This Queer, Native Photographer Uses 'Cowthem' Culture to Decolonize Gender
"I see these self-portraits as a form of visual sovereignty."
Evan James Benally Atwood's photographs feel filled with reverence—for the earth, for its subjects, and for queer personhood. As a queer, Indigenous artist, they use images to begin to undo certain effects of colonialism—the desecration of stolen land, the imposition of a gender binary—and to assert themselves as the author of their own representation. Atwood spoke to Broadly about their path toward photography, the power of self-portraiture, and how photography can function as a form of "visual sovereignty."
BROADLY: How did you begin photographing?
EVAN JAMES BENALLY ATWOOD: In 2011, I started shooting self-portraits with manipulated digital editing, and internet blogs, in a colonized border town, Farmington, NM. This period influenced personal growth, yet at the time I still followed the colonial rooted thinking that post-secondary education would fill the void I felt inside. I was out as a gay man, but kept colonial resentment inside, compartmentalizing myself through business school. I stopped taking self-portraits in 2014, depressed and aimless. It was not until 2016, when I lived in Chinook/Multnomah land, the colonized name being Portland, Oregon, and was around queer non-normative culture, that I began shooting again, this time with 35mm and 120mm film. I fell in love with the process of shooting film that requires the thought and intention that I was not getting with my digital camera. I still shoot digitally when the job calls for it, but I get a tingle of excitement each time I pick up film, and that in and of itself feels special to me.
In your bio, you mention that your work “comes from the intersection of a queer identity and honoring ancestral indigeneity.” In terms of aesthetics and approach, how does that intersection shape your practice?
I am born to the clans Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle clan) and Naakai dine'é (The Mexican Clan) of the Diné, maternally. My paternal side is Bilagáana (Anglo), so I’ve always felt a dissonance with who I was supposed to be. As a city Native, I grew up with internalized heteronormative ideas of sexuality and gender. As well as distance from traditional Diné practices. I enforced these colonial logics on myself out of fear of being seen as different, and kept a distant relationship with religion until my late teens. I would like to recognize the privilege my masculine presentation gave (and still gives me) and how my positionality has impacted my growth/success. Being keenly aware of how society is innately programmed to uplift individuals like myself who move through the world presenting masculine, I have made it integral to uplift counter-narratives of dominant culture… yet it was not until after university that I felt compelled to research the intersection of my queerness and Indigeneity. Through seeking knowledge on Indigenous sovereignty in the US, I was able to gain a better understanding of myself as a queer Native, and also gain a more nuanced understanding of the state-enacted genocide of my people. Now, I see these colonial powers have been systematically targeting Native erasure for centuries, which is deeply upsetting, but has given me perspective of my work as an artist, and the direction I wish to take to unwind the harms enacted towards my people. Lately, photography has allowed me to further decolonize my body, my mind, and my practice. By acknowledging stolen land and honoring feminine energy, photography has created a form of visual sovereignty. Within these self-portraits, I honor the feminine energy within my communities, my family, and myself. I honor the fluidity of gender and the ancestral indigenous land we inhabit.
Much of your photography utilizes nature as a setting. How does place influence your process?
I’ve always felt a strong relationship with water, with its graceful fluidity, which my mom says is cleansing, purifying, and forgiving. I am inspired by Indigenous artists’ use of words, art, and music to actively bring awareness to stolen Indigenous land and how we currently acknowledge that. There is something to be said about Indigenous people’s harmonious relationship with the land, rather than the settler colonial idea of owning land as commodity. Last year, I was fortunate enough to create a music video with my rad friend KP (Swinomish/Iñupiaq) for Black Belt Eagle Scout’s track Indians Never Die. It’s full of symbolizing Indigenous relationship to the land while also critiquing the rise of gentrification. Creating that imagery was empowering because on the actual hike at the location we were filming, KP and I only saw white hikers. We were there to show our respect to the ancestral land of the Chinook, Nehalem, Siletz, Nestucca and Tillamook, also known as the Oregon coast. Recently, I got shivers reading Wanda Nanibush (Anishinaabe-kwe) saying, “Photographs provide forms of visual sovereignty and assert a continued presence on the land, despite centuries of theft and removal.” This notion of visual sovereignty isn’t something I felt aware of growing up, but now I aspire to create more work around this. Also, everyone should download [the app] Native Land right now—it’s a great way to learn about indigenous history wherever you are.
Your portraits are incredible. What draws you to a subject?
I love shooting within the queer community. Getting to know someone before a camera is involved helps heaps. My friends provide an endless stream of inspiration by simply being themselves—it’s so electrifying. These deep relationships I have formed can blossom from a single shoot, and my heart swells knowing how much empowerment can come from the practice of creating photographs together.
Your work also includes self-portraiture. Do you find that, as a queer indigenous person, it’s particularly powerful to control your own image?
More so than ever it is empowering to control my own image. For me, it’s a visual process that catalyzes self-growth and change. Using cowgirl/cowboy/cowthem culture as a means to visualize and contradict harmful stereotypes of Natives is emboldening. I see these self-portraits as a form of visual sovereignty… as a way to contradict the ways in which our society perpetuates harmful binary gender norms.
Who are some photographers who influence your work, and how?
A few I’m fortunate to call friends are Clifford Prince King, Agustin Hernandez, and Alec Marchant. Each of them is brilliant – saturated with such striking film work. A huge inspiration is queer Indigenous feminist activists and artists including Katherine Paul (Black Belt Eagle Scout), Demian DinéYazhi´, Lukas Soto, Qwo-Li Driskill, and Chris Finley. They inspire me to be rooted in queer and femme energy in my day-to-day life.