A new series by British photographer Kalpesh Lathigra revisits the scene of The Wounded Knee Massacre, showing the modern realities of America's only indigenous people. Sarah Allen reports.
Growing up, photographer Kalpesh Lathigra was always the Indian, never the cowboy.
“As a kid you have such simplistic notions of identity,” he says. “I’m of Indian decent, but in playground games of Cowboys and Indians, no distinction was made between Indians from the subcontinent and Native Americans”, he explains. “What’s more, I always wanted to be the cowboy. I wanted to be the hero; maybe that’s why I’m so romantic about cowboys to this day.” This “slow burn of consciousness” — how childhood experiences embed themselves in our adult lives — is a point of departure for Lathigra’s new series Lost in the Wilderness.
Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book India, Lathigra left a law degree to study photography at the London College of Communication. Having worked for many years as a staff photographer for The Independent, he had an epiphany in October 1999.
“I was driving along the Strand past the Royal Courts of Justice and saw a group of photojournalists outside. I thought: ‘I don’t want to be doing that when I’m 40’.
“I was very drawn to the story and wanted to visit the site”, Lathigra says. “I travelled to Pine Ridge in 2007 and immediately felt something in the air, I knew I had to make a project about this place.”
Shot over a 5 year period, the images make a definitive break from his earlier reportage style. “I used a Mamiya 7II which slowed me down and forced me to think very carefully about what I was trying to say through the images,” he says.
Lathigra was also thinking carefully about colour. Bursts of bright red unite the series enlivening a dusty palette. Shortly after leaving reportage my eyes were opened to the world of colour photography “I remember seeing Alec Soth’s exhibition “Sleeping by the Mississippi ” at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool and thought ‘this is how you should see colour.’”
Moving between portraits, landscape and detail shots, “Lost in the Wilderness” offers an intimate portrayal of a people living on the fringes of society. “In one sense I wanted to show the troubles that these people face – alcoholism, domestic violence, gang culture and poverty. Yet there’s also great hope in the images because the people are still very connected to their history”, he says. The people of Pine Ridge take part in traditional rituals such as sweat lodges, sing songs and powwows. Yet all these activities are notably absent in Lathigra’s work. “I didn’t want to photograph clichés”, he comments, “I wanted the images to be multilayered and work through metaphors.”
Lathigra singles out one particular image as a strong example of this. “It was taken at Fort Robinson, the former US Army fort which played a major role in the Sioux Wars and was where the legendary warrior Crazy Horse was killed. What really spoke to me was a residential house located on the site which was painted in the colours of the American flag. To me it symbolised so clearly the notion of Manifest Destiny – the 19th century Western American belief in a God-given right to expand throughout the continent of America.”
Another image that is particularly important to Lathigra shows the grave of the Lakota tribe member Lost Bird. “In 2010 I visited a graveyard at Pine Ridge but only shot this particular gravestone,” he says. “Lost Bird was one of the few survivors of Wounded Knee. Many years after the massacre a journalist was having recurring dreams of her, she believed that they shared a spiritual connection. Eventually, she found Lost Bird’s grave in California and had the bones exhumed and returned to Wounded Knee.
“Midway through the series I was in The Strand bookshop in New York; without looking for it, a book titled Lost Bird of Wounded Knee jumped out at me. Reading it I learned the significance of the grave and the image took on whole new life. Whether it was serendipity, or something else, it is chance encounters like this which made me feel like I am on the right path.”
Lathigra is currently running a campaign on Kickstarter until May 21 to raise funds for the publication of his photobook. Take a look here.