- Matika Wilbur is photograping members of every federally recognised Native American tribe.
- She asks people about themselves and their identies and records their answers for an archive.
- Wilbur feels that narrative and representation are especially important for Native Americans, whose stories are often misunderstood.
Photographer Matika Wilbur is on a mission to photograph members of every federally recognised Native tribe in North America.
Wilbur herself is Swinomish and Tulalip. Ever since she sold her Seattle apartment and hit the road in 2012, she’s been collaborating with Native people and documenting their stories for Project 562 (though there are now 566 federally recognised tribes).
What began as a photo series has become an archive rich with history, culture, language, and resilience. Over 300,000 miles and 400 tribes in, she’s not done yet.
Matika Wilbur began Project 562 after her grandmother appeared to her in a dream and told her to leave an assignment in South America and photograph her own people.
She has since driven some 300,000 miles and photographed members of over 400 tribes.
The project has grown from a photo series to a documentary project to a full-blown archive of Native people, their communities, and their stories.
“We’re always redrafting the language to describe this project,” Wilbur said.
Wilbur photographs her subjects on black and white film using a method called the Zone System to create more dynamic range in the images.
While she’s drawn to peer portraiture with simple backdrops, “I figured that that was sort of irresponsible when I started this project, to travel all over the country and not show the landscape.”
She lets her subjects choose where and how they’d like to be photographed, providing them with agency over the way they will be represented.
“Sometimes I’ll be in the Grand Canyon and I’d rather take somebody’s picture at Havasupai Falls because it’s magnificent and there’s this incredible blue-green water coming out of the ground…and they want to be photographed on their front porch because they love where they live,” she said. “I’ll do what they want to do because people should be represented in a way that is important to them, especially in Indian Country.”
“We’ve been photographed so many times by non-Indians and we’ve had our stories told so many times by people outside our community, and they get the story wrong,” she said.
“We aim to correct that narrative through honest individual agency and storytelling.”
She asks them intimate questions about their identities, touching on family, love, heartbreak, moments that shaped them, and their hopes for the future.
She also asks about “the outside world,” and is always surprised by the answers she gets.
“I find that people have really interesting things to say when you ask them what it means to be whatever their tribe is, and then when you ask them what it means to be an ‘Indian,'” she said. “I’m fascinated by that.”
Project 562 isn’t complete yet.
You can follow her ongoing project on Instagram.
“I feel so blessed to know so many wonderful people,” she said.
“I didn’t know that strangers can become family relatively quickly.”
“It’s such a whirlwind of a journey.”
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