The winner of this year’s Webby for best use of photography, “God’s Lake Narrows,” is a multimedia project that takes viewers inside a Canadian Indian reservation and tells director Kevin Lee Burton’s personal story of growing up there.
Burton left Gods Lake when he was 15 because the reservation’s school only goes through the 9th grade. But Burton says he was secretly happy to get away because people on the reservation often bullied him for being queer and half white. “It was complicated and it was shitty,” he says about life in Gods Lake. “I had to walk away and reassess my judgment, my self hate, my perspective.”
Moving beyond any bitterness, Burton demonstrates an affection for the town and allows outsiders to understand the community in a deep and nuanced way.
“People can argue until they are blue in the face about stereotypes, but I generally find that very tired,” he says. “I like to make my political points very subtly and to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions.”
Much like in the United States, he says, native peoples in Canada have long been viewed as either the logos we see on baseball hats or drunks on the local news.
“People don’t see us as very complicated,” says Burton, 32, who is now based in Winnipeg. “Instead they see us as clichés.”
Many photo projects about impoverished communities can fall flat because they are told from a distance. Burton’s personal approach does away with journalistic neutrality, and instead gains an intimacy necessary for doing the story justice.
In an attempt to make the experience personal for audiences as well, the piece opens by tracking the viewer’s geographic location and calculating the distance from Gods Lake Narrows — which for most people is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away.
“All things considered I’m going to bet you’ve never visited,” Burton writes in the opening text piece.
In picture after picture, rundown homes generate assumptions in the viewer about the people who live there. Those assumptions are bent as the photos move inside the homes, face-to-face with the residents — many of whom are members of Burton’s family.
Feeding off what Burton acknowledges is probably a voyeuristic curiosity, the photos confirm some prejudices and refute others. There are holes in walls and mismatched wallpapers, but also flatscreens and laptops. No matter what impression the viewer comes away with, it’s more nuanced than the one he or she started with .
“I’m not trying to badger people who are non-native,” he says. “It’s more like ‘come in for tea and get to know us.’ To me it feels a little bit grandmotherly in terms of its tone.”
Burton hired photographer Scott Benesiinaabanda to shoot the photos back in 2010. Burton didn’t want to take the photos himself because he felt like hiding his face behind the camera would have created a barrier between him and the family and community members he would’ve been photographing.
The photos were originally displayed that year as a part of a gallery exhibit in Winnipeg. At the show, the photos were hung in a circle, and from the outside viewers could only see the exteriors of the houses. To see the interior photos, viewers had to enter the circle.
Alicia Smith, a producer with the National Film Board of Canada — a nationally funded organization that helps artists and filmmakers with their projects — saw that exhibit and says she was immediately taken by the experience of passing from outside in.
“It’s hard for me to admit, but it challenged my own assumptions about reserve life,” she says. “And to experience those interiors was really moving.”
Afterwards, Smith spoke with Burton about turning the project into a multimedia piece. They spoke about their own differences in understanding and ended up using the conversation as a kind of guide for how to shuttle an audience through a similar experience online.
“It wasn’t an easy dialogue,” Smith says. “You feel like you’re walking on eggshells when you deal with that subject in general. But Kevin is really inclusive and our conversation just worked.”
Burton says he feels like the dialogue was key to the piece’s success.
“I feel very close to her now because we were able to come from two different worlds and ask each other questions and create something out of it,” he says.
Supported by the Film Board, Burton, Smith and a team of people including Benesiinaabanda and a sound person spent months recording and producing the piece, which was originally released in 2011.
For Burton, the project was a homecoming of sorts. After more than 15 years, he says, it was time to come back. His family knew that he had become a film director, but didn’t know exactly what he did. By choosing Gods Lake Narrows for this project, Burton says he was able to bring his new life back home and share it in a way that made sense. His family and community were able to see how he works, creating a much needed bridge.
“I wanted to reverse the flow and also show them my world,” he says. “And I wanted my family back and my community back.”