Arts & Culture

Dana Gluckstein photographs the soul with international impact

Artist photographs indigenous people, curates exhibition of work spanning nearly three decades

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Friday, September 11, 2015

Dana Gluckstein is a photographer, author, Stanford graduate and mother. She has photographed a handful of notable world leaders including Muhammad Ali, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela. She has also worked with Apple and Toyota on advertising campaigns.

In November 2010, she published “DIGNITY: In Honor of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” a book containing over 90 black-and-white portraits compiled from three decades of work. In 2011, the portraits in her book became an international exhibition. Beginning Sept. 10, this exhibition, “DIGNITY: Tribes in Translation,” is on display at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Gluckstein sat down with The Herald to discuss her passion for photography and the campaigns she leads in association with her exhibitions in an attempt to make change for indigenous peoples.

You mention in a short documentary film on your exhibit that through photography, you hope to find someone’s soul. Can you talk a little more about what you mean?

That’s a good question. My background at Stanford, and also high school, was in psychology. In fact, I thought I was going to be a psychologist and go on to grad school. But the fine arts in me kind of went out, and I decided my senior year at Stanford to become a photographer.

But my instinctual character is to go deeply with people. I’ve always wanted to work with people. It was very clear, as I transitioned to a photographer, that I wanted to portrait people rather than the environment or products, and I wanted to really connect with people.

So the Hasselblad camera that I still use with real film is a deep way to connect because it’s a large camera, it’s heavy, you can’t hide it in the distance, you have to really be there with your subject, and the interaction can be rich. The photography is a gateway into the soul because we connect with the eyes, and the eyes are always in expression of the heart and our humanity.

The exchange in a beautiful portrait session, it is like a circle, almost like a circle of love. There is a sense of unity with the camera, and in fact I work with the same camera that I acquired when I was 21, and I love her. She’s a part of me.

The title of your exhibit is “DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition.” Can you unpack this title for me?

Let me start with the transition part first. The “Dignity” book, which came first, is a collection of over 100 portraits that were created over 25 years of my life. The exhibition that has been touring Europe and now the United States is 60 portraits that come from that book. Some are actually new and showing at the Brown exhibition.

What I found after decades of travel is that places all over the planet were going through major transitions. I would arrive in some places early on expecting only the traditional, or what was in my imagination. And I would find instead, for example, in Bhutan, a little boy wearing the traditional little outfit called “gho” holding a toy rifle, wearing old Adidas shoes, crouched in a monastery. There would be that strange juxtaposition of the sacred with the modern and the influence of Western culture, and I would see that over and over again. And so the content of “Tribes in Transition” became a predominant theme in the work, and I always knew that the book and then the exhibition would be called “Dignity.” It just was very clear that my point of view as an artist was in showing the dignity of serenity, not necessarily the poverty or the tragedy, but to really show our sense of unity, our interconnectedness.

There are no boundaries in the world. And indigenous people have understood this for millennia. They walk very closely to the land, to the resources, to the air we breathe. They understand a sense of interconnectedness, not only to each other, but with nature. And so that weaves back to understanding the “dignity” of our world. Not only of humanity, but of how precious our world is.

How did you decide where to travel to find the indigenous people you photographed?

In the early days, I would be sent on advertising photoshoots. In my early 20s, I was working in advertising as a photographer and I was very fortunate to have some companies send me to different parts of the world to photograph campaigns for them. There I would see, for example, a Silicon Valley computer company, and I would be sent to Puerto Rico to work in a factory and photograph people and what they were doing and I would say, “Wow, here I am, and I have all of my equipment. Maybe I can take a few days off and go to Haiti.” And that’s what I did. And then months later, I was sent to England to photograph members of the British army for another computer ad campaign. The flights were inexpensive, and I went to Nairobi and stayed in Kenya for a few weeks. I was really on fire during this time — driven by my heart. And over time, a body of work started to grow, and I had to stop and think about why I was so drawn to photographing indigenous people. That was toward my mid-to-late 20s, and I felt that my life mission was to be somebody who could steward the messages and voices of the elders, or what I call the “ancient ones.” It was then that I really started selecting the places I wanted to go, the ones that I felt still had people living in their traditional ways, but places that you could also see were in transition.

Why black-and-white portraits?

That goes back to your very first question on soul. As a student at Stanford, I fell in love with black and white. That was in the era when we didn’t have digital. I felt that it was very soulful, that it took me and the viewer to a place that color didn’t, largely because I worked in advertising and in our world, we are so bombarded by images in color. Color is everywhere. And black and white is transformative because we have to use our imagination. For me, it is the color of choice.

Did you begin this project with intent three decades ago, or did you work on other projects in the interim?

Never could I have imagined that this work would become decades later an internationally known book and exhibition, that I would go to the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. I think that is my message to Brown students. You must set off on your course because you feel passionate about it. And you cannot always anticipate where it is going to take you because if you do, you would never set off on that course because it would feel too daunting.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

  • so bored

    Why is Gluckstein making this exhibit? What is she up to? What is her intentions? Is this to benefit herself?? how??
    She likely studied psychology because that is how she intereacts with people. She doesn’t talk to them, but analyzes them and looks at their reactions. This is similar to how Hannibal interacts with people. She thinks by saying something, it will generate a certain reaction from her target.
    Meanwhile, she has a job photographing different people and placing them on exhibit as if they are something to be examined and placed in a museum. Sounds pretty arrogant.