Daniella Zalcman

Interview by David Stuart

DS. Did you learn anything new or surprising during your work with your subjects?

DZ. All of it was new, really. I’d never heard about these schools, and when I started researching the American equivalent — in fact, U.S. Indian Boarding Schools were the inspiration for the Canadian version — I was shocked to learn that there are still 59 operational government-run boarding schools in America. I’ll be spending some time next month investigating that system.

DS. How did your subjects feel about the public report and apology from the Canadian government in 2008 and the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

DZ. It’s complicated, often in ways I don’t understand. When former Prime Minister Stephen Harper did finally issue that apology, every residential school survivor was sent an official copy of the statement, printed on thick, marbled cardstock with Canada’s seal at the top. While I think people pretty uniformly expressed the opinion that the apology was too little, too late — I still noticed that many survivors had the physical copy framed and prominently displayed in their offices and homes. It may have felt like too little, but even that small bit of acknowledgement was important, I think.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is another can of worms. Obviously, the process of collecting testimony from the 80,000 living survivors has massive historical value. The recommendations that the TRC made — regarding how to facilitate healing and how to raise awareness within the non-indigenous population — are critically important. But I find the disbursement of $1.9 billion Canadian dollars for reparations — with very few accompanying resources like counseling or financial management — problematic, and too many survivors I interviewed who’d been given settlements of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars didn’t have the resources to use the money effectively.

DS. Even though this is a documentary project, you chose to do a series of double exposure portraits of survivors of the Indian Residential School system. How and why did you make this choice?

DZ. This is a project about history, and memory, and trauma. Children who were taken from their families grew up not knowing how to express love. Languages were forgotten, cultural traditions lost. There are only so many times the human psyche can withstand being told the immutable signposts of one's identity are despicable before it starts to feel true. But while I think the legacy of intergenerational suffering is one of the most important elements of this story, that’s not what I wanted to photograph. That would require showing addiction, and poverty, and the lowest moments in some of my subjects’ lives. This work is about the cause, not the effect, of cultural genocide — and I hope the multiple exposures reveal something about the echoes of past injustices.




DS. You project is about the lingering effects of past events. What impact would you like your photographs to have?

DZ. Most of all, I hope that they’ll help non-indigenous Canadians and Americans to learn what happened in these schools. I grew up in the U.S. and learned shamefully little about North America’s relationship to its First Nations — and what I did learn was part of an awfully whitewashed narrative that we’ve clung to for far too long. It’s gratifying to see that there are now public conversations about changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, and dialogue concerning the back story of Thanksgiving — that wasn’t happening when I was a child. But indigenous history is still little more than a footnote in high school textbooks and I hope in some small way this work can change that.I was reading a Senate report from 1969 on indigenous education in the U.S. a couple weeks ago and this passage really struck me:

“The manner in which Indians are treated in textbooks — one of the most powerful means by which our society transmits ideas from generation to generation — typifies the misunderstanding the American public as a whole has regarding the Indian, and indicates how misconceptions can become a part of a person’s mind-set. After examining more than a hundred history texts, one historian concluded that the American Indian has been obliterated, defamed, disparaged, and disembodied.”

Just as importantly, I hope this demonstrates in some way just how destructive hereditary violence can be. More often than not, the abused grow up to be abusers, and the cycle of violence filters down from generation to generation for so long that we forget the root of that dysfunction. Our histories are an inextricable part of who we are — it’s important to be mindful of that.