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Pulitzer Center photojournalist chronicles legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools

During a Nov. 1 lecture in Turner Theatre, award-winning photographer Daniella Zalcman, whose work is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, explained her path to long-form journalism and her ongoing coverage of marginalized communities across the globe.

Daniella Zalcman didn’t set out to investigate the legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools when she arrived in the country on assignment in 2014, but it’s the story the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee uncovered – and she felt compelled to chronicle it.

Daniella Zalcman, an award-winning photojournalist based in London and New York, spoke to an audience in Turner Theatre on Nov. 1. She discussed both her career path and her extensive reporting on Canada's Indian residential school system, a discontinued network of boarding institutions for Indigenous peoples.

As she spent weeks driving through British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario exploring the region’s uncharacteristically high rate of HIV cases, the photojournalist realized there was a larger, more complex, narrative. The majority of her interview subjects – HIV-positive First Nations Canadians – cast light on the impact of the country’s Indian residential school system, a discontinued network of boarding institutions for Indigenous peoples that forced cultural assimilation.

The residential schools, in operation until 1996 in Canada, had disastrous effects, leading to the deaths of thousands of children, depriving individuals of their own cultural identities, and adversely impacting future generations, leading to rampant drug use, alcoholism and mental health issues.

This topic and Zalcman’s subsequent reporting were the foundation of her Nov. 1 lecture in Turner Theatre, part of a two-day visit to Elon, one of the Pulitzer Center's more than 30 Campus Consortium partners. Kayla Sharpe, Campus Consortium coordinator, joined Zalcman for the visit that also included meeting with five communications classes and attending informal sessions with students and faculty over meals.

As she reported on the rise of HIV cases among First Nations Canadians, Zalcman said she discovered the profound repercussions of the country’s Indian residential school system.

Zalcman discussed a need to adjust the narrative highlighting Indigenous people, and noted the heroic stand of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access pipeline as an example.

This was the story Zalcman was compelled to tell and, after a month of reporting the public health angle, she returned stateside and to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, where she pleaded to return to Canada to delve deeper into the impact of residential schools. With the Pulitzer Center’s support, the photojournalist did, launching a series of reporting projects that continues today. Her efforts have been award-winning.

Her initial reporting led to a book, titled “Signs of Your Identity,” that won the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award for documenting social injustice. She has continued investigating similar forced cultural assimilation and residential schools in Australia and the United States, and will expand to other countries over the next 10-12 years, she said.

During her hourlong presentation, Zalcman detailed the lengths she went to report “Signs of Your Identity,” her reporting and photography processes, and the challenges she’s faced along the way, including the emotional and mental stress of covering such a dark subject. At one point during her reporting in Canada, Zalcman embedded herself with a 30-year-old drug addict, living with her and her family to chronicle their lives.

A strong proponent of long-form and in-depth reporting, Zalcman challenged the school’s aspiring journalists to tell worthwhile stories, and to seek out “less conventional” ways to tell important stories.

“The American public needs to be aware of what’s going on outside of the borders of the U.S.,” she said, before later focusing on the U.S.’s own shortcomings at home.

For her "Signs of Your Identity" documentary project, Zalcman created a series of moving double exposure portraits of residential school survivors, many of whom are still fighting to overcome the memories of their residential school experiences. Photo courtesy of Pulitzercenter.org

The Columbia University graduate bookended her lecture with references to misrepresented tales of Thanksgiving, Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas, and the hard truths that surround each narrative.

“Countries are selective on how they tell their own history,” Zalcman said. “(And) we are really bad at telling the stories of all people of color in this country.”

Instead of rehashing half-truths, Zalcman wondered aloud if the U.S. might ever depict Indigenous people as heroic and valiant, like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which gained media attention last year for its battle against the Dakota Access pipeline.

“We have to ask ourselves, what stories do we want to be sharing?” Zalcman told the Elon audience.

The Nov. 1 lecture was sponsored by the School of Communications, the Women’s, Gender, & Sexualities Studies (WGSS) Program, and the Gender & LGBTQIA Center.

Tommy Kopetskie,
11/6/2017 12:20 PM