‘Faces from the Land’ depicts powwow dancers and regalia

by JESSICA DUNN

Painted black lips and a bright yellow jaw sit below a set of dark, piercing eyes. The beautiful array of a feathered headdress, buckskin fringes and a fan of feathers ceases to distract the viewer as the dark eyes pull them directly in. They show a strength and confidence, and they portray a pride in tradition and heritage that is honored at the powwows.

Travis Ike, of the Omaha Tribe, wearing his Native regalia is one of many powwow participants photographed by Ben Marra.

Ben and his wife, Linda Marra, of Seattle, Wash., have followed Native American powwows for 20 years. Their traveling documentary photo exhibit, Faces from the Land, features Ben’s portrait photography and personal statements from each of his subjects.

The Faces from the Land exhibit was at the Main Library in downtown Salt Lake City from Sept. 20 to Nov. 15, 2008. Ann Morris, a librarian there, estimated that about 30 people a day walked through the exhibit, the majority of those being adults.

The Marras attended their first powwow in 1988 when Ben was given an assignment to take a color photograph depicting the theme, “Celebrate Washington State.” Recently returned from photographing people in Nepal, Ben immediately discarded all the played-out Washington icons and came up with the idea of photographing Native Americans from the Northwest.

“At my first powwow, I saw beautiful imagery right here in our country,” Ben said. He wanted to photograph and share it.

After the photo assignment, the Marras continued to attend powwows across the United States and Canada, and the photography grew into a larger project for them.

“We did this on the side for fun, to take off for the weekends, but you keep learning of more powwows and seeing people you know,” Linda said.

The Marras became more dedicated to their photography project when they decided to use the images to strengthen or spark an interest in the Native American community. On their Web site, they write their hopes that the photos can teach people about the importance of tradition and family, and about beliefs associated with powwows, dances and native regalia. 

Due to a lack of education about Native Americans in school, neither of them knew much in the beginning and had no idea what to expect at a powwow.

Linda was surprised at how welcome they were. The Marras made sure to keep their word and treat everyone well so they weren’t seen as “ugly, white people.” Relationships have been very important to their success.

“This whole project has been based on relationships and we’ve been careful to form and nurture those relationships, and honor those promises made,” Linda said.

Their relationships with powwow dancers are also based on cultural respect. For example, if an elder asks individuals to dance, they have to. It is respectful and an honor for the invitation to be given and accepted. Linda and Ben have been asked to dance before and obliged, even though Linda said she is self-conscious and doesn’t dance. It wasn’t a real dance, Ben said. It was more of a two-step while circling around, something that anyone can pick up after a minute.

The Marras used to search for their subjects at the powwows. They would look for someone with a certain presence and a unique way of carrying themselves.

These days, though, powwow dancers seek them out and ask for their photo to be taken. The dancers come between songs and usually only have five or 10 minutes where Ben can create a few photographs.

“We make [the process] fast for them because they are here to be dancing,” Ben said. Sometimes during a shoot, someone will run in and tell the dancer that his song is next. They will run out, regardless of if Ben is done.

Linda meets the dancers before the shoot to take down their name and tribal affiliation. Then Ben tries to make them feel comfortable despite what setting they may be using. Whether it’s a school hallway or a portable trailer, they try to always create privacy so that it is just Ben and the dancer.

The dancer stands in front of the same brown cloth that the Marras have had since the beginning of the project. The lighting is also kept similar. This helps to keep the photos consistent with one another, so that a photo from 10 years go can be placed right alongside a photo from today.

Ben uses a color slide film to get the most vibrant colors. His color portraits are a unique and signature work. Few photographers have such an extensive portfolio of portraits. Ben’s color portraits have a different feel to them, especially when compared to the sepia-toned Native American images made by Edward S. Curtis in the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Morris, the Salt Lake City librarian.

Some of Curtis’ photographs appeared on a television alongside the exhibit. Native Americans have rarely been shown in traditional attire in color. Most of the historical pictures are black and white or sepia, which don’t allow for the full effect of their regalia to be seen.

Ben also photographs the dancing at powwows. He manages to get close up and has a knack for getting great action shots since he is familiar with the music.

“He’s been doing it for so long that he recognizes the dances and knows when they’re up in the air or when the last beat of the song is,” Linda said.

Every dancer who is photographed by Ben receives a copy, which is usually proudly displayed in their homes, Linda said.

The Marras have a book coming out in April 2009 called “Faces from the Land: 20 Years of Powwow Tradition.” The book will feature 150 of the best color portraits over their 20 years of following the powwows. A personal narrative will accompany each of the photos.