Photography class provides new lens to capture life on the Navajo Nation

A unique photography program on the Navajo Nation is providing professional equipment and in-depth instruction to help transform how participants preserve and communicate their cultural values and customs.
The program will close its first session with a public exhibit at the Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii Community Center in Monument Valley from January 25 to February 15, 2024.
“The Navajo culture and history have been passed down orally and through storytelling for generations. With the development of photography workshops, participants have the option to express themselves and tell their stories visually,” said Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii Community Center Director Samantha Holiday.
“This is important for our culture, history, and traditions to survive, and photography can aid in preserving oratory knowledge.”
The photographs featured in the exhibit were created by the program’s seven participants and capture each student’s personal perspective on the importance of family, tradition, and the interconnected flora, fauna, and landscape of the Navajo Nation.
“They provide a definition of how I would explain culture and tradition to an outsider. The value of sheep, firewood, water, and plants has created the person I am today, and I pray it will live on forever within my nieces and nephews,” participant Ticola Madison said.
“I recently got interested in photography,” said participant Peggy Abrigo. “I took photos of different plants in our area while I took my walks to release my stress. Plants are part of our culture, they are part of our diet, medicine, daily cleansing, use them in our ceremonies, and use them as dyes too for rugs and baskets.”
“The exhibit is essential to me because it showcases the hard work and talent that has bolstered representation and storytelling within our small community. I want the exhibit to serve as a platform for people in my community to value their talents, be proud of their culture, and share it publicly,” Holiday said.
The photography program started serendipitously with a collaboration between Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii Community Center Director Samantha Holiday and Bluff, Utah-based Photographer John Gregor.
A singular presentation on photography turned into an idea for a five-session workshop, which quickly grew into a months-long learning initiative, including ten sessions - five in which participants learned camera technique and five sessions dedicated to post-processing and photographic printmaking.
“I am surprised by the creativity of the participants and our community in representing themselves through the camera lens. It shows the connection that the Native people have to this land and their heritage,” Holiday said.
As the program developed, Gregor, an accomplished photographer who hosts advanced photography workshops around the world, tapped his network for donated camera equipment to give participants, and Adobe provided free Creative Cloud licenses to the community center so participants could learn Photoshop.
“The success of this program was due to the efforts of John Gregor, Adobe, Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, private donors, and the Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii Community Center staff,” Holiday said.
The Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii Community Center, which hosts the photography program, was established by Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, an Indigenous-led nonprofit born of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization now focuses on food security, cultural programming, youth leadership, and entrepreneurship for Navajo and Hopi families.
“We offer our programming and services to the local community and the surrounding areas completely free of cost. Our aim is to keep this space as an innovation hub, which can help nurture and promote social, small business entrepreneurship that has always existed in our communities but lacked proper support and resources to flourish.”
“What excites me is the potential for the community center to add to its outreach and become a media center – a way for people to be able to access and create media to share with the larger world,” said photographer and teacher John Gregor.
The program is currently being offered at Yee Ha’ólníi Doo’s established community centers in Monument Valley, Utah and Standing Rock, New Mexico but has the potential to expand to other regions – something Gregor believes could one day lead to the development of a comprehensive photographic exhibit that can be showcased at various venues and museums across the country.
“Altogether these skills have brought forth a new ability of artistry in photography that I wouldn’t have known existed if I didn’t have the opportunity and willingness to try,” Madison said.
The Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, doing business as Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, recently launched a GoFundMe platform called the “Resiliency Fund GoFundMe”.

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