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Talking Policy: Daniella Zalcman on Documenting Western Colonization

Daniella Zalcman, a successful photojournalist, multiple grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, fellow with the International Women's Media Foundation, and member of Boreal Collective, has spent a large portion of her career documenting the lasting effects of Western colonization in various parts of the world.  Her work has appeared in The Wall Street JournalMashableNational Geographic, and CNN, among other publications. Zalcman was also featured in World Policy Journal’s Fall 2016 print issue “History’s Ghosts,” where her portfolio, “Kill the Indian, save the man”: On the painful legacy of Canada’s residential schools” provides a sneak peak into her ongoing work. Zalcman’s latest project, Signs of Your Identity, for which she won the 2016 FotoEvidence book award, showcases the remnants of colonial attempts at assimilating Canada’s indigenous children by sending them to Indian Residential Schools. Her chilling portraits speak to the impact of colonization on indigenous populations worldwide. World Policy Journal spoke with Zalcman to discuss the themes of her work, her unique journalistic technique, and her upcoming projects.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Your book, Signs of Your Identity, shows two photographs of each person featured—the first showing the person as they are, followed by a second with an image overlaid on their face. How would you go about creating the second image?  

DANIELLA ZALCMAN: I would interview residential school survivors and take their portraits.  From what I learned in the interview, I would go in search of a secondary image to use as the overlay. Usually I would look for a very literal representation of their time in the residential school—often the place where their school once stood, or a site that was relevant to their experience. Sometimes it was more figurative, particularly for people who went to schools that no longer exist.

WPJ: What sparked your interest in capturing identity through photographs?

DZ: That’s an interesting question. I’m a journalist first, but I’ve always largely been a visual journalist—a photographer. I often end up working on stories that involve examining the legacy and history of colonial influence and historical legacies in general. It’s my job to think of nuanced ways to capture things that no longer exist or that are manifested in intergenerational trauma. So the questions become: How do you photograph the past? How do you photograph a memory? How do you photograph things that are passed form parent to child? Multiple exposure is the tool I use to convey that.

WPJ: Signs of Your Identity illustrates the effect of colonization within the context of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. Do you think the same effect can be seen across other Anglophone countries?

DZ: Absolutely. In fact, I would say it extends beyond Anglophone countries to almost every nation with an indigenous population and a settler colonial population. Most of the word has some form of assimilation education for indigenous children. For example, the Norwegians and the Sami, or the Danes in Greenland. Similar schools existed in South America, East Africa, and the South Pacific. The systems within the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia were also very similar because they are all rooted in the same British colonial legacy.

WPJ: What motivated you to explore the effect that Western colonization had on indigenous people?

DZ: It’s really just an accidental theme of a lot of my work. The other project that I dedicated several years to examined the rise of homophobia in Uganda. I started working on that story because I happened to be in that region covering the independence of South Sudan and the anti-gay law, which has gotten so much attention in Western media. The law was going through parliament at the time and an LGBT activist had recently been murdered, so I became more interested in covering the LGBT community in Uganda. The more I looked at the history of criminalization and homophobia throughout East Africa, it became clear to me that a lot of it could be traced back to penal codes left behind by the British. The recent rise of homophobia is even more inexplicably tied to Western evangelism. It was really frustrating for me to hear people say “How could Uganda be so backward and unprogressive?” The truth is there are roots of the hatred, which are really quite Western. So it became important for me to look at the historical context.

WPJ: Where do you think your journey to document Western colonization will take you next?

DZ: Signs of Your Identity is going to morph into a multi-year long project—it may take the next five to 10 years. In March I’m going to Australia to look at more Indian Residential Schools, I’ve also got a trip planned to Norway to the Arctic Circle where the Sami live. I’ve got, in theory, about eight countries to explore, but I’m also not done working on the project in the United States. I spent a month in the Navajo Nation and a month in Lakota territory in the Great Plains, so I’ll be spending quite a bit of time looking at the schools in the U.S.

WPJ: With all of the work you plan to do on Signs of Your Identity, can we expect any new projects from you in the near future?

DZ: I’ve got a couple of side projects—one on a family of Syrian refugees who have been fragmented through Europe, and another project in its very early stages looking at the politics of intersex identity—but Signs of Your Identity is really what I’m most focused on at the moment.

WPJ: What continuity is there between the three projects that you’re currently working on?

DZ: The Syrian refugee project can be pretty easily traced that back to Western involvement and colonial presence. I’m based in London and I was feeling incredibly guilty that I lived in Europe and was doing nothing to help the Syrian refugee crisis, when I just happened to meet this incredible Syrian refugee family. It’s not quite as explicitly related as Signs of Your Identity and my Uganda project are.  

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Kirsi Goldynia]

[Photo courtesy of Daniella Zalcman] 

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