My Joy is Visual Sovereignty

A Conversation with Evan Benally Atwood

My business card says Diné, Queer, Creative. I don’t include the label of filmmaker, director of photography, or any specific thing. My scope is larger than any one thing, it’s spirit-led. The intention is there between me and the camera. It’s my tool. You can’t just give it to another person and have the same feeling. In the Indigenous way, it’s a mystery. My camera is a 1972 model from Goodwill. I have another from 1966, and there’s something about these old rangefinder cameras–you have to get intimate with these cameras, different than with a digital camera. The analog way has forced me to be intentional in my photos, because you don’t get a bunch of shots. Kinda similar to seeing jazz musicians perform. Each performance is different. They have a relationship with their instruments. For me, my relationships are with these technically fascinating rangefinders.

Photography is a conversation between the subject and the photographer, then everyone else gets to witness that. That’s why it’s special. The person on the other side of the camera is looking at me holding the camera, not at the person looking at the image.



You asked where my work is coming from, and I think it’s coming from a very intimate place. It comes from people in my communities, people I’ve been fortunate enough to be friends and share space with, to honor that space, that person. Like being paid a hundred dollars to photograph queer parties my friends are throwing—enough to cover film and not go broke doing it. Being supported to document important things like queer nightlife (above) and creativity. KP of Black Belt Eagle Scout and I (& the lovely Native folks that came to help) made a music video about a queer Native prom. It’s about creating those spaces. Something that gives me a feeling of joy is when other folks like what I’ve helped them see—themselves.



Photography is a way of getting to know myself, too. When I take photos of myself, it’s an intimate experience. Cowboy Juice (above) is definitely introspective. I came to Portland, Oregon, and realized I could create with clothing, put items together. I searched through other people’s trash and found things they didn’t want. I was styling myself. It’s intimate and provocative. Through that project, I could be the person I saw in my head, envision new versions of myself and document them. It’s so personal—it’s my ass in your face, and you’re going to look at it. Maybe you’ll feel something. Doing it helped me love my body. Just the act itself. Creating it allowed that space to exist.



There’s an aspect of patriarchy that discredits anything that isn’t itself. My vision for queer liberation—less labels. I’m about to create work with my mom next week. I get support to document my maternal lineage in a way that helps me and my family grow. By honoring my ancestral people, I am able to reclaim Indigeneity. In that work, it is allowing my mother to reclaim her Indigeneity. Me intentionally putting my energy toward reclaiming and honoring ancestral knowledge is spreading to my mom telling stories of how it was for her growing up. It looks like healing from assimilation.



My work continues to evolve. I was 17 with a camera, and now I’m 27 with a camera. I was able to find a queer identity before I found an Indigenous one, before my understanding of blood quantum and Native erasure came full force. Rain Water (above), those are older photos, created in my darker moments when photography was the one thing I had to do. I was in business school, which wasn’t for me. Photography gave me purpose. Rain Water was taken after it rained. I love water. I’ve always loved water. The mother of us all is earth’s water.

I also like lightheartedness in my work. I think humor is so prevalent in Native history because there is a darkness to that history that you have to meet with joy in order to allow the future to come and not to be stuck in that negative place.  It’s definitely funny to put on these assless chaps out in the desert and put a 10-second timer on your medium-format camera that you gifted yourself because you deserve it and go out and pose for photos. There’s totally joy, humor, and lightheartedness in that. It feels like a form of visual sovereignty. A person can rip a printed photo of Cowboy Juice in half, and I can print another one. The photo still exists. There’s a queer Native person on this earth, and you can’t do anything about it—we exist.



To create Black or Indigenous joy in nature is to contribute to balancing the constant stream of Black and Indigenous trauma in our world. Indigenous solidarity with Black Liberation is about being intentioned to collectivize and create more spaces, not letting the current protests be the last one. I donate my time. I document (when asked/with permission) certain moments. There was an Abolish ICE Kiki Protest in Portland in 2018, which I documented with Snack Bloc. I contribute to the work Snack Bloc is doing for the movements right now. I make sure there aren’t any faces to keep people safe in a police state. I document it so it doesn’t leave when we leave. That’s what I know how to do. That’s how I know how to offer myself.

This is my gift. It’s what I like to do. I’m surviving, creating, and thoughtfully documenting. When there isn’t as much of a Venn diagram between the two things you know you are, you create the overlap. The more you create, the more there will be for others.



All image rights reserved to Evan Benally Atwood 2019.

This transcript has been edited for concision.


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