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Take Note: Daniella Zalcman on the Legacy of Coercive Assimilation

Taylor Mickal

Daniella Zalcman is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work focuses on the legacies of western colonization. We talked with her about her work sharing stories of indigenous peoples in North America, about the legacy of coercive assimilation, and about why we need to spend more time thinking about who is responsible for telling our collective stories.

Watch Daniella’s Penn State Fall Journalism talk here.


Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Daniella Zalcman is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work focuses on the legacies of Western colonization, from the rise of homophobia in East Africa to the forced assimilation education of indigenous children in North America. She regularly lectures at high schools and universities and is part of the 2020 Journalism Speakers Forum through the Penn State Bellisario College of Communications. Daniella is the founder of Women Photograph, a nonprofit working to elevate the voices of women and non-binary visual journalists. Daniella, welcome to Take Note.

Daniella Zalcman: Thank you so much for having me.

Fenton: You've said that you wanted to be a journalist for as long as you could remember; what drew you to this field?

Zalcman: I don't know that I could have verbalized this at a young age. But I think, in general, the thing that has always attracted me to journalism, to writing, and to photography, in general, is just the act of storytelling. And, that being just an integral part of the fabric of how we as humans communicate, you know, whether it's how we learn or how we pass information on from generation to generation, or how do you remember, telling stories, recording stories, sharing stories, I think is just fundamental to who we are. So, I think that process has always been really attractive to me.

Fenton: You began your career working as a photographer for the New York Daily News, but ended up deciding to pursue different opportunities. What prompted you to make that career change?

Zalcman: So, I think when I began, so, you know, I wanted to be a journalist, since I was maybe 12. I intentionally went to college in New York City, because I believe that was sort of the center of the media world in the United States. And I wanted it to be there. And to me, being a journalist meant working for a newspaper that was sort of the pinnacle of journalism. So, pretty much as soon as I could I started freelancing for newspapers, and that that first newspaper I worked for was the New York Daily News, where I worked for about sort of the first three years of my career while I was also a college student. And, then I worked for the Wall Street Journal for a few years after that. And you know, I loved that being the foundation of my practice, I think it's really important to be a daily news photographer, because you have to learn how to do everything you have to photograph, fashion and sports and press conferences and fires and everything in between. And, it makes you quick and versatile. And, you learn a lot. And, you also learn a city really well that way. So, I you know, I wouldn't trade that for anything. But at the same time, I think after about five years of doing daily newspaper work, I realized that my strength and the thing that I enjoyed most as a journalist was really getting to know people intimately. And being able to tell sort of slow, quieter stories that really involved in required time. And you know, the sort of the best and worst thing about working for newspapers is that the daily news cycle means that you just you have to crank those stories out, and you have 15 minutes to three hours to work on each assignment every day, and then you're on to the next thing. And, I was starting to feel this urge of you know, I want to spend days or weeks or months or maybe years in the places and on the stories that really mattered to me. So that's when I started to think about how I could maybe restructure the way I worked as a journalist and work in much slower long form ways.

Fenton: I would think another nice thing about working for a paper is that it is a steady gig, a steady job, a steady paycheck, and it can be hard to move into any sort of documentary or journalism work, especially as you're still establishing yourself and making a name for yourself. So, how did you go about actually making that jump from working as a staff photographer to freelance longer form documentarian?

Zalcman: Well, so to clarify, I have been freelancer my entire career.

Fenton: OK.

Zalcman: You know, since I started working professionally as a 19-year-old, I have always been independent. I personally like that, because it means I own every single photo I've ever taken. And I think, you know, obviously, there are really compelling reasons to be a staff photographer, a staff wire photographer, but for me, I've always liked the independence, I think you also have to have a certain type of personality, to be able to do that without going insane because it really is, it can be very stressful. It's definitely a feast or famine situation where, you know, early on, I would go weeks without getting a call from an editor. And that was terrifying and horrible. And, you know, so I was working as a bartender or as a web designer, you know, on the side to make money. But I in you know, it was an immediate shift from I am a full-time newspaper photographer to now I full time work on my projects all the time. You know, it was a slow transition of me figuring out how to do that and how to make it financially sustainable. But, you know, roughly five years into my career, I started applying for grants from nonprofits and journalism foundations and realizing that that kind of was the key to being able to instead of spending a few days on a story being able to spend maybe a few weeks, a few months, and you know, at this point now, a few years in the field working on each story.

Fenton: And so ,once you ended up doing that documentary work and spending longer in the field, you covered a lot of different stories that focused on different aspects of Western colonization. And you ended up doing a lot of work with indigenous populations, particularly indigenous people in Canada. What drew you to telling that story?

Zalcman: So that AIDS conference that I referenced in Australia, I'd actually gone there for a totally unrelated project, one of my first long form projects which looked at the criminalization of LGBTQ plus people in Uganda. And I'd worked on a small story about how when you criminalize gay people, there's almost always a public health consequence, often a rise in HIV rates. And while I was there, I happen to read this UN AIDS report that mentioned the fact that one of the groups of people in the world with the fastest growing rate of HIV was first nations, Canadians, indigenous Canadians. And you know, I'm not an expert in public health by any stretch of the imagination, but that still struck me as being just impossible to fathom because, you know, Canada has better health care than we do in the United States. It's nationalized, generally speaking in medicine, and hospitals and doctors are cheap or free to access. And yet there was this genuine epidemic happening in a very underserved community in Canada. And so, I spent a month interviewing First Nations HIV positive Canadians about their experiences, you know, the, there's a huge connection, I think, throughout North America between the current HIV between HIV spread and injection drug use and the opioid epidemic. So, there's a lot of conversation around that. But almost every single person I met, told me about their time in something called Indian residential school. And I had never heard of it before. And the more I learned and the more people I met with, and interviewed told me about it, the more I realized that this massive, incredibly destructive hundred-and-20 year-long chapter of Canadian and also US history has just been completely omitted from my education from my own consciousness of North America. So, I've basically been working on that story, since.

Fenton: For those of us who aren't familiar with these residential schools, or Indian boarding schools, as they're also sometimes known, paint a picture for us of what life was like at these institutions, and also how students even came to be at these institutions.

Zalcman: So, they were invented in the late 19th century, the very first Indian boarding schools actually not too far from you in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. And that became the model for all of the Canadian and the US schools. And the explicit purpose was to eradicate indigenous culture and to forcibly assimilate Native children into mainstream Western culture. So, government employees in Canada called Indian agents would show up on reserves in Native communities and would effectively kidnap Native children and send them off to these boarding schools. And once they got there, their hair was cut off, they had to wear Western clothing, they had to attend church services. So, these schools were funded by the Canadian government, but either operated by the Anglican, Catholic or Presbyterian Church, they were punished if they spoke their language or practice their culture in any way, shape or form. There was rampant physical and sexual assault, there was medical testing performed on a lot of children. In some extreme cases, young women were sterilized, just unspeakably horrible things happened to the hundred and 50,000 First Nations [inaudible] and Inuit Canadians who were taken to the schools. And the last school didn't close until 1996. 80,000 of those 150,000 survivors are still alive today.

Fenton: So, the first time you went to document the story in Canada, you've spoken about how you left feeling like you… like you didn't tell the whole story. What was it that made you kind of have that moment of pause and examine how you were telling the story in reevaluate how you approach a population that you're trying to photograph and represent in a way that you feel is the right way?

Zalcman: Well, so the biggest issue was, as I mentioned, you know, the spread of HIV in urban indigenous communities at the time primarily was through injection drug use related to the opioid crisis. And you know, I'm a photojournalist, and my training is to photograph things as they're happening in front of me in order to tell a story. And so that very first trip I took to Canada, I spent time in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and Ontario, and I was photographing a lot of people who are coping with alcoholism and injection drug use and addiction to opioids. And that's what I photograph. That's what I had access to. That was very tangential. That was sorry, very tangibly part of the story. I got home and I realized I hadn't done a good job. And I didn't want to publish the images. And they felt like they were stigmatizing. They felt like they weren't in any way going to encourage my audience to try to understand this larger structure in this history that I was just starting to wrap my head around. And so, I went back to the funder, this nonprofit in DC called the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. And I said, “I'm so sorry, but I, I messed up, I, I ultimately failed at what I was trying to do. I don't think this is ethical journalism, I need to go back and do it again.” And luckily, I had an existing relationship with me, and they trusted me enough to go, “OK whatever you say, try it again.” And I ended up going back a year later and decided that straight documentary photography, in this case, it wasn't going to do it, because I couldn't photograph in the schools anymore, because the last one in Canada closed in the 90s. And I had tried to photograph something that I saw as being a small symptom of this much larger, systemic form of oppression. And that hadn't really worked. And so, I ended up doing was creating these double exposure portraits of boarding school survivors, where I would interview someone about their experience, I would photograph them. And then based on our conversation based on their experience, I would go to the site of where they had attended school and find some, you know, a landscape and detail something that had to do with their memory, their experience, and then create a composite photograph from those two images.

Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Daniela Zalcman, an award-winning documentary photographer whose work focuses on the legacies of Western colonization. And, Daniela, we've established that much of your work focuses on indigenous populations. And something you speak about. And one of the practices you reference in some of those talks is the importance of land acknowledgement. What is that?

Zalcman: I was at an AIDS conference in Australia, about six years ago, and before the event started, and this wasn't anything that was government sponsored, but you know, to Aboriginal elders got up on stage and acknowledge that the event was taking place on indigenous land and acknowledge the specific people who called that region home. And it just it completely stunned me because it was, it's just, it wasn't a concept that I'd ever encountered before. I tried to imagine what it would be like if we did that in the United States, and I couldn't really. And then in the next few years, as I started to work pretty regularly in Canada, I started to hear it done in Canada as well at government events at schools and public functions. And I think we are just now starting to hear it occasionally happen in the United States. And you know, I'd love to think that at like, the next inauguration, for instance, would be a great time to make a land acknowledgement of whose lands we you know, we occupy a settlers. I'm not like holding my breath, but I think it would be great if it happened.

Fenton: Yeah, I just thought that was so interesting. And well, you know, we're not obviously at an official government function right now. But, you know, let's take a moment and model good behavior. And I'll say that you and I are in different locations, but the land that I'm recording this interview on, was historically occupied by the Susquehannock people. Along with your work as a photographer, you regularly work with students, and one of the exercises you like to do is to ask them, what the associations are that they have, when you bring up Native Americans. What are some of the typical responses that you hear when you do that exercise?

Zalcman: So, you know, and I may be baited students a little with this over the years, but I almost always get the same three responses within you know, the first five that I hear and it's always I ask them for their main associations with whether in pop culture or history with Native Americans and it's almost always regardless of the age group, Christopher Columbus, Pocahontas Thanksgiving. It's, it's those three things. And so, then we have to have a conversation about OK, so what are the versions of those stories that we know? And why are they problematic? Why are they wrong? Why do we continue to propagate? What are effectively myths about our own history? You know, Pocahontas was in fact, in a relationship with a white settler who came to North America. She was at the time 12 years old, which I think changes the nature of how we view that relationship. Christopher Columbus is still somehow framed as being the discoverer of a continent that had millions and millions of inhabitants already living there. Thanksgiving is a thing that happened multiple times. And the specific Thanksgiving that became codified as our national holiday actually took place the day after a massacre, which again, changes the nature of that fun family meal that we now honor every year if a bunch of your relatives, neighbors, friends were just killed the day before. It's a much less fun, happy event. So ,you know, we have to have conversations about shame and the things that we try to sweep under the rug because we're embarrassed about what being American really means. And you know, for all the amazing things about America and what America can be, it is fundamentally a land a country built on stolen land with slave labor. And we cannot talk about who we are as Americans without acknowledging that.

Fenton: As you reference, we don't always get the complete picture or the full history, but I think there is a sort of a movement or a reckoning word that is starting to change. But as you were just describing with the facts, about our history, there can be a tension around calling out some of the, frankly, uglier aspects of that history, that there is this, again, this tension that delving into those details is disrespectful or un-American, what is your response to that?

Zalcman: But to me, that's one of the best things about being an American, right? Being able to be an American journalist means that I have the right to criticize my government, my political system, the economic and social infrastructures that we exist in, I think that's one of the greatest privileges of being a journalist in America. And I mean, America has actually fallen pretty considerably in the press freedom index, if you look at sort of the global rankings, but still, that is legally my protected right. And, and to me that that's an incredible power and privilege. And there are a lot of journalists all over the world who are not that lucky. And for whom speaking truth to power means ending up disappeared or in jail. So, you know, I think, sometimes, I think people understand criticizing America as not appreciating it, not loving it. I think criticizing America means that you want to build a better version of this thing that you love. And so, for me, especially in the context of speaking to students, it's, you know, how can we envision a more just a more equal version of the society that we currently live in?

Fenton: You've mentioned in your talks that even publications we think of as being very respectable and responsible, like National Geographic, have colonial legacies, in terms of how they tell stories, particularly about non-white people. But that, you know, that begs the question of representation and what it's like as an outsider to a community, how do you approach that work as a photojournalist when you are coming into a community as an outsider, but seeking to tell an authentic story?

Zalcman: It's a really good question. And, you know, I think it's not just specific publications, it's the entire medium, right? I think both photography and journalism, are rooted in colonial perspectives. And the practices themselves have, for such a long time been, you know, we in the West with these particular mechanisms and tools have the ability to parachute into other places and tell stories better than people in those places themselves. And that is just categorically untrue. And, you know, I would like to believe that a really healthy journalism industry relies equally on insider and outsider perspectives. But for a very long time, we've just completely shut out insider perspectives, particularly in indigenous communities, in black communities in poor communities. You know, we have almost exclusively heard about those places from outsiders. And so, you know, I tried to be very cognizant of that, and very aware of that when I'm working in indigenous communities, because while you know, I identify as a person of color, and I do think it makes a difference when I talk to people and I tell them that I'm, you know, my mother is a immigrant from Vietnam, and my father's parents are Eastern European Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms, I think they understand that there is some kind of historical connection between those experiences, but I am still completely an outsider. And I think being able to be honest about that, and also just prioritize listening and understanding that, you know, as I did very clearly in my first trip in, you know, for documenting indigenous community, that you will get things wrong, because you don't always understand the full historical context, you don't always understand all of the cultural nuance that you need people who are willing to say, hey, maybe try that, again. You didn't get this right. You know, it's really important to be able to have that time and that patience with the process. So, I'm very grateful for the people who have been nice enough to tell me "Nope, you're getting that wrong. Try again."

Fenton: One of the ways that these historically incomplete stories or representations continue to live on in a very visible way is in sports in team names and mascots. And, you know, this is this is a well-known discussion we're having in our country right now. And, you actually have a project in which you examine the use of native names and mascots by sports teams and documenting the tension around this. So, tell us a little about your work on Native mascots.

Zalcman: So, I grew up in DC. And it probably wasn't until I was in my mid 20s, that I realized that the football team I grew up around was a deeply problematic racial slur. And that I cannot imagine if that, if the equivalent for any other racial group were being used, people would be burning down stadiums. And, you know, there's sort of different levels of offensiveness, depending on whether we're talking about the Cleveland Indians or the Browns or the Seahawks are, you know that they're all of these teams in the US at a pro level that continue to reference native cultures, which means that the fans in their fandom reference native cultures by wearing fake headdresses and putting on red face paints, and just all of these things that are deeply racialized caricatures of indigenous culture. But unfortunately, it also means that it trickles down to the college level and the high school level in the middle school level. And so, you know, I was doing some research a couple years ago, and saw that there were more than 1000 high schools across the United States that still had high school mascots, sports mascots that were named, or somehow attributed to indigenous culture. And you know, I think we are still having this ongoing conversation. Luckily, the Washington football team is now called the Washington football team. And Chief Wahoo no longer is, you know, officially part of the Cleveland Indians stadium anymore. But we, you know, we still have more than 1000 teenagers running around the country, using some of these racial slurs. And so I really wanted to have conversations with young people about what they felt whether they were having conversations with school administrators, with athletic coaches, with teachers, anyone, and it seems like and, you know, I spent a couple weeks in Ohio that has the highest concentration of native mascots. And most of the students I spoke to hadn't really engaged with the idea at all, because they lived in predominantly white communities or communities that had absolutely no native presence. So you know, I, I think it's a very complicated thing to talk about. Because obviously, I find I think teenagers are relatively blameless here. It's not they didn't choose the mascot, it wasn't their idea. But if they're not encouraged to question it, if they're not encouraged to have conversations about it, they've turned into adults who put on red face paint and then go route for the Cleveland Indians. And so, I think, you know, at some point along the way, we need to be able to have dialogue.

Fenton: And, we should note that this is a tension that exists in our local communities, with controversy, at least around the Bellefonte high school team name and mascot. And there are some who say that using these names and mascots are actually ways of paying respect and honoring Native Americans, you know, that imitation is a form of flattery or a sign of respect. What's your take on that, you know, not only in the way that we may or may not use these names or cultural symbols in athletics, but in larger conversations around appropriation and whether or not it is a form of honor?

Zalcman: I think there are a lot of ways in which we can share and take part in other people's cultures that are totally OK. And, you know, if you think about breaking things down across the spectrum, like I think food is sort of one of the best examples of like, we all have to eat, it is a huge necessity. It's also a huge cultural thing of just we all like to share food and share the cuisines that we know and are familiar with and grow up with. As a Vietnamese American Jewish person. I'm not offended if a non-Jewish friend makes matzah ball soup or non-Vietnamese friend tries to cook pho, like I think that's great. It, you know, becomes a little more complicated if they tried to open like a Vietnamese restaurant, start selling it, we'd have to have a chat about that. But you know, generally speaking, I think there are some things that we readily and openly share, because that's part of who we are and how we communicate. I think something that people don't think about or don't know, or want to pretend they don't know, is the fact that a lot of the symbology that is appropriated when it comes to Native Americans, it's stuff that is deeply sacred to individual cultures. So, you know, in addition to the fact that the versions of native mascots that we've cobbled together take, you know, one element from a plains tribe and one element from a Southwest tribe, and they literally and culturally make no sense. They're also deeply offensive. You know, the privilege of wearing a war bonnet is something that is earned over years and years through cultural ceremony. It's to put one on in the context of a football game is absolutely not okay. And most indigenous people will tell you, that is absolutely not OK. And, you know, I just I have heard so many times the while we're doing it to honor them and you know, if we get rid of sports mascots, then we'll have no references left to indigenous people. There are millions of Native Americans living in the United States, we have just forcefully disempowered them, move them off of their lands, shut them out of political and economic systems, we cannot do that we can elect more leaders like Deb Holland into office, we can ensure that, for instance, unites, I think right now she's been vetted to potentially be the Secretary of the Interior, which would make her the first ever indigenous Secretary of the Interior, the department that manages the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is insane. So, you know, we can do so many other things to acknowledge and pay respect to, and financially benefit indigenous people without just dressing up like them in a way that they've asked us to stop doing repeatedly.

Fenton: And again, this comes back to that incomplete view or education around the… our full history and our full story. So, to start correcting that, and in making our construct and understanding more complete, what can we do? What questions can we ask ourselves about the media or information we're encountering to ensure that we are being critical thinkers and evaluating that the accuracy of what we see or read or hear or otherwise consume?

Zalcman: I think collectively, we all need to ask ourselves who's telling our stories, and whether that's in the context of history textbooks, or the stories you're reading in your newspaper of choice, or, you know, fiction narratives through Hollywood films or comic books, any form of storytelling, we have to ask ourselves who is behind this, who is responsible for constructing these narratives? Because the truth is in almost every single industry for the longest time, the overwhelming narrative that we got was through the lens of cisgender, heterosexual white men. And there's nothing wrong with that perspective. But when it becomes the only one that we consume, the only one through which we get to see and understand the world that becomes deeply dangerous and deeply toxic. And so, you know, again, I'm going back to how we think about the conception of America and what it means. If we are not listening to stories of America through the perspective of indigenous and black people, we are missing out on a huge part of who we are and what we are as a nation if we don't have the perspective of, of immigrants, of refugees of people of color who were historically oppressed and abused about our country's history we are not fully recognizing and learning about who we are. So, I think always looking at bylines always looking at you know the names on your textbooks always thinking about who's responsible for directing and producing and making the movies we watch. Thinking about how we can balance out the makeup of those people is critical.

Fenton: Daniella Zalcman, thank you so much for talking with us.

Zalcman: Thank you for having me.

Fenton: Daniella Zalcman is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work focuses on the legacies of Western colonization. To watch Daniella's Penn State fall journalism lecture, visit WPSU-dot-org-slash-take note. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.


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