This is the latest in our One Photo series, where PhotoShelter photographers share their most meaningful photo and the story behind it. Also watch our One Photo video here, where 5 photographers tell us what their image means to them.
His name is Mike Pinay. He is a First Nations Canadian who was sent to the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Canada for 10 years between the ages of six and 16. Today, this portrait of Mike is photographer Daniella Zalcman’s one photo:
“It was the worst ten years of my life,” Mike recalled. “How do you learn about relationships? How do you learn about family? I didn’t even know what love was.”
Residential schools were a century-long institution in Canada. The government would take young Indigenous children from their homes and relocate them to boarding schools. There, the children were forced to assimilate to Western society, and they were punished — often physically — for exhibiting any signs of their own culture. Thousands died while in the system and the last school finally closed in 1996.
Daniella met Mike one day after embarking on a project examining elevated HIV rates in Canada’s Indigenous communities. “I realized that every person I interviewed who was HIV positive and First Nations had also gone through residential school,” she said. “I’d never even heard of this system, and I wanted to learn more.”
Mike told Daniella about his painful loss of culture, including the loss of his name. “While there, Mike was known as a number — No. 73,” said Daniella. “This speaks to the deep level of dehumanization that went on in the system.”
Much of Mike’s day was devoted to the upkeep of the school itself, including farming, taking care of livestock, cooking, and cleaning. There was no math or history class, and the kids were closer to indentured servants than they were students. Church services were also mandatory, and often required on a daily basis.
After leaving, Mike went through a long journey to reclaim his identity. “Most of my conversation with Mike centered around what it means to heal from the trauma of cultural genocide — and for him, and many other First Nations Canadians, that required a return to his Indigenous language, culture, and traditions as an adult,” said Daniella.
“It’s a complicated and painful process to re-learn the things that should have been part of your childhood, but many of the residential school survivors I met seemed to have found a way past their experiences and develop deep connections to their First Nations identity.”
Mike’s experience and stories like his inspired Daniella to shift gears. A project she originally entered from a public health perspective was now about the identity of Indigenous people.
She decided to photograph a series of composite portraits because she believed these stories were about both memory and trauma, and she wanted both aspects represented.
“Each one of these portraits, including this image, is of a residential school survivor superimposed with an image that represents their memories and experiences in school,” she said.
Daniella shot the entire series with her iPhone. She had originally intended to photograph on medium format film, but the need for imagery felt more immediate. “I wanted to create multiple exposures on the road instead of waiting weeks or months to get my images back from the darkroom,” she said.
Today, the composite portrait of Mike, in addition to the others, carry tremendous meaning for Daniella. “This project helped me figure out how to tell stories in a different way,” she said. “It may not be entirely mainstream, but for me it’s a more honest and truthful way to present these individuals.”
This series, titled Signs of Your Identity, has taught Daniella that storytelling is complicated because generating empathy is difficult.
“I think we live in a world where people consume more imagery than ever,” she said. “On one hand, this is incredible. On the other hand, it’s terrifying. It means we’ve become desensitized to much human suffering and pain.”
“The truth is, there are only so many photos of a dead Syrian child you can look at before you stop feeling.”
To Daniella, today’s challenge in visual journalism is to figure out how to make people stop and feel. It’s something she believes we’re all battling at this very moment, and the problem has opened a space for alternative forms of photography.
“We have a responsibility to reframe how people think about current events and social issues.”
“In the West, we believe that we are better equipped to tell stories of Indigenous communities than the people themselves,” said Daniella. “I believe this is categorically untrue. In an ideal future world, we will empower people to tell their own stories. I believe that right now, I’m an imperfect happy medium.”
Today, this photo of Mike Pinay reminds Daniella to reframe how stories are told. “We continue to marginalize and omit a lot of histories of people of color, both in our textbooks and mainstream media,” she said. “This project is my small attempt to correct that.”
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