Geist intern Todd Coyne visited the Chilliwack Museum to talk to Sandra Shields and David Campion about their photo essay “Memory and the Valley,” published in Geist 74.
When collaborating on a set of pieces like “Memory and the Valley,” to what extent are you keeping your partner’s contribution in mind?
DAVID CAMPION: We’re very aware that we don’t want my pictures to prove what’s in Sandra’s text and we don’t want her writing to just provide a context for my photographs.
SANDRA SHIELDS: But there’s always a play back and forth between what David is photographing and what I’m writing about. I think we’re looking for a synergy between the two of them, or that thing where you have one and one and you get three out of it.
CAMPION: Like a double bounce.
SHIELDS: With this body of work, there were a couple of photographs that David shot very early on and we knew we liked where the photos were going, so then it was a matter of giving some thought to what the text should be that would go with them. And then I did quite a bit of writing before we settled on what seemed to be working with the photographs.
But once we decided that we were really trying to get at the story of settlement and colonization, and what it meant for the people who were already settled here, then there was a number of key themes we obviously wanted to touch on. So we went back and forth between picking locations and how they speak to certain themes. It’s interesting because you’ll go to certain places but you just can’t find an image that works, and other times you’ll go somewhere and it’ll be really obvious.
The photography in “Memory and the Valley” is nearly devoid of people, yet there are clear signs of humanity in each frame. Was this an effort to highlight the narrative of history in the story, or was it a purely compositional choice to shoot as if these were landscapes?
CAMPION: I was very conscious that these were going to be landscapes–with the idea that somehow through the landscape you could speak to the history of the people and to the issues involved. So it was a conscious decision not to have anybody in them. In the back of the Fort Langley shot there’s a silhouette of a person moving through, unfortunately, but it’s fine because he’s in the background.
One of the questions you face when you photograph people is whether or not you implicate them in the issues, because this is a societal thing and not an individual’s problem. I felt that through the landscape you could speak louder or more eloquently about what’s going on. And, with Sandra’s text, always looking for that double bounce.
SHIELDS: There’s lots of people in the text. We’ve acquired a sense of this valley as an epic landscape. So part of our intent was to put the focus photographically on the valley, with that sense of drama that the photographs have. That sense that this is an epic landscape and that human dramas have unfolded here. There isn’t a photograph where you can’t see the touch of the human hand.
You mention people in the text, but it’s always as if they’re ghosts—they’re people who lived and died here in the valley long ago. In this you include white settlers like Simon Fraser and James Yale, who already have a lot of history written about them. Why include them in your retelling of the history of the Fraser Valley?
SHIELDS: They were points of reference, I think. I wanted people to get a sense of the time that has passed. But it’s funny, because I was looking for a way of not getting too attached to single characters and yet trying to make the history come to the fore as a story that involved real people.
It’s not only people that are missing in “Memory and the Valley”; you touch on the disappearing salmon, the white pine, the waters drained away. There’s definitely that tone of loss throughout the whole work.
CAMPION: That is why we’re having the exhibit here in the old city hall in Chilliwack, with a wall of the original pioneers looking down on the work. It’s because you struggle with these two narratives. One says: When Canada started, we came to a land that had no people in it and we struggled really hard and made a wonderful life for ourselves and a future for our children. Whereas, for aboriginal people, it’s a story of huge pain and suffering, and a huge loss of people to disease, even before contact. Then residential schools, cultural modification, and so on.
So you’ve got this problem at the base of Canadian society. For society as a whole to move forward, we need to find a way to acknowledge that loss, not just to have it mean something in that on/off, negative/positive sense. As non-Natives, we need to find a way to absorb the realities of our coming here into our national narrative.