Indigenous Futurism in Photography￼
Josué Rivas presents himself as an indigenous futurist. He was born and lived part of his childhood in Guanajuato; he is Otomi and Mexica. His parents were photographers, and Josué says they provided a service to the community by taking pictures of parties, quinceañeras, baptisms, and weddings. From an early age, he saw that the camera had the power to open doors, and although that attracted his attention, he also felt a firm rejection. His father was an alcoholic, and he couldn’t help but put photography on the same level as his father.
At the age of 21, he decided to begin a process of healing his relationship with his father, and photography was one of the tools that helped him do so. By that time, he was already living in California. He says that photography has taken him to many places and events. Over time, he has understood that its purpose is to help people see themselves. He began doing it with street dwellers. But he could define it more clearly when he was at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota when the indigenous communities of that Reservation managed to stop the construction of an oil pipeline that would cross their lands. He thinks photography is misclassified. He believes it is closer to being therapy than anything else.
Josué is part of this year’s World Press Photo jury and says that photography needs to change its perspective. Above all, he says, it is crucial to harness the healing power of photography to be able to make changes in the world and imagine other possible futures. To move away from the idea of ‘taking’ or ‘snapping’ photos, ‘capturing’ moments or people, to collaborating and collaborating.
Standing Rock was a turning point in your life. What happened there?
At Standing Rock, I still didn’t quite know what I was doing in terms of photographic technique. My intuition guided me. I mean, I wasn’t overthinking how I had to do it. I knew I had to be there, and I had to connect the dots. The native people’s battle in the United States is similar to that of many peoples in Latin America and worldwide. At Standing Rock, I saw the people’s power from different parts of the world when they came together. There were people from Brazil, Australia, and Sami people from Norway.
I realized that what we were documenting would reach many future generations. It didn’t matter much if I had the angle and the light; I felt I had to be there and be guided by my ancestors. Many people began to see the images, and the question was why those images were standing out from the sea of photos taken at that time. I think that happened because I wasn’t ‘taking’ pictures. I was ‘giving.’
What you say is very interesting in Spanish. Usually, to refer to the act of photographing, we use words like tomar (to take), disparar (to shoot), capturar (to capture), and the truth is that they are pretty problematic ways of thinking about photography. What do you think about it?
About visual stories, it’s as if we have an old computer and we have to install another system so that it can operate quickly. We are in that moment, and it will benefit all of us. In English, we use the word subject to refer to the person we are photographing, and it’s like saying that the act of creating an image is something that you are going to force. But it’s the opposite. I believe that when you make an image, you will collaborate.
Older people don’t like this idea so much. It comes from history, a mentality, and a traditional way of using the image. An example would be this sending a man to Africa and asking him to take pictures of African children, then he comes back and gets a Pulitzer, and that’s it, everybody won. But the truth is that the people photographed didn’t win anything. Those are the masters and masters of photography, although we all know they are more masters. We need to get out of this patriarchal culture. The good thing is that there are no longer so many people who wonder how we send a man to Africa, but they try to have local people who can do it.
The language is rudimentary. You can go to ‘extract,’ but now you need to think about ‘regenerate,’ ‘collaborate,’ ‘create together.’
You talk about being interested in letting people see each other and telling one’s own stories. How does that work?
Sometimes I imagine photography as an old car in which, when we are making images, we are constantly looking back in the rearview mirror. We need to look 10, 25 years down the road in photography and visual stories. It’s like a TikTok, we are in a moment where we humans are using and making stories, but unfortunately, we depend on the guidance given to us by corporations like Facebook, TikTok, or Google.
As photographers or people who use cameras, we must reform the power dynamics, and we can do that if those of us know how to help others tell their own stories. It’s easy. I can hand you the camera and tell you how to use it.
What is indigenous futurism for you?
In the future, in five or a hundred years, we’re going to be there. We will have descendants who will continue these ways of living on the land. When I speak of an indigenous future, it’s one where the relationship of humans with the earth and with the beings around it is in balance. In photography and visual stories: Why can’t I use the camera to say what the world would look like in 100 years? It’s like Black Panther when they say that the future belongs to us. We indigenous people also say the future is ours.
It is vital, also, when we imagine and have visions of the future that we do it together, that we build it together. It is not the vision of just one group. Imagine when people are in balance and are tuned to a vision that includes everyone. That’s what I try to do, create visual ideas and see what happens. People can identify with the images and bring what they have to feed that idea.
What would the image of the indigenous future Indian look like?
I have an image of my son, Tonatiu, on a trip we took to a volcano here in California. He was five years old, and I asked him what the future was? And he said: the future is when the sun shines bright, so I told him to close his eyes and see that bright sun in his mind. That’s how we create those images. Sometimes I think that the category they put us photographers or those who make visual stories in is wrong. In the end, what we do is a combination of helping people, doing some therapy, and having a connection to something bigger than yourself to guide the image. That’s the future for me. Many people say that as a photographer, you should observe the moment. I think you should be part of it. The images we create today are like seeds that we leave for future generations.
How does Indígena, the platform, work in terms of this futurism?
We want to create an ecosystem to create stories. There will be many ways to collaborate, for example, with individuals, artists, creative directors, and photographers. We also want to connect with the community. We rarely consider grandfathers, grandmothers, children, and people living day to day when we think about creativity.
We want to connect with organizations with similar visions and values to ours, far from extractivism, and create a system that other people can use, modify and adapt. It is an open education because we want to keep exploring, feeding curiosity. All this with stories at the center because they are, ultimately, what will move us into the future.
How can extractivism be avoided?
It is necessary to assume the responsibility that the camera implies as a tool because it can open, but it can also close. Extractivism exists. We must be aware of it and be proactive in changing it. This year I am a jury member for the World Press Photo, and I can say that I am struck by the fact that there are still so many works presented on subjects that do not touch these photographers. In other words, we continue to make images to please other people. We continue to take pictures of the outside. It is fascinating to see how the structures want us to create from the extraction, consciously or unconsciously.
We can’t always give them what they want. We can decide to focus projects on our families or our communities, even if we don’t win the prizes. The most important thing is that we help create communities. When you take the photo back, it’s like leaving a seed. My dad used to do it. My mom disliked me giving away the pictures, but those people were always willing to collaborate with us when we came back or needed something.