Recently, an issue regarding the appropriateness or "okay-ness" of using photographs of cultural items (regalia items) on wearable art made me think of one of my favourite quotes on photography. It is from Tuscarora artist and visual historian Jolene Rikard. She states, that photographs are not real life but may haunt you into seeking life. It is a personal favourite because it gets to the heart of a question that anyone needs to clarify if they are to critique photography in art:
What is the relationship between photographs and reality?
Is a photograph just an indexical trace of something that happened in the past? Is it just empty vessel that can be used to trap or capture a person, thing or event that was at a different time and different place meaningful--culturally or spiritually? Is a photograph only supposed to signify or represent something that is "out there"? If you were to answer "yes" to these last few questions, I would say that you may be both affording too much agency to a photograph, and limiting it's potentialities.
The idea that a photograph merely represents something/someone else is connected to a realist and representational paradigm that was made popular through colonial pursuits of documenting, collecting, essentializing, and organizing Indigenous Peoples and their culture: Of what is refered to as "salvaging the savage". A colonial perspective of photography would suggest that a photograph has the power to capture the essence of a person or a sacred cultural item in its entirety. The agency of the power of the photograph and it's maker is privileged over the agency of the subject of the photograph itself.
Now one of the problems I see with affording this type of power to the photograph, as an Indigenous woman who carries sacred items, is that the significant meaning and value of these items may only be understood through real life experience. Therefore, a photograph will never represent or reflect the relationship I have with a sacred item --this, I need to live out in my own way every day. If it did, all I would need to do to take care of my spiritual health would be to fill my house full of images of things and people (actually some people do this, but that should probably be left to another discussion).
Then what is the relationship between photography and reality? Well, the photograph itself is the result of a complex, ever changing relationship between its maker, the apparatus and other material equipment needed to make the photograph visible, and the viewer or consumer. The relationship is not fixed, but emergent. It changes across time and place. It changes from one context of viewing to another. So as fixed and stable as a photograph may appear, there is really nothing permanent or stable about it.
If photographs do not represent or capture one reality, what they can do is evoke particular experiences that challenge us to reflect on multiple realities. Hence, my reference to a photograph's potentialities. This is why some people can look at, let's say, a colonial photograph and "see" both assimilation and perseverance.
Now, I'm not arguing that it is right or okay for a company to exploit Indigenous culture just to make huge profits. I'm not in support of a billion dollar conglomerate like Victoria Secret or American Eagle mass producing First Nations imagery on panties or muscle t-shirts (on a side note I'm also not in support of the exploitation of labour involved in producing said clothing); however, I do think that an Indigenous artist intentionally using a photograph of a cultural item in their arts process to produce a new material art object that will take on a life, form and meaning(s) of it's own is something entirely different.
To me, I see an intentional choice to visualize and materialize an Indigenous presence, which is very significant given how Indigenous Peoples and issues relevant to their way of life are rendered invisible through colonial (visual) narratives and myths. If anything, I see the potential of, as Rickard puts it, "haunting (our Indigenous) People into seeking life"... and maybe even life through seeking those cultural items photographed.