BANFF – The eyes of an elder can tell many stories.
Through the lens of a 4x5 medium format camera, Métis photographer Craig Richards is sharing a portrait collection of over 30 Indigenous elders captured over four years in an upcoming exhibition at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies titled All Our Relations, in a style he’s been loyal to for 40 years – black and white.
“I personally find that in black and white, especially in portraiture, what you see in the photo is the eyes of the person and the person themselves,” said Richards.
“When I look at the portraits of the elders, I’m drawn to their eyes, and then I start to see everything else that is part of them.”
Former curator of photography at the Whyte Museum, Richards said he hopes the exhibition, which opens Jan. 20, speaks to the integrity and strength of each individual he photographed.
It was former Town of Banff councillor Peter Poole, owner of the Juniper Hotel, which has been host to an annual gathering of Indigenous elders for the past 19 years, that approached Richards about the idea of documenting the individuals in a portrait series.
The three-day event is attended each year by elders of various Indigenous backgrounds from either side of the Rocky Mountains, to share stories of their families and communities, exchange traditional medicines, discuss issues facing Indigenous youth, as well as the effects of residential schools, and how to bring back buffalo and salmon to the prairies and rivers.
All Our Relations includes portraits of elders who have attended the gatherings over the years from Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda, Maswacis, Dene, Ktunaxa, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, Siksika, Piikani, Kainai, Tsuut’ina, Mi’qmaq, Michif, Nlaka'pamux, as well as various Métis and Cree Nations.
The gatherings aim to create hope and direction for restoring culture, language, and community health, now and into the future. Indigenous youth have also been invited to participate over the years, providing additional perspectives to discussions as well as creating opportunities for elders to impart their wisdom.
“It’s a real powerful gathering through the sharing of knowledge and unifying of all these voices,” said Richards. “It also takes place on sacred lands where the Juniper Hotel resides, where different Indigenous peoples would gather and exchange medicines, meat or fish.”
All of the elders photographed in recent gatherings can be seen holding, wearing or incorporating an item that is significant to them – a peace pipe, lasso, drum, framed picture, eagle feather, headdress.
Each portrait is also accompanied by a brief biography of the elders included in the exhibition, written from interviews conducted by Poole.
“Rather than trying to make a political statement or anything like that, this exhibition really showcases more of a human connection and it’s really a beautiful visual,” said D.L. Cameron, manager of exhibition design and photography at the Whyte.
“Craig has always been incredible at black and white photography. He has an eye for landscapes, and in his portraits, he has a way of creating imagery that looks and feels so natural and authentic to the subject.”
Richards’ exhibition will be on display at the Whyte Museum until March 26 and is running as part of Alberta’s Exposure Photography Festival which begins Feb. 2.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.