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SPOTLIGHT
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Photo diplomacy: Images and handshakes

Published on -9/2/2012, 5:18 PM

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I had treated an elderly Cheyenne patriarch for years. A gifted jokester, he often feigned aloofness. At a small powwow, after we ribbed each other, I asked to take his pic. He consented, donning a stern expression. His face could've come from an old tintype of Wild West warriors.

After he died, I sent a print to his daughter, with a note about how much I'd enjoyed knowing the old man. Only a year later did she acknowledge the gesture -- by inviting me to his memorial giveaway at the July 4 Powwow. When the MC summoned me, that photo was front and center.

After I dutifully paused in front of it to reflect on our relationship, his grandson placed on my head a beautiful full warbonnet -- settling it in place with some difficulty, since my head is enormous; "Egghead!" he growled. With the bonnet came the right to wear it, which I occasionally did, in powwow Grand Entries. Tourists in the audience were doubtless grousing "get that white guy out of there -- he's ruining our pictures!"

People really do like pictures of themselves. I started including candid or formal portraits of the recipients themselves in our giveaways. No one ever complained "that's an awful picture!"

Over the years, I compiled a collection that came to the attention of various outside groups, including Indian Health Service recruiters. Some of these pics have been used for nationwide health promotions, or displayed in various government and corporate offices across the country. One hung in the Tribal Court chambers, and another in the tribal president's office. Some have been projected by medical lecturers at national meetings. Vividly colorful, they evoke an ancient past transplanted into the present day.

When she left, one of my medical students took several prints of my signature tipi image, which became the official logo of the Billings Area Office. Some months later, she and a small group of luminaries from an east coast medical group met with some Russian counterparts on a mountain top in Maine, where the sun's rays first shine on American soil each day. She burned a braid of sweetgrass as a blessing, and gave them those tipi prints to commemorate the occasion.

For several years, Belva taught evening prenatal preparation classes at the clinic. As an attendance incentive, I offered participating families a free photo setting after the baby was born. They got one 8X10 print free, and any others for the actual cost of printing them - a pretty good deal for both of us, since I accumulated a nice selection of "Cheyenne Madonna" pics.

We held these sessions in our big old dining room, where large southern-exposure windows provided a wonderful natural lighting. I set up a dilapidated projection screen I'd recovered from BIA's trash; the screen itself had come loose from the support tripod, and had to be taped in place each time. One of Dad's tanned deerskins, or a patterned blanket, could be draped over the screen as a background.

The subjects sat with the window on their left, and a jury-rigged mylar space blanket on their right, reflecting light back toward the windows. This eliminated harsh shadows, without the additional starkness of a flash. (Also, my flash didn't work!) The lighting was soft, but adequate for my barebones camera.

Pure chance enhanced one shot. I asked the mother to tilt her head back a little, and when she did so, a ray of bright sunlight shone in her eyes, and she blinked. At the same time, a shadow from one of the windowsills fell across her nose and cheeks, resembling an intentionally painted stripe. Her little son turned his head to stare curiously at the camera. The shutter snapped right then, and I figured it for a botched attempt.

The actual image, however, conveyed a sense of innocent, pure maternal bliss, face uplifted, eyes closed, with the shadow's "face paint" conjuring her people's traditions and history. It later showed up as the cover for the Dull Knife College promotional brochure, and even decorated the wall in her (now grown) warrior son's barracks in Iraq.

Since I didn't want to be accused of exploiting my subjects, I never accepted money for the use of my pictures.

When a lady from the college asked to borrow some pics for a Chicago publisher doing a kids' book on the Cheyennes, we submitted a few.

Next thing I knew, the book was in print, one of my pics as the cover, and five more inside. They never told me they had accepted my offerings, and I didn't have any releases from identifiable subjects.

No one objected, though one young lady -- my "niece" in the Indian way, since her mother, Mae Whistling Elk, is my sister -- gave me a mock dirty look several years later after she discovered she was in the book. It was a nice picture, and she wasn't really mad. I explained what happened, and apologized for not having obtained her permission to proceed.

The publisher sent me $200 for the cover shot, and another $500 for the pictures inside. The credits simply listed me as "Dr. Hauxwell." I donated the money to the college library.

The book, "The Cheyennes," was sold at national park gift shops across the country, including Custer Battlefield and the Tetons. It's only in paperback now, soon to be out of print.

Aren't we all?

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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