Me and my research

Heidi Laughton, Issue 115/10, p63, 01.10.2015
Heidi Laughton on capturing the spirit of Native American communities in photographs
While working in Los Angeles two years ago, I began a series of photographic portraits to capture Native American communities.

I attended some local gatherings and immersed myself in their culture. The first person I got to know was Danny, who took me under his wing and told me his story. Originally adopted by a Mexican family, he was recognised as potentially being Navajo by a shopkeeper on a reservation.

Danny subsequently had a DNA test that revealed he was a mix of Navajo and Apache.
Since then, he has followed the Native American spiritual path, learning from elders along the way. I photographed him with his traditional sage bowl, the smoke taking his prayers up to the creator.

Around the same time, I met Alan Salazar – Chumash and Tatavian – who talked to me about the history of his people, who used to live peacefully in areas now known as Santa Barbara and Malibu, trading off-coast in wooden canoes.

I drove across Arizona and New Mexico photographing Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Acoma, Apache, Comanche and Paiute peoples, and attended their ceremonies. A huge inspiration on my journey was photographer Edward Curtis and his photos from the turn of the 20th century.

Some native people are unhappy that Curtis occasionally manipulated his images by asking sitters to wear certain clothing or altering their surroundings, such as swapping a radio transmitter for a basket. But considering how hard it must have been to travel and shoot on glass photographic plates, I’m a huge fan.

My portraits can be seen in the exhibition, Spirit Hawk Eye: A Celebration of American Native Culture, at Bath’s American Museum in Britain until 1 November.

I was delighted the museum was able to bring together three people – Alan (Chumash), Sarita (Iowa) and Nocona (Comanche) – to talk about their cultures, visit schools and participate in practical workshops.

Heidi Laughton is a photographer based in the west of England