Q&A: Indigenous Film Photographer Judianne Thomson

The outspoken artist on shooting nudes, how to explore without a colonialist mentality, and the ongoing fight against social media creeps

Q&A: Indigenous Film Photographer Judianne Thomson

Author

Graham Hiemstra

Photographer

Judianne Thomson

Camera

Mamiya 645, Minolta XGM, Olympus Stylus, Nikon AF, Canon EOS 65

Film

Kodak Portra 400, Gold 200, Ultra Max 400, Fuji Superia 400, 400 H

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Field Mag's benevolent overlord, formerly of the PNW and now residing in NYC. We apologize in advance for his many mispellings.

Judianne Thomson is a 30-year-old indigenous film photographer based in British Columbia. She is also a student, a mother, and an advocate of educating others about the Indigenous territories many of us have settled on. Her cinematic photographs of spirited, natural naked bodies set against dark and moody Pacific Northwest landscapes are enchanting.

Her images read like film stills pulled from a long forgotten reel. The grit and grain, environment and energy are transportive—at times feeling almost like a shared memory. The nudity is prominent yet subdued, intimate yet nonsexual, and the vibe is anything but manufactured.

It’s because of this that Judianne has established a dedicated and growing audience on Instagram, and a budding side career as a fashion and commercial photographer. But her art and enthusiasm for nature is only a part of her story.

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Growing up the Chief’s daughter between the Stl’atl’imx territory of Lillooet, in interior BC, and Vancouver, where she now lives full time, Judianne has much to draw on. This experience, her heritage, and the increasingly prominent role indigenous lands play in outdoor recreation and Instagram tourism inform her journey as an artist and her commitment to teaching others to respect and honor Indigenous peoples, lands and traditions.

The following is the result of multiple efforts over many months to hear more about her approach to photography, discuss the dark sides of social media, and learn what we can do to be better tourists ourselves.

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Let’s start with your approach to photography.

It's all the little things for me. I just love capturing moments that people often overlook or wouldn't even think about. It's what I see. I try to be a big picture person but I'm often so focused on the details of what's happening around me, just kind of taking it all in.

I'm an artist in various aspects of life—I paint, I was a dancer, I write—but with photography it is just so much easier for me to express all of the things that are happening in my head. I think cinematically and I'm highly observant and highly intuitive, and this is just a way to channel all of that.

Why do you prefer to shoot film?

For me it goes far beyond the sense of nostalgia. I shoot differently when I'm shooting on film—I think I’m more creative when I shoot on film. It makes me not strive for perfection so much. It makes me focus on the moment, on what's actually happening around me rather than constantly looking back at my camera to see if I got the shot.

And there's also something to not knowing—it's very romantic. You take the photograph and you have no idea what you're going to get—your whole entire roll might be blank! But when you get your scans back it's kind of like Christmas Day.

Yes, it’s way more expensive, but to me, it's so worth the effort.

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Much of your work features nude women among natural landscapes. Can you share some thoughts on your interest in and approach to the subject?

I'm an advocate for women being able to be naked without it being heavily sexualized. You know, there's nothing wrong with being sexual, but it's a fine line, so I’m trying to find that balance.

And honestly, those photos are literally just me and my friends in our natural state—it's what we do in the summer. We are naked in rivers not for any reason other than the fact that we can be, and we like to be, and that's that. It's just a natural dynamic between a group of friends that I'm lucky enough to capture in a way. It's not forced fun. It’s not anything that I'm asking women specifically to do. We just go out and we have fun and if the images work out then great and if they don't then they don’t.

It’s all about capturing that story as it's happening. It’s not about me trying to create a certain situation. And for me, I think that makes the biggest difference. I’m not looking to shoot people like that just for the sake of doing it—it needs to be because that person is comfortable being that way and that is their natural way of being and they’re not forcing them to be something that they're not.

My focus is just on capturing my friends in our natural landscape.

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Let's talk about internet creeps and the predatory behavior you've experienced in regards to your photography...

It's been happening to me more and more. And we might as well just say it for what it is—people suck. And social media platforms give people power and it's really important that we are aware of that. I feel so terrible that women have to deal with this every day.

Just because somebody's posting something that’s nude, it is not in any way an advertisement to all the men in the world to get in contact with them. That's something I just have I've never understood. I am not seeking nor wanting your attention that way. I'm posting this photo of my friend, or of myself, because I'm very proud of it and I love the way that it looks, I love the way that she looks, and the moment that it was in. And I've had to say time and time again to guys, like, this is nothing sexual. There is nothing sexual about this moment. This is just a body and if we could look past it or think about it differently, that would be really, really great.

"Just because somebody's posting something that’s nude, it is not in any way an advertisement to all the men in the world to get in contact with them."

I’m not looking to be an influencer. I'm not looking to be anything like that. I just… I do what I do because I love photography. But yeah, we can't really ignore the negative side of it.

I’ve definitely had to block a few people, and it's more just the men that take advantage of these kinds of situations—say, asking somebody to model for them when they have no portfolio or background in modeling.

I've had that experience and let it be known, if you do that, I will call you out. I've made public a few situations that have happened through DM and I'm not afraid to do that because this is not okay. And it’s very much a reality. I’ve had photographers reaching out to me asking how can they ask a model to do nudity without being the creepy guy and you know, it’s important to create a dialogue around this subject. We're probably not going to find an answer. We're not going to solve the problem entirely. But at least we're talking about it. At least moving somewhere with it.

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Another much-discussed side to social media is the proliferation of spot-specific tourism. What’s your take on the ongoing popularity of the Pacific Northwest with Instagram photographers?

A lot of people see these Indigenous territories—which is what they are—on Instagram and think, I want to go there because everybody else is doing it. And a lot of people are not thinking about where they're going or if the land they're stepping on could be sacred land—and it often is. It's worrisome for us in our communities.

An influx of people obviously means an influx of possible garbage and everything behavior like that brings, which we've seen in places like Joffrey Lakes for example. And it’s really, really sad. When I started seeing those photos pop up everywhere, that was my greatest fear.

"People are not thinking about where they're going or if the land they're stepping on could be sacred land—and it often is. It's worrisome for us in our communities."

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You know, this is our land and I'm just really hoping that people that are coming here are taking the time to get to know the Indigenous land that they're trekking on and the people that live here and what these mountains names actually are—not their colonial names that were given by white settlers, but their actual given names by the Indigenous people that inhabited that place before them.

So, that's a big part of my journey as a photographer, and one of the things that I'm trying to work on being an active participant in, battling that kind of colonial mentality that a lot of us bring along when we go on a hike or in search of a place to go and explore.

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In the past you have done AMAs on your IG Story to address issues surrounding Indigenous lands and your experience as an Indigenous woman. What inspired you to use your platform to engage with people in this way?

My dad was Chief of our community for 33 years and now holds the honour title of Kukwip7, which means "Chief for Life"—he's also a residential school survivor—and growing up I was lucky enough to have him involved in my elementary school where he would come and try to do his part to educate the children on traditional fishing methods, do drumming, that kind of stuff. But now, as a grown woman and a mother, I know that my son isn't going to really have the opportunity to know his Indigenous roots unless I am a voice for it.

It’s also just a journey to not be silenced anymore—a big thing for me and a big thing for our people is just not hiding.

To post on social media about the truth and reconciliation and literally opening up that avenue for people to ask me anything was terrifying. But this is an important dialogue we need to have and I've just always been the type of person that wants to help my people, help our communities, and just, you know, be an extra voice, even if it's a small voice. I don't need to have this big grand impact, but I just got to a point where I felt like I couldn't sit back and do nothing.

"Recognize that you're a settlor traveling into Indigenous territories and that you can't claim ignorance anymore."

Social media is a very scary place. It’s completely out of my control. But the majority of responses have been amazing and I was very, very happy in the end that I have done that. I still have people ask me questions, and there has been so much support around it, so it’s really, really encouraging.

This is a very important part of my journey and I have made a commitment as part of my reconciliation efforts that this will be something I keep doing for the rest of my life.

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What can people do to be more conscious and respectful when traveling to Indigenous territories?

For me, it goes far beyond Leave No Trace.

Recognize that you're a settlor traveling into Indigenous territories and that you can't claim ignorance anymore. We live in an age where you can Google any question and find an answer. So, for starters, get to know the Indigenous territory that you are going to be traveling to—or even that you call home—and learn its story from an Indigenous perspective, including the Indigenous given name for that territory. (For example, if you’re hiking in Joffrey Lakes you are within the traditional territory of the Stl’atl’imx.) If you’re going on a hike, research the history of the territory and the traditional Indigenous name of the mountain or peak you’re summiting.

Research whether the land you’re planning to visit is home to any sacred sites and find out if there are any protocols around visiting them, in addition to possibly reading some of the traditional stories about the land you’re hiking on. And if you’re going to Instagram the location of that photo, include, or better yet, only use the Indigenous name of that particular place. That said, there's a fine line between giving places too much exposure and honoring who they really belong to, so I encourage everyone to follow digital LNT guidelines and consider not geotagging images on Social Media.

This is all about us beginning to hold ourselves accountable and taking education into our own hands. These small acts are ways to show respect to Indigenous peoples, lands and traditions: an important aspect of reconciliation and part of helping to honor those who were too long silenced.

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Any shout outs?

I am going to dedicate this one to the incredible female film photogs that have inspired my journey. They are @annabelloue @saraheiseman @berkleyvopnfjord @natalieallenco. And my recent discovery, @sail.ya.moon.

Published 08-08-2019

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