Atlanta, Georgia-based photographer Fernando Decillis’ latest project for Smithsonian Magazine shines a light on Indigenous Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian artists living in Alaska who are honoring and reviving traditional arts while reinterpreting them in new ways.
The stunning collection of photos results from a collaboration between Fernando and his wife and producer, Kimberly Fulton Orozco. Kimberly is of the Kaigani Haida nation, an indigenous group that has lived in Lingít Aaní (what is now known as Southeast Alaska) for generations. She came up with the idea for the portrait project while planning a trip to visit family, and Fernando was immediately on board.
She was going to Alaska for some family business and had the idea for the project. The Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian artists in Southeast Alaska work prolifically to perpetuate their values that stretch back thousands of years.
They quickly began scheduling time to meet with artists but dealing with the logistics of traveling in an archipelago, a group of little islands, was a challenge. In just 8-days, they packed in as much as possible, taking into account the various modes of transportation needed for the trip.
In Southeast Alaska, you can’t just rent a car and get on the highway to go anywhere you want. It’s an archipelago. There are ferries and seaplanes, but your schedule is on their schedule.
It was Fernando’s first time visiting Alaska, and he learned a lot on the trip — from traditional tools and carving techniques to the history of the people who were there long before it was called Alaska. Getting to experience it for the first time with his wife, who has deep roots there, also made it special.
It was really incredible to see her [Kimberly] interact with relatives she was meeting for the first time. I also loved meeting artists who have dedicated themselves to their craft. It was an honor to watch artists like Nathan Jackson and David A. Boxley work. They’ve trained so many artists and done so much to revitalize their cultures.
Among many of the things he learned on this trip, Fernando also learned that the term “low man on the totem pole” is a total misnomer – the bottom of the totem pole is a prestigious spot because it sits at eye level.
Being at the bottom of the totem pole is exactly the opposite of what people think. It’s actually an honor to be at the bottom of the totem pole.
Fernando captured the artists in their native environment, and the images beautifully convey each artist’s dedication to their craft. They also do a great job of showcasing the process, and they paint a picture of the cultural traditions that inspire the work.
The hardest decision was whether to prescribe a look and apply it to every portrait or get there, get a feel for each individual, and see what we came up with together. Ultimately, I decided that to do justice to the artists, viewers needed a sense of place, so their particular environments had to be a part of the story.
The husband and wife duo both felt that the concept would be an excellent fit for a magazine like The Smithsonian, and once they had a few artists agree to be photographed, they reached out to Jeff Campagna at the magazine to pitch him on the concept. Jeff had previously contacted Fernando after finding him on Wonderful Machine’s “Find a Photographer” page a few years back, and he believed in the project.
The result was a 12-page story featuring Fernando’s photography work and an accompanying write-up written by Kimberly, which provides context about the artists, their story, and their work’s cultural significance. The entire piece is as wonderful to look at as it is to read through, giving perspective and depth to each image.
We were going to make the photos regardless. We thought that the theme and subjects would be both interesting and relevant to the audience of Smithsonian Magazine and many other publications for that matter.
This project was originally published in the January 2021 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, and on their website.
Researcher and Producer: Kimberly Fulton Orozco
See more of Fernando’s work at fernandodecillis.com
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