Art has always been a catalyst for social change. It’s one thing to bring awareness to a cause, or appeal for a change to the word of law. It’s quite another to use an artistic medium to dismantle harmful, pervasive stereotypes. In KC Adams’ Perception: A Photo Series, she asks her audience to question their own prejudices with a simple, but revolutionary, request – look, then look again, at Indigenous faces.
“Adams’ photo-based series Perception challenges racist stereotypes and remedies the aftershocks of colonization and its continuous and present hold on contemporary Canadian society,” writes Cathy Matthes in “The Perception Series: KC Adams, and the Value of Socially Engaged Art”, a critical essay included in the book.
In 2014, Adams came upon a viral Facebook post that had surfaced during the Winnipeg mayoral election. The racist post had been written by the wife of a mayoral candidate in 2010, but Adams knew the stereotype-laden tirade was no relic of the past. This was the inspiration behind the earliest shots in the series, which Adams debuted that August. Sadly, the series debut was shrouded in tragedy.
“I posted the images on August 18 at 12:01 a.m. because I was so excited to get this artwork out to the public,” Adams writes in the book’s preface. “Sadly, I found out later that day that the Winnipeg police had pulled two bodies out of the river the day before.”
One of the bodies belonged to Faron Hall, an Anishinaabe man who had saved two people from drowning in the same river that carried him away as he washed himself. The other belonged to Tina Fontaine, the murdered 15-year-old girl from Sagkeeng First Nation who went on to become the emblematic face of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. It was a dark time for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Winnipeg, but the right time for Adams’s images to enter the public conversation.
“One strength of this work is that it doesn’t point fingers at people—it emphasizes the injustice towards the original people of this land,” Adams continues, “The lack of confrontation allows viewers to react and ponder their own prejudices.”
Each subject of the series was photographed as they offered a genuine reaction to familiar, hurtful comments and labels. They were then asked to clear their mind before Adams captured them a second time. In the second set of images, Adams worked with her subjects to represent them as they wished to be seen.
“People from all walks of life volunteered to be photographed, including students, youth workers, singers, philanthropists, award-winning journalists, and community leaders,” Matthes writes.
Among the subjects of Perception was Katherena Vermette, a Métis author, educator, and Governor General Literary Award Winner.
“I forget the exact words she used as she directed me, but it was something about remembering a time I was made to feel worthless, less than…a time when I felt like I didn’t belong or was unwanted,” writes Vermette in the book’s foreword. Vermette was then asked to recall an intimate moment she shared with her husband. “That’s what you see in my pictures—sadness, smallness, and wanting to retreat, and then joy, love, and pure relief. Both are true, and both are only parts of the greater whole.”
As more people participated in the project, Adams was contacted by Winnipeg’s Urban Shaman Gallery to help her adapt her series to reach a wider audience. The images were displayed on posters, billboards, and bus benches from March to June 2015. In 2016, the campaign was replicated in Lethbridge, Alberta. Finally, the collection has found a permanent home in print.
Readers viewing the series for the first time can expect to be confronted by arresting portraits, each accompanied by the subjects’ self-descriptions which Matthes describes as “..revealing, humanizing, and, at times, cheeky and humorous.”
From the moment you see Adams’ own self-portrait on the front of the hardcover, Perception is bound to provoke thought, heartache, and even a few smiles. Above all, however, it should provoke self-reflection. In Matthes’ words; “working in a collaboratively, culturally grounded way, Adams reminds us that it is important that we all ‘look again’ before making up our minds.”
You can order Perception: A Photo Series now.