Photographing Sovereign Nations with Respect

Photographing Sovereign Nations with Respect

One could say that it’s taken the last thirty years to gain a type of access to a sovereign nation that I’ve been privileged and honored to obtain. I say it’s taken that long for me to prove myself to a people that don’t take lightly to disrespect, and recall vivid memories of a time that people with my colored skin acted in unfathomable ways - and access is limited.


Taking into consideration the land on which you stand while you’re taking photographs throughout the United States is something that shouldn’t be neglected. Whether you realize it or not, the ground you may be posing your subjects on could have an entirely different meaning to those who have lived and died there. Even today, having a camera pointed in the wrong direction in a culturally significant area could be a sign of disrespect, and many Native American Tribes have specific beliefs about capturing images of people and places that must be recognized first.

The People

There are over 560 federally recognized Native American Tribes within the United States, and many others that are not recognized by the United States Government. Taking the time to research the ground you plan on scouting for your next photo shoot may be important. In most cases, permission to photograph anything on a Native American Reservation commercially must first be approved by some type of Tribal Council prior to any images being taken. 

It has been my experience that most Native American Tribes practice elaborate traditions, all of which are unique to their tribe and location, however I’m yet to come across a tribal member willing to be photographed without an explanation of how I’m planning to use the image. Of course, you could just snap away and get the shot, but if you plan on residing smack-dab in the middle of said Reservation, or working there again in the future, it’s to your benefit (and a sign of respect) to spend a few minutes getting to know the people you’re immortalizing. Doing so, you may find that you're encountered with beautiful stories that enlighten your perspective and help you to understand the types of images they enjoy most. 

Traditional Native American beadwork.

Capture Traditions

Where I'm from, traditional Native American games like Shinny are popular amongst youth at cultural events that take place throughout the year. I enjoy photographing these events, and over the years have developed friendships with many of the tribal youth that are incredibly rewarding in return. On top of the personal satisfaction that comes from capturing these moments is the role you'll play in preserving the traditions for future generations. Much like the language of many tribes, many games and art forms are unfortunately disappearing. Photographing these important moments in a tasteful manner helps preserve them so that they can be used to learn from and solidify ways of life that aren't so commonly captured.

Children on the C.R.I.T. reservation learning the game of Shinney.

Significant Events 

History hasn't been kind to Native Americans in regards to the way that it's been documented. Fast forward to today, and there are significant events taking place throughout Indian country everyday, such as the fiasco at the Dakota Oil Pipeline, that needs to be documented by professionals. Whether it's simply taking the time to research where you're working, or making a decision to be a part of history by documenting the many opportunities that are presented throughout the US each year, photographing anything on a sovereign nation should be done with respect.

Just Don't Be THAT Guy

I know many of us grew up playing "Cowboys and Indians." Fact is, we're adults now and should understand the condescending undertone associated with the theme. I'm specifically talking to the guy planning the "Indian" shoot with the fake headdress. Just don't do it. It's disrespectful unless you're photographing a legitimate headdress with permission from the maker and the one it was made for, due to reasons far more in depth than this article. It's all too common throughout Native American reservations for non-tribal members to claim some sort of Native American heritage (I anticipate some backlash here) but unless you're an enrolled member of a federally recognized Native American tribe, don't seek any sort of acknowledgement from those who are. Just trust me on this. 

I'm not going to suggest that one seek the nearest reservation to begin photographing, however I will say that if you currently already reside on or near one (there's a good chance you may) do what you can to show respect.

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Dusty Wooddell is a professional photographer based in the Southwestern United States. Self-proclaimed thinker, opportunity seeker, picky eater, observer of things.

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I agree with everything you've written but, as an aside, question the value of professional documentarians as I've yet to see one stop at documenting an event but rather they present some facts and exclude others to favor their personal biases.

This article is just making me feel uncomfortable for some reason. Isn't this just common sense. shouldn't this be applied to to anyone and everyone. Also if I'm on an assignment (news) and I'm on public property, I am going to document whether someone thinks its disrespectful or not. I just don't understand this article. I guess I don't like someone telling me what I should and shouldn't do. Okay... pile on.

This will probably start something. But, as the author said, you can just start shooting away showing no respect/regard for the who, what, when and where. But, if you want to come back, show some deference. It won't kill you. Especially with what's going on at Standing Rock, keeping the native American's plight in the back of your mind and showing some sensitivity will benefit you as well. If the assignment is that important, you'll do your due diligence.

Standing Rock. You are aware the tribal unit failed for a couple years to make any meetings with the pipeline representatives - even as the pipeline people have a full record of efforts to meet with them. Not once during the years long permitting period did this particular group show up or give input - not once. Every other tribe in the effected areas did, but not these whiners.
At least get it right. These 'protestors' are threatening school buses with kids, threatening ranchers, stopping them on the roads(while wearing bandanas over their lower face - lucky they are not shot as holdup bums) and damaging equipement as well as trespassing.
We live here and know reality. Busing in kids to be protestors for $100 a day while they miss school for days to a week or more - cash under the table. This is a farce and nothing more than an excuse to cause trouble.

So, then, just take the land and plow right through. It won't be the first time.

As Sovereign Nations they are a total bust. Welfare States is more like it. Live near many and have worked in some. If not for welfare payments most of the residents would be in sad shape, worse than they are now.
Public displays such as PowWows and the like are often tourist money gambles, nothing more.