A masked Nisga'a shaman dances in the forest.

Masks, mysteries and mountain passes: through the lens of Gary Fiegehen

Vancouver photographer's work with Nisga'a featured at museums in Victoria, Nass Valley

By Alex Rose

Photographers sometimes say that if they could write they would not take pictures. The same goes for certain writers: if they could take pictures, they wouldn’t write poems or stories.

Others, like Gary Fiegehen have little time for such philosophical meanderings. He is too busy telling powerful stories with his Nikon. And, for the past 25 years, the Vancouver-based photographer has travelled nearly every river and mountain pass in Western Canada, documenting the geography and the people who live there. Especially, but not exclusively, the aboriginal peoples.

Fiegehen’s documentary realism balances art and humanity and is rightly described as exotic, mysterious and irresistible.

His work appears to be under appreciated by the photo artiste crowd, with their art school jargon, post-Marxist commentary and roots in photo conceptualism.  Works by the likes of Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas have made Vancouver a hot spot for contemporary visual arts with some of these light-box installations selling for millions in New York, Berlin and Los Angeles.

In contrast, Fiegehen’s work, self described as “commercial and blue-collar” has been hard-won, without the big money. As a young man he moved to the margins of society and stayed there. With an outsider’s sense of dislocation – of being at odds with society – Fiegehen is most comfortable when he’s in the role of observer.  It is this rare inner “stillness” – sense of being on the outside looking in – that allows him to see the beauty where others might not.

It seems he is always getting ready to leave the city, to pack up his camera kit, for another journey “in country” for weeks at a time, taking photographs in every corner of this province: the mountain pass, the mint-green estuary, the braided valley, the lava fields with their spooky, unreal luminescence. At peace in this ragged landscape, he takes pictures of the people who call it home.

People like the Nisga’a of northwestern British Columbia. His thousands of photos of them, taken over the decades, represent a definitive documentary of a people who, refusing to assimilate, fought a controversial 23-year battle to successfully bring home a treaty – against the longest of odds.

He made friends with the likes of Rod Robinson and Nelson Leeson, both brilliant communicators who helped tell the Nisga’a story to a skeptical Canadian public. Fiegehen took portraits of both and documented the people and places of the Nass River in a dazzling hardcover book. Along the way, he learned a new perspective beyond a Nikon lens:  He framed the Nisga’a quest as one of basic human rights. He grew to understand what was at stake was a real community with a real history of suffering, struggle and persistence.

Fiegehen’s photographs of Nisga’a art are featured in a permanent exhibit at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria as well as the new Nisga’a Museum and Cultural Centre in the Nass Valley, a 90-minute drive north of Terrace.

The images evoke a time long before Christianity, when, according to legend, the world was inhabited with spirits, some benevolent, some bent on unspeakable evil. Others were tricksters, sexual opportunists, gender benders and troublemakers supreme.

Little wonder that Northwest Coast aboriginal peoples danced through long winter nights wearing masks carved of red cedar and adorned with ivory, mountain goat bone, or animal teeth.

The dancers knelt or stood, their feet quite still, their upper bodies twisting, arms arcing in the air. They were celebrating salmon and oolichan runs while expressing hope for the future. As they danced, they morphed into the creatures depicted on their masks: ravens screeching, wolves baying at the moon and wind wailing.

Of all Nisga’a creations, masks offered the greatest sculptural variety and were worn at feasts, initiation ceremonies and at curing rituals.

Fiegehen’s photographs capture the spirit of dynamism that pervades so much of this art, from the shaman’s smallest charm, spoon and miniature mask to the largest totem pole.

The unifying symbol of the box as container of souls and wealth provides a surface on which Nisga’a artists create complex and subtle designs. It is also a visual record, telling the stories of powerful families and clans.

According to legend, spirits were thought to have held sway over the world before the advent of human beings. The most powerful were the spirits of the sky, mountains and glaciers and of such animals as the bear. These spirits were later called upon to lend assistance to shamans who relied upon their alliances with the spirit world to foresee the future, heal the sick, exorcise evil spirits, bring success in fishing and hunting and control the weather.

A shaman might fast and spend long days in solitary vigil until a spirit finally revealed itself, sometimes when the shaman was in a trance. Because they were said to be in close contact with the supernatural world, shamans were sometimes feared by others; they often lived alone in the forest, away from the villages they served. The charms and medicinal tools used by shamans formed an important category of aboriginal art.

The Nisga’a had been essentially animist in their beliefs; every living thing and natural element had a soul and a purpose and deserved respect. Some of the images in their traditional art acknowledged the power of the natural world of which the Nisga’a were only a part and represented their understanding of the world.

Fiegehen’s photographs are a guide and a treasure. They help us understand another culture – and better understand ourselves.

Alex Rose has written several books on aboriginal issues. His upcoming book,The New Power Brokers: Negotiating the High-Stakes Future of Aboriginal Lands and Resources, will be published this fall.

For more of Gary Fiegehen’s photos, see the Wallachin Press blog.