Nadya Kwandibens will be Toronto’s new photo laureate, pending confirmation by city council in late March. An Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) from the Animakee Wa Zhing #37 First Nation in northwestern Ontario, she is the city’s third laureate, after Geoffrey James (2016-19) and Michèle Pearson Clarke (2019-22).
In 2008, Kwandibens founded Red Works Photography, a company empowering contemporary Indigenous lifestyles and cultures through photographic essays, features and portraits in Canada. Frustrated that Indigenous people are often portrayed in history books, museums and the media as once-great, frozen stoic or forever troubled, she seeks to portray a brighter, more diverse picture.
According to city’s Economic and Community Development Committee, the laureate position “honours a photographer who is recognized by their peers for artistic excellence and for making a major contribution to photography through their work.” The laureate “serves as an advocate for visual culture, art photography and photojournalism, and uses their unique perspective to create a dialogue on contemporary issues.”
That’s a mouthful. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps the committee should grab a Pentax. Or, better yet, Kwandibens herself can explain what the photo laureate position means to her and to Toronto.
I imagine there aren’t a lot of people who know the Toronto poet laureate position exists, let alone what it entails.
Yes. I was on Metro Morning following the announcement. Host Ismaila Alfa was surprised this position is held in the city. The previous laureate, Michèle Pearson Clarke, was building an online presence for it. That’s something I’ll be doing as well.
With Red Works Photography, you are attempting to change the way Indigenous people are portrayed. Do you think that resonated with the laureate selection committee?
Absolutely. I think the panel had full faith that I would continue forward in that dialogue and in that narrative. It informs everything I do as an artist. There’s much to be learned from those perspectives.
Will the position affect what you do artistically?
As a visual artist and as a storyteller, it is important to connect with different communities, and that includes all the different artistic practices in the city as well. To be able to connect with different communities, and draw some of the intersections and create new dialogue and new circles within the communities, is of foremost importance to me. I’ve never denied myself that, and I’ve never denied my own network that.
I’ve read that you use your training in comedic improv in your photo shoots. True?
If you really think about it, comic improv is a basis for everyone’s life. There are so many opportunities I’ve had and positions I’ve had and volunteer work I’ve done that I realize have made me the artist that I am today. Improv might be the most important. I also worked at CBC Radio in Thunder Bay. Being able to draw out stories and make people comfortable is something I’ve done for a long time.
Your portrait of the three jingle dress dancers from Naotkamegwanning First Nation is a beautiful, colourful and upbeat image. Did you use your improv skills to get them laughing?
I did. It was such a great shoot. That photo will be in the Contact Photography Festival in May. It will be on a billboard in one of the city’s neighbourhoods. I want there to be more of that representation of Indigenous people. And not just Indigenous people. Representation does matter. I’m honoured, and at the same time humbled, to be designated this role.
This interview has been condensed and edited.