Photo feature

Are you Indian or are you Indian? A photographer transforms colonial images of Native Americans

Ethnographers tried to exoticise Native Americans. Annu Palakunnathu Matthew highlights this with self-portraits recreating their photographs.

An Indian from India – Red Indian Brown Indian 2001. Original photo courtesy The Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

Christopher Columbus landed in North America in 1492 while searching for a sea route to India. Instead of admitting that they had made a mistake, the colonisers ended up calling the inhabitants of the lands Indians.

That error persisted for several centuries before fading away – and has found new life in a photographic project by Indian American photographer Annu Palakunnathu Matthew.

In An Indian from India, now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, Matthew plays with the two meanings the word “Indian” can have in the United States. She pairs colonial-era photographs of Native Americans with portraits of herself affecting the same pose.

An Indian from India – Types 2007. Original photo courtesy The Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

“In this portfolio, I look at the other ‘Indian’,” she writes in her online portfolio. “I find similarities in how Nineteenth and early Twentieth century photographers of Native Americans looked at what they called the primitive natives, similar to the colonial gaze of the Nineteenth century British photographers working in India.”

Matthew began working on the project in 2001 and finished it in 2007. It still continues to do gallery rounds.

Blurred identity

An Indian from India – Daughters 2001. Original photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

The idea emerged in part because of her accent. Matthew was born in England, moved to India after 10 years, and is now in the United States.

“People can’t place where [my accent] is from,” she wrote in an email to “In the United States, people often ask me ‘What am I?’ and if I say Indian, I often have to clarify that I am an Indian from India and not a Native American.”

Her show plays on this confusion, and also on the perceptions of those not in the majority community.

“If someone is not the ‘norm’ there are naturally assumptions made or a certain curiosity or hesitancy to interact [with them],” she wrote. “With incidents like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing and others, there has been an increased suspicion of those considered the minority.”

Facing the camera

An Indian from India – Dots 2001. Original photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

Once she had thought of the project, she said, she began looking at images from the classic ethnographic volume Tribes of India and at historical images of Native Americans.

“I became more aware of the inherent problem in the power relationship between the photographer and subject,” she wrote. “I decided to turn the camera on myself to negate that power relationship and join hands with the Native Americans to challenge the viewers’ gaze.”

Inspired by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, both of whom questioned the relation between photographers and their subjects, she took control of the camera and decided her own photographs.

Her costumes do not seem entirely authentic to their Indian sources. This choice was a reaction to American photographers in the United States and the British in India, who would both often get their subjects to wear clothes of other communities to heighten their exoticism.

Here is a selection from the gallery:

An Indian from India – Tom & Annu Before 2001. Original photo Courtesy Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

An Indian from India – Tom & Annu After 2001. Original photo Courtesy Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

An Indian from India – Indian with White Man 2007. Original photo courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

An Indian from India – Flags 2003. Museum of Natural History, New York, NY. Photograph from the Wanamaker Expedition, 1913. Photo credit: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew/sepiaEYE.

An Indian from India will be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, until October 18.

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