured as a case study, which analyzes a particular artist, moment, publication, or sometimes even an institution.

“The point I want to make is that we don’t know enough of the Indigenous photographers in Quebec. And it’s important that they start to be included in the history of photography of Quebec,” said Sophie Guignard, one of 11 contributing authors of the resource, whose work will examine Loft’s photography.

“I hope it will help students understand different issues about the history of photography, but also about the history of Indigenous people in Montreal and the urban community in Montreal, because photography can really open a window to other issues that are really important,” said Guignard, who is currently working towards her doctorate on Indigenous photographers in Canada and the United States.

“I think Martin’s series is very interesting in this regard,” she said, adding it’s an example demonstrating both the history of portrait photography and also the visibility and the representation of the Indigenous community in Montreal.

Hardy-Vallée said that the inclusion of contemporary artists, like in Guignard’s work, will also allow students to gain a broader perspective on the topics and to make comparisons and connections that may have not yet been discovered. 

This article was originally published in print on Friday, October 13, in issue 32.41 of The Eastern Door.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.