I was introduced to the Nimiipuu, a Native American people, through a friend and after joining the Tamkaliks Powwow in Wallowa, Oregon, was invited to the Lapwai, Idaho, and Nespelem, Washington, Native American reservations, where I was introduced to the families that lived there. While I was there, I spent extended time with the elders in their sweat lodge – one of the tribe’s most traditional and spiritual activities – gaining their trust and learning their ways.
For four years I lived with the Nez Perce Tribe. I was shown a new way to walk and breathe. An ancient wisdom lived through spirit, a journey given to me. Between 2004 and 2008 I was traveling back and forth at different periods of time, shooting, printing and editing the imagery.
Power to the people
I was the first photographer to be invited into the tribe’s inner circle since Edward S. Curtis, who photographed them over a hundred years ago in the early 1900s. My book The People is a vital record and unprecedented account of the Nimiipuu people, and is the result of a four-year journey with the tribe, during which time I became their companion as well as chronicler of their daily lives.
On my visits, I would always have my Nikon FM2 film camera along with 50mm and 24mm lenses. I took pictures at the places where my friends of the tribe led me, and the book idea developed naturally as I got to know and understand them more with the time we spent together.
I shot in black and white, which gives the photographs a beautiful and stark quality. In these photos I have seen a world that continues to change; a traditional culture that has met a modern age; a century that has passed and a new world that rises.
The Nikon FM2 is one of my favourite cameras ever made, and travels with me on all my projects. I shoot with it more and more every year. It is able to read the light accurately and people always seem to feel comfortable with this camera. Its construction is very solid as well.
The main challenge for this project was crossing over into trust and friendship. The tribe has every good reason to be guarded to someone new who comes in. A true respect and friendship was formed through time, that will always remain sacred to me. What I enjoyed most was the experience in life and lessons learned from my friends. I felt honoured that they accepted me and shared a part of their life and a sacred, ancient way.
I thank all of the people who have guided me through this journey, and the spirit that lives within this project.
One of the foremost documentary photographers working today, Hunter Barnes has an extraordinary ability to capture aspects of culture and communities ignored by the mainstream and often misrepresented in the modern American narrative. This cloth-bound edition of his book The People (£29.95, Reel Art Press) is dedicated to the people of the Nez Perce tribe.