Heidi Laughton Documents Modern Traditionalists: A Celebration of Contemporary American Native Culture

August 4, 2013

By Barbara Goldman

© Heidi Laughton

Navajo Spiritual Healer.

Los Angeles-based fine art, portrait and documentary photographer Heidi Laughton, has always had a fascination for world cultures and has worked on projects that took her as far as Kenya and China. Recently, Laughton has put her focus on culture and traditions closer to home with her series “Modern Traditionalists: A Celebration of American Native Culture.”

Laughton’s background includes a successful career commissioning and overseeing photo and video shoots for world-renowned recording artists at Sony Music UK and other record companies. She has worked as a professional photographer, shooting and writing for magazines, advertising campaigns and working for non-profits.  Her advertising and editorial clients include such prestigious names as Fortune  (Time Inc.), Enterprise Holdings, Forty Forty Advertising Agency, Cannonball Advertising, American Red Cross, Save The Children (China), Kisumu Medical and Educational Trust (Kenya), Keen Footwear, Israeli consulate, EMI music and Official Playstation Magazine. In 2008, she also curated and produced a three-day juried event of photographers from around the world “Fresh Photo Fair” on behalf of the Lucie Foundation and last year she was a judge at PX3, Paris Photo Prize.  

Laughton’s real forte lies in the way she gains the trust of her subjects and her in-depth research for fully integrated storytelling. While working in Los Angeles, she noticed a less talked-about side of Hollywood that grabbed her attention. Los Angeles has the largest number of Native American communities, more than any other city in the U.S.  Her fascination with world culture and the lack of positive documentation for Native American culture only made her want to learn more and to produce a project that celebrated the culture in an inspirational way. “Coming from the UK, we generally don’t get to see much about Native American Culture. “I realized living in LA was a great opportunity, as so many diverse peoples live in the vicinity,” says Laughton.  

“Modern Traditionalists: A Celebration of Contemporary American Native Culture” celebrates American Indian culture with a series of portraits that reveal aspects of present-day cultural practices and lifestyles, remarkable individual stories and colorful, spiritual and artistic elements of native communities.

Embedding herself within the culture, Laughton was taken under the wing of a few Elders and museum curators, who advised and helped support this project. She photographed a diverse selection of people that create a glimpse into different facets of life and also includes successful and influential people who are inspirational to Native youth.  The images present a mix of modern and traditional regalia, with the traditional regalia not necessarily being a true representation of the wearer’s tribe, but often an amalgamation of different tribal influences as is often the case today.

Navajo members of the Native American Church./© Heidi Laughton

“I was looking to produce a photo story that didn’t focus on the many issues facing Native  Americans today, but instead concentrated on the positive aspects of an extremely varied and beautiful culture.  I wanted to celebrate the culture in a way which was inspiring for Native youth. I’ve always believed that the best way to engage viewers so they can relate, is by focusing on personal stories. It’s these details and anecdotes, even though just a small glimpse into these diverse communities, which make the wider learnings more memorable,” says Laughton

With a project this expansive, Laughton faced many challenges. Once she started shooting, she was virtually a one-person crew, often having to drive long distances, sometimes as much as 5,000 miles to reach reservations. Shooting with medium and large format film camerasno digital was used on the projectalso brought its own obstacles. Laughton had to load and unload film each night and had to be so careful to avoid getting dust into the film holders. Dust storms and wind were a major factor in shooting with lights on location in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as time constraints and motel costs.

Zuni Eagle Dancer./© Heidi Laughton

“Sometimes, I didn’t have the shoots confirmed until about half an hour before the sun went down by the time all the negotiations had been completed and contracts signed with the tribal officers, (for example with the Hopi who are notoriously private peoples),” explains Laughton.  She would then have to set up equipment, shoot before she lost light and find her way off the reservations in complete darkness.

Hopi girl with traditional Hopi “squash blossom” hair./© Heidi Laughton

Not everything went according to plan. She had scheduled a shoot to photograph an Apache skateboard crew in the evening sun at a beautiful freight train depot near the San Carlos reservation, but everyone canceled at the last minute. Laughton did get her shot the next day in bright midday sun in the backyard of the artist and founder of “Apache Skateboards.”

Apache Skateboards Co./© Heidi Laughton

Although people were always enthusiastic to participate, she had to confront work schedules, people having to look after children, and locations were very hard to come by with permits and location fees required when using pro lights.  With the Peyote ceremony, which historically is associated with the tipi, the couple had said the tipi was only brought out with strict protocol for ceremony and therefore it would not be possible to use it for the shoot. About two weeks later, their grandmother – who owned the tipi – surprised her by granting permission. The couple even used their only day off from work to participate and drove over five hours with their three children to the location. Laughton often felt honored by the faith the participants had in her work right from the start, and for allowing her access into many spiritual situations and locations, and she would always follow the protocols with utmost respect. 

Even though the project was ambitious, and budgets were extremely tight (there were huge costs for film, scanning, printing and framing), Laughton had one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.  “I have learned so much and met so many amazing and interesting people that the hard work was worth it. The project has taken me on my own personal journey” she says.  

“Modern Traditionalists: A Celebration of Contemporary American Native Culture” started in California, Arizona and New Mexico and intends to reach further into other U.S states.  Laughton hopes to get a grant to enable her to continue the project into other reservations and to help with the printing and display costs. She also hopes to expand her contacts and continue to gain trust from within Native American communities to create respectful and compelling images and to meet more inspirational people

Currently the project is being produced as a traveling exhibit for galleries and museums. Each framed, museum-quality, archival pigment print is displayed with a text panel alongside (approved by Native elders), explaining educational and anecdotal information relating to the portrait. There is also the option to include public speakers, dancers, crafts and musicians at the events, culminating in a visually compelling and complete cultural experience. A smaller, more mobile exhibition, made from portable canvas pull-ups will also be available in the near future for schools and educational centers. 

Iowa Ladies Traditional dancer and social worker./© Heidi Laughton

Laughton has already received letters of appreciation from people who have viewed her website. Daniel Ramos, Navajo spiritual healer wrote to her, “It is that time in the world. Time must be made for the work you are doing.” Curators such as Jina Brenneman, of The Harwood Museum of Art, University of New Mexico, Wendy Earle, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of the Southwest, James Nottage of the Eiteljorg and Travis Suazo, Executive Director, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center have all expressed their appreciation of the work. 

Laughton will continue her journey with more shoots and exhibitions, and plans a possible book publication in the future. You can see more of Heidi Laughton’s “Modern Traditionalists: A Celebration of American Native Culture” at her site: