On a damp December morning, I wait patiently in the downpour outside a large industrial building in East London. It's not long before Carlotta appears at the door and quickly ushers me to her studio, necklace twinkling with every step, she places me in her armchair next to the heater. I recognise the same attentive gaze as I look at the portraits which adorn her room, depicting people from the communities she has met through The Red Road Project. The title refers to a Native American concept for ‘the good path’ that should be followed in life. Working with collaborator (and best friend) Danielle SeeWalker, their photographs, texts and outreach projects seek to challenge negative stereotypes by celebrating strong Native Americans who champion their heritage; the pair have traversed the US covering over 15,000 miles to meet the inspiring individuals who are doing precisely that. Doctors, teachers and tribal police officers along with artisans, environmentalists and students provide vibrant commentaries, shaking-up perception of their communities and redefining what it means to be Native American today.
Words: Laura Norman
I’m so happy to be asking you about The Red Road Project, I saw it at the Fix Photography Fair and always wanted to come and talk to you about it. Why was it so important for you to tell the story of these communities, and how did you start on a project of this scale?
The Red Road Project started in 2013 when my collaborator and writer on the project Danielle SeeWalker, who is also one of my oldest friends, came to visit me in London. We were chatting one evening and she told me about some ceremonies that were coming up for her family as she’s Native American, from the Standing Rock reservation, and we spoke about the significance and importance of them when she invited me to go with her. That sparked a conversation where I realised that everything I knew or had seen about Native Americans is mostly negative, people tend to focus on their misery or their poverty. These issues are obviously important to discuss because they do exist, but on the other hand I would hear amazing stories from Danielle which would make me think that two completely different worlds existed, it didn’t even sound like the same community of people. There are real consequences when only focusing on the negative, I know for a fact that it’s had a very specific impact on the children I’ve spoken to, they grow up wanting to be dissociated from their heritage, if this negative image is what it means to be Native American. So we thought we’d go about documenting the positivity ourselves. Why not? We’re both very proactive individuals so we decided to start doing it with no major objective in mind other than taking advantage of the ceremonies coming up, we had a few connections which were mostly Danielle’s family, I’m a photographer and Danielle is a writer who has a background in anthropology, so it was perfect. We began by photographing her cousins and her aunts and we interviewed them, though at this point it they were really just chats. We both really enjoyed it because for me it was an opportunity to learn about something that I didn’t know, and for Danielle it was an opportunity to deepen the connection with her culture and her family, especially since she doesn’t live in Standing Rock anymore.
How did you meet each other, wasn't it at school?
Yes, Danielle first moved away from Standing Rock in the mid 90s to Nebraska, which happened to be where I was too. We both ended up at the same school in a little town there and we were the only outsiders so we bonded. We both had rough times whilst living there, Nebraska is very conservative and not very diversified. I would be insulted in the street just for being Italian, whilst Danielle was clearly Native... Anyway we became very good friends.
Where does your Marie Claire feature fit into the timeline? It depicts strong Native American women who are proud of their heritage and work hard to empower each other- particularly younger generations. The commission must have acted as a powerful catalyst to circulate positive stories.
After the first trip out, I came back to London and sent out some of the images to editors and the people I work with regularly, not trying to sell it, but as a way of saying I’d started a new project. Kelly Preedy, the then picture editor at Marie Claire, wrote back to me to say that she loved the project and that perhaps a feature on Native American women would be interesting for the magazine. She reached out to their international office in Paris and managed to have four different editions commision us to do a portrait series. That was life changing for the project because we realised at that moment that there was a need for it. So the second trip, which was the commission, focused on women and it worked perfectly because from the first trip we had our own ideas of how to continue, things we wanted to talk about, and depicting women was certainly one of them as they are so important in Native American societies, it’s traditionally matriarchal. Women are important in any society but in Native American society, women are more recognised and celebrated than in ours. So it really grew from there, people were giving us great feedback, some told us that they were inspired by the project to act and strengthen their relationship with their own heritage, so we had no excuse not to continue the project. We’ve since popped up here and there, we’ve had a few exhibitions, we participate in talks in the USA, especially in November during heritage month. We were guests on a TV show in Philadelphia two years ago which was super fun, the following year we went back to Nebraska actually! So after 20 years we were both back there. We even spoke at an all-Native American school in Wyoming on the Wind River Reservation, so the project has different aims and various audiences. One of our goals throughout the project is to be educational, because I do get questions along the lines of 'Do these guys still live in Tipis, do they use cellphones?'. I love it when we do things for Native American audiences, especially kids as I think it’s so important to expose them to good stories about their communities.
I’ve been looking at the blog for the project and your Instagram feed, and saw you’d recently been back in the USA, shrimping with communities in Southern states if I remember rightly?
Yes we’d been to Louisiana in October, so the project is continuing. We stayed with that particular guy for the whole weekend. You get introduced to the whole family and you end up spending extended time with strangers but you create real bonds, it's fun. We don’t want to do every tribe because there’s nearly 600 of them and we’re not encyclopaedic, however we do want to cover all geographic areas. If people think of Native Americans most will think of the Plain Indians or the Navajo of the South West, so we thought it would be interesting to look at urban Indians which we started to do last year when we went to California, then whilst Louisiana we worked with the communities living in the swamps, they traditionally speak French. They descend from a French pirate and a Native American woman so they have an intriguing story but they also have serious problems relating to rising sea levels. Their land is disappearing and they subsequently had a grant from the government to relocate, so we wanted to look at that because it showcases the effect of climate change, and one of the important aspects that we focus on across the board is a connection between these communities and the land. Land deprivation is historical, but this particular community are facing something slightly different which is unique to them.
How do you reach out and integrate with these communities? I understand you started with Danielle’s family, but were people receptive and happy to involve you in their activities?
Despite being scattered over a massive territory Native American people are pretty well connected, in the sense that they know many people from other tribes. When we did the first trip, we asked questions like ‘who do you think we should meet, who is an inspiring person for you, who is doing good things in the community?’ and we don't limit those questions to the place that we are currently in, but people might say that if we go to the Navajo Nation that we should go meet a particular person. We would basically show up and start to knock on doors because we had no connections prior to arrival. We stayed closely connected to a few people during our time there and it was wonderful because real bonds started to form and eventually we were introduced to extended family and friends. Strangers started to introduce themselves to us, so trust was being created which was fun. Or people might write to us directly if they catch wind of the project. We also conduct research with other organisations who work with Native Americans, from Indian health service centres that work with drug abuse, to pageant organisers! It's really word of mouth and it’s working well for us.
It's so good to take the time to gather those oral histories. When you spend time with these communities I imagine they’ll not only open up about their ancestry but also give you an intimate look into their family histories, you’ll get that anecdotal content too.
In Louisiana it was actually quite hard, since they were awarded the grant from the government they’ve have had lots of media attention and they hadn’t always been portrayed in the best light, so some people were very cold, but they soon changed attitude after they spent some time with us and understood what we were after. But it was proof once again there is a need for this type of project.
So where are you going with it next, is there a particular area of the project that you’ll want to push further?
We have a clear idea of where we want to go. In terms of trips we want to do three more. We want to do the Pacific Northwest, we want to revisit Los Angeles and San Francisco because I left some things unfinished, then we need to do the East Coast. We’ll be looking a little more in depth at the experiences of the urban Indians, and the East as we haven’t been there. Once we are finished with the trips, which will hopefully happen within the next two years, we want to make a book that will collect all the stories and pictures. We also want to mount an exhibition, not like the ones we’re having now but one which will travel back to all the communities we've visited and which can be accessible and easy to transport, so that one venue can easily send it to the next. We also started a non-profit because we want this project to go beyond pictures and interviews, there is so much that we could do. Danielle is coming here in January to work with me to get it up and running, to fill in forms and manage the bureaucracy. We’ll also have a look at what we've done up until now, perhaps we will use the big wall behind you to put all the pictures up and see where we want to go, what we will need.
I also wanted to touch briefly on your Modern Couples project, you appear to be concerned with ideas of identity and representation- Is the Mod scene one you know personally?
I knew the Mod subculture and have some friends that are into it in Italy, but I thought it would be great to look at as one of the many traits of Britishness. Before that I had created a project about Italians living in Europe, and I was looking at the meaning of nationality and about being Italian as I’d been living in Latin America for a few years, before moving back to Europe when starting this project. I just felt like doing something that was more British, in a way. One day I ran into two guys on Brick Lane and they had their scooters covered in mirrors, with their parkas on and I thought that's it, that’s what I want to look at.
How did you choose those you photographed?
I started to go to the parties and the all-nighters and I started photographing couples, the first of which were Amanda and John. They’re the couple in Brighton, he’s wearing a beige raincoat and she's hanging on his arm with her orange purse. So I was looking at the subculture and their events, which is how it started, but then it became about the relationships. At the time I was in a relationship and unhappy, but it wasn't something I was working through consciously, I only realised it afterwards, but I was looking at these couples as a way of understanding identity when in a relationship. At the time I was feeling lost, like I had lost my individuality and that I existed as only part of a couple, I wondered who I was. I looked at them and I started wondering whether he’s a Mod because she’s a Mod? Have they always been this way, is this something that keeps them together, what happens if someone falls out of it, or if they have a child? So it was a lighthearted way for me to deal with what was going on in my life at the time. And obviously these guys look amazing and I love the music.
You mentioned that you thought it was a mask that could be removed, but soon realised it infiltrates their lives, it extends way further.
Exactly, I find it fascinating and let’s be honest, this country has an obsession with dressing up and with fancy costumes, but it’s not what this is, it’s their whole being. I like people that have a passion and I find it great that these guys just surround themselves with the stuff they love.