Photographer Interview: Keesic Douglas

Photographer Interview: Keesic Douglas

Photographer Keesic Douglas

Last week I took my son to a Taino song workshop at the National Museum of the American Indian – New York and while chasing after my toddler through one of the exhibits, I discovered the work of photographer Keesic Douglas. Instantly grabbing my attention, were two images (from Douglas’ Lifestyles series) of a young, indigenous couple set within a contemporary home decorated with many of their cultural and ceremonial objects. The lighting of these domestic scenes was so precise (as if to mimic the set of a television show/soap opera) and I just had to find out more about who made these unique images.


From the Birch Bark series
Copyright Keesic Douglas

D&B: Where are you from and where do you live/work now?
KD: I am from Rama First Nation in central Ontario Canada and I currently live in Toronto. Much of my photography is still done back home in my community as it is the place that I connect to and the place that I tell stories about.

Do you shoot film, digital or both?
I don’t even know if there is still a debate about film vs. digital. Most people can’t tell the difference anymore. For me, film is still the way to go because I can connect with a film camera better than with a digital one. I enjoy working in the darkroom, being on my feet all day. For me film and analogue printing is a contemplative process.

Your work varies from studio images to interiors to outdoor landscapes. Tell us about the way you work.
I shoot outdoors when the weather is nice and in the studio when it is too cold outside. Ha. All kidding aside, it really depends on the particular story that I am trying to tell. Shooting outdoors in my community really captures the beauty of that place. Shooting in the studio for me is a place where I can control every detail.

There’s a cynical humor inherent within many of your series, even their titles. What do you ultimately want your work to address?
I want my work to help engage conversations about things we don’t always talk about; the environment, stereotypes, racism, oppression, representation, identity… I use humour because such heavy and complicated issues can turn people away. I seduce them in with humour. People often say that Indigenous people use humour as a coping mechanism… I thought about this for a long time and I disagree.

Humour is such a part of Indigenous people and communities that I personally cannot escape it, nor do I want to. Growing up on a First Nation, if someone wasn’t funny they had a difficult time. It was all about the jokes. Jokes on top of jokes. Teasing and teasing. Looking back now they might call it bullying but it was a sign of affection and connection.

From the Birch Bark series
Copyright Keesic Douglas

The images in the Birch Bark series feel sanguineous and raw… I can’t help but think about skin. Is this a relationship you want your viewers to make?
Birch bark is such an amazing material. It has a spirit to it. Indigenous people from this area have been using it for thousands of years, it is easily harvested, light, waterproof and strong. The most amazing thing about Birch trees is that they have a few layers (of skin). If you harvest the bark off properly, a protective layer remains continuing to protect the tree. I see these trees as gifts from the creator. The perfect symbol of living in harmony with the environment. I think that everyone needs to look at this example when we approach design, energy and how we live on this planet.

The Warrior’s Path series is really captivating and as a viewer I vacillate between imagining you (the photographer) as the warrior and/or some other ancestral figure who may have walked those same streets generations ago. Can you talk a bit about time travel as it relates to your work?
It is interesting to think about the idea of time travel. I still think that we can’t fully understand time as it is. There are so many ways to look at it, this idea of linear time progressing in such a systematic way seems crazy when you think about it. Again, this goes back to perspective and Indigenous ways of thinking and being. When I walk down that street with the tree stumps I think about how I am walking the same path that my ancestors walked. When this happens we are not separated by time. There is an energy and a spirit that has never left the ground.

From the Warrior’s Path series
Copyright Keesic Douglas

Are there any photographers whose work you can’t live without?
I look up to a lot of photographers because they helped build this language that has been created through a lens. There are so many incredible Canadian photographers that I feel honoured to be continuing this conversation: Yousuf Karsh, Arnaud Maggs, Geoffrey James, Greg Staats, and Jeff Wall.

The moment I realized I wanted to be a photographer was when I was visiting a library in Boston, MA that was showing a small selection of Robert Frank’s The Americans series. I was so captivated with the images that I began to doubt my career path at the time which was hotel management. I mean sure they are related but it just wasn’t the same thing.

What are three things that help you sustain your art/photographic practice?
I think the thing that helps sustain my practice is getting a good sleep so that I can go out into the world and observe it properly. I see photography as a reflection of the things around us. We need to truly see to be able to tell those stories. I also rely heavily on stories from my community. I get a lot of ideas from my dad Mark who is a traditional story teller and knowledge keeper. I also get a lot of ideas from my friend Dave Shilling who is an avid reader and Indigenous history buff.

From the Warrior’s Path series
Copyright Keesic Douglas

Reading your CV I noticed most of your shows have been in Ontario. Has there been a lack of opportunity to exhibit your work outside of Canada?
I don’t think there is a lack of opportunity to show work outside of Canada. Well, I guess I don’t really know. I end up being so busy producing work that I don’t get a chance to apply for exhibitions or other opportunities. People usually find me and ask me to be in shows. The funny thing about art is that you can’t appear too eager, you often just have to have patience. It takes a long time to build an art career I have realized. I used to think that the next show would be my big breakthrough but everything I do is a small breakthrough that will hopefully one day all add up.

Are you shooting any new work (photo or video) that you can tell us about?
I almost always have a few projects on the go. Sometimes they are still floating around in my head and sometimes the film is in the camera ready to shoot. I also write and shoot short films. Right now I am writing and planning to shoot 2 short films this summer. One is a story my dad told me; when he was younger he was a police officer for our community.

One day he found himself chasing his friend through the woods because his friend was accused of committing a crime and my dad’s job was to apprehend him. The friend was in better shape than my dad who was struggling to keep up. The friend started to run backwards and tease and taunt my dad. My dad put his hand on his gun holster and contemplated ending the chase in a far more efficient way. Then he remembered his own place in his community and reflected on his past and connection with the person he was chasing.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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