> Signs of Your Identity

Daniella Zalcman / Signs of Your Identity

December 2017
Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi

The practice of forced cultural assimilation of indigenous people has taken place in many countries of the world and countless families live with its profound impact and haunting memories today. Daniella Zalcman has been working recently with Native American subjects in gathering their visual histories relating to Canada’s Indian Residential School system, in her compelling project ‘Signs of Your Identity’ which has been published and exhibited internationally, including Photofusion’s ‘Select’ exhibition in Autumn 2017 in London.  Below, Zalcman discusses the background and inspiration for this project with Christiane Monarchi.


CM: In ‘Signs of Your Identity’, we are seeing black and white images including portraits of Native American boarding school survivors, whose harrowing personal stories tell of unspeakable institutional treatment of children and families which continued right up until 1996. Could I ask how you first became interested in these family histories, and how you got access to the subjects you photographed?

DZ: I originally learned about Canada’s Indian Residential School system while working on a project about elevated HIV rates among First Nations Canadians. I’d read a statistic at an AIDS conference in Melbourne about how Indigenous Canadians had one of the fastest growing rates of HIV of any demographic and found that shocking — but once I started interviewing people in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, I quickly realized that almost everyone I met was referencing their time in boarding school. It became very clear that the public health story was one symptom of a much larger legacy of coercive assimilation and cultural genocide.

My initial connections to most First Nations families were made through non-profits (usually health-related, since that’s what I was initially looking to investigate), and then once I’d spent time with a few families they’d frequently introduce me to friends, relatives, and neighbors.

CM: In the course of your research and interviews, how did you decide on the particular compositional elements for the portraits you have created? I’m intrigued by the appearance of double exposure and layering of portraits with landscape details, and what meaning these might hold.

DZ: All of the secondary images in the multiple exposures directly relate to that person’s experience or memories of Residential School. Sometimes they’re very literal — like with Valerie Ewenin, where that second photo is a broken window in the school building where she was a student. Sometimes they’re suggestive of the physical traces of the schools, other times they’re connected to an anecdote or a particularly powerful memory. But they’re all visceral, personal connections to each individual’s story.

CM: It’s an interesting proposition, trying to photograph people’s memories, which you’ve done very evocatively here in this series.  This is also filled out in the powerful stories you’ve distilled alongside the portraits. It must have been difficult for some of your subjects to share their stories, how did you navigate this emotional terrain?

DZ: It was difficult, for sure. I’m always careful to tell people I interview for this project — you can share as much or as little as you’d like with me. I’m not a trained therapist, I’m not a social worker, I’m not necessarily the right person for people to be listening to disclosures of severe sexual assault and trauma. But I am here to listen, and for some people storytelling is a form of healing. Most residential school survivors I interviewed spoke to me for hours. But there were definitely a few (men, primarily) who were willing to participate and be photographed, but barely wanted to speak at all about their experiences. I think that’s telling to, in its own way. 

CM: Could you tell me about the process that enabled ‘Signs of Your Identity’ to be published in book form? I’m interested in your goal that this publication becomes a teaching tool for young people, which one doesn’t often find from photobook makers.  How did this influence the physical manifestation of your book and its planned distribution?

DZ: I’d never meant to make a photo book (I was planning on something a little more mass market, or even online teaching tools) — but was lucky enough to win the FotoEvidence Book Award and the whole process came together very quickly. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting — who funded the Canadian chapter of this project and segments of the work in America and Australia as well — agreed to purchase several hundred copies to distribute to high schools in Canada and the U.S. and it’s been really great to take the work and the history into classrooms. I don’t know that I explicitly designed the book for classrooms — but I definitely wanted it to be accessible, relatable, and for the text to entirely come from the voices of the people I’d interviewed.

CM: Could you tell us what you are working on at the moment, and do you have plans for future publications?

DZ: I’m still working on ‘Signs of Your Identity’ — this year I spent a couple months in Australia, and next year I’ll spend most of the year on the road in the U.S. I plan to cover the parallel systems of coercive assimilation education that existed for Indigenous children in New Zealand, Norway, Greenland, Taiwan, Peru… there are so many countries where nearly identical schools existed. I think this project could take me another ten years to complete. And I hope to eventually make a small book for each country I work in, to be used as a localized teaching tool, and to create one massive book at the end that incorporates the historical photos, archival material, and family images that I’ve also been collecting along the way.



Daniella Zalcman is a documentary photographer based between London and New York. She is a multiple grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation, and the founder of Women Photograph, an initiative working to elevate the voices of female and non-binary visual journalists.

Her work tends to focus 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. Her ongoing project, Signs of Your Identity, is the recipient of the 2017 Arnold Newman Prize, a 2017 Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award, the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award, the 2016Magnum Foundation’s Inge Morath Award, and part of Open Society Foundation’s Moving Walls 24.

Daniella regularly lectures at high schools and universities, and is available for assignments and speaking engagements internationally. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture in 2009.

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