Usually when one hears the news of a community in the 21st century living in rough conditions, it’s far outside of one of the wealthy nations. Yet for, this story on youth suicide, I embarked on a project for Pacific Standard that took me to… the United States. Alaska, to be more precise, where Native Alaskan youth suffer from a rate of suicide 18 times what it is in the lower 48 states.
With indigenous communities, it’s been common practice for outside journalists to parachute in, find a story, and then depart a few days later. Yet for indigenous communities, the understanding of stories and who they belong to is completely different. Indigenous protocol dictates that stories are collaborative- belonging to the community as much as to the journalist.
In planning a story on indigenous suicide in the Arctic, it was my mission to begin by giving something to the community rather than taking something away from it. So I collaborated with the Bering School District to provide a suicide-prevention art therapy program for the community of Gambell, Alaska. This took place within high school as a voluntary program. In art class we provided a safe space for each youth to construct two paper-mache masks– one for their grief and one for their joys. Afterwards, I made environmental portraits of the students with their masks in the places they took me where they felt those emotions.
As indigenous people we want more than portrayal as victims. In Alaska, grief was not the overriding emotion I observed—it was the vitality of youth. Thus this project’s presentation is diptych portraiture—one portrait showing a young person with their grief mask, next to one with their joy mask. It is my hope that together they are moving and humanizing.