In her eyes I see the foremothers that preceded us. Her weathered face is framed by raven black hair. Her back is straight. She has an expression of seriousness and strength. Is that a fly on her collar? Her eyes pierce through the camera, as if she sees through time, knowing everything about us. Yet we know nothing of her, except for the measurements that the men from the State Institute for Racial Biology took of her physical features. Her name isn’t stated in the photograph, nor the exact place in which she was photographed. It is simply noted that it was either in the town of Dorotea or Vilhemina in Northern Sweden. The image was taken in the name of science as one of the means to claim authority over her indigenous life and land. A shame builds up in me when I think about those men who made these documents with such ignorance. Sweden has still not ratified the ILO 169 – Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention – an international treaty for the rights of indigenous people.
But still, I find this image precious. The reason for its existence is slowly being defeated by time. Photography does not live to serve its creator. It has a life of its own, for better or worse. It remains the same through time, whereas human ideas of racism are subject to change. It was wrong to take the photograph, and the Swedish State should apologise with more than just words. However, the photograph itself has already moved on.
In the late 1980s, the Sami artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943–2001) started to collect historical scientific images of his people. For six years he financed his travels to archives in Paris, Seattle, Helsinki and Kirkenes by combining them with concerts and poetry readings. He found almost 400 images and they were compiled into the book Beaivi, Áhčážan (The Sun, My Father) together with illustrations and poems that he composed in the Sami language. It was from the pages of this book that the woman with raven-black hair spoke to me. Not as an anthropological object or ethnographic study, but as a foremother of a culture that must not be forgotten, and whose future should be imagined with urgency.
Maya Økland works as an artist based in Oslo.
In our very first issues, we invited different people to write about an image they found memorable, under the headline ’Sinnbilde’, a column inspired by FOAM Magazine. Now, in Objektiv’s 10th year, as the ocean of images continues to swell, we’re reigniting this column online.