Keegan Shawana focused his camera on the ridges of his shoeprint in the snow, and pressed the shutter-release button.
“[It’s] me leaving my mark in this world,” says the 23-year-old Toronto resident from Manitoulin Island, Ont. “Me leaving my footprint, saying ‘I was here.’”
The snapshot was among many that Shawana and his peers took at a recent workshop in Thunder Bay, Ont., part of a province-wide project that teaches Indigenous young people how to use photography as a medium for storytelling. The project, called Stories from our Roots, aims to provide them with a way of expressing themselves, and to spark discussions about the issues that are important to them.
“This project is not just to shine light on the different [traumatic] things that our Indigenous youth have to face, … it’s also happy things and empowerment, and reclaiming their identity,” says Richelle Ritchie, a youth representative with the Ontario First Nations Young People’s Council, which is spearheading the initiative.
Stories from our Roots involves five workshops around Ontario, held between October and March, with about 20 participants each, who register to attend from across the province. Participants receive training in Photovoice, a method of using photography to explore and create dialogue around issues within their communities, as well as in safeTALK, a program that teaches them to identify individuals who are thinking of suicide and to guide them toward others who can help. Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Indigenous youth, according to Statistics Canada. And suicide rates among Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average.
The project is funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, and the training is provided by the Ontario First Nations Young People’s Council, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Ontario Brain Institute and the University of Western Ontario.
The workshops also prepare them to host training sessions for their peers when they return to their own communities, says Tristen Schneider, integrated mental health program co-ordinator for the Chiefs of Ontario.
The aim is to have them show their work online or at exhibitions.
Gerald McKinley, assistant professor in the Schulich Interfaculty Program in Public Health at Western, says students are encouraged to come up with some kind of question they want to answer through their images. At the first workshop held in October, for instance, some participants wanted to explore the issue of missing and murdered women, the role of men, school stress and online bullying.
Chanice Johnston, 27, who attended that workshop, says she wants to create a photo project in her community, Chippewas of Nawash, that focuses on the land and gets young people to connect with their territory and appreciate its beauty.
“There’s this quote that’s like, ‘what you photograph the most is what you’re most afraid to lose,’” she says, explaining she wants youth to realize, “we’ve really got to take care of this place if we want our future generations to see it.”
Johnston enjoys painting and traditional crafts, such as beading and quilling, the art of inserting porcupine quills into birch bark to create patterns. But photography has become another creative outlet.
Shawana, an aspiring photographer, says he is thinking of documenting the burgeoning skateboarding movement that he helped create in the Wiikwemkoong reserve on Manitoulin Island.
For Kayla Fiddler, 18, one of the most important parts of the workshop she attended was learning safeTALK. Fiddler, a student at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, says she had thoughts of suicide between the ages of 14 and 15.
“I see other people struggling with that, and I want to help,” she says, noting photography can play a role in suicide-prevention by giving young people a way to say what they feel.
With her own photographs, she prefers to capture the beauty of her surroundings.
“I grew up on a reserve, so I was surrounded by nature,” says Fiddler, who is originally from Sandy Lake, Ont. “It was all trees and clouds, and that was my playground.”
McKinley says Photovoice methodology has been used by groups working with marginalized youth in urban settings in the United States. It has also been used by individuals with HIV and those experiencing homelessness.
Photography provides a means of expression for individuals who may be unwilling or unable to talk about their thoughts and experiences, he says.
“If you take the average youth and put them in front of a crowd of people and say, ‘Tell me what’s going on in your life,’ they’re going to look at their shoes,” McKinley says. “But [if] you give someone a camera and you have them tell a collective story, … you get something really powerful.”