Photographer’s image highlights PBS documentary
April 7, 2009 · Updated 12:23 PM
When Bob Charlo snapped the photograph titled “Nespelem” of a lone teepee with the American flag waving against a dramatic cloud formation in the summer of 1992 on the Colville Reservation in central Washington, he knew it was a special moment.
The award-winning photographer’s work has always been popular on the Plateau, but now, it is grabbing national attention as the signature image for the PBS documentary “We Still Remain.”
From PBS’s acclaimed history series, “American Experience,” in association with Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), “We Shall Remain” is a mini-series and multi-media project that establishes Native history as an essential part of American history. Five 90-minute documentaries spanning 300 years tell the story of pivotal moments in U.S. history from the Native American perspective. A companion public radio documentary series, focusing on contemporary Native issues, will be distributed to public radio and Native broadcasters to coincide with the television program. Beginning in the 1600s with the Wampanoag, who used their alliance with the English to strengthen their position in Southern New England, and ending with the bold new leaders of the 1970s, who harnessed the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement to forge a pan-Indian identity, “We Shall Remain” seeks to upend two-dimensional stereotypes of American Indians as ferocious warriors or peaceable lovers of the land.
The Enumclaw Public Library has been chosen as one of the area’s sites to preview the series. Library Director Bob Baer has arranged for Charlo to speak at the 7:30 p.m. free showing Thursday at the library, 1700 First St. For additional information, call 360-825-2938.
To have his photograph splashed across the nation as the signature image for the series has caught Charlo off guard.
“They’re labeling it an iconic image,” said Charlo, of the Kalispel Nation, who holds a fine arts degree from the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M., a bachelor of arts from the University of Washington and a master’s in education from Antioch College. “That’s a pretty heavy word for any artist to have one of his images termed.
“It is something as an artist, as a photographer, let alone as a Native American photographer, is kind of the pinnacle any artist hopes, wants or dreams.”
Charlo, who also teaches photography to tribal and at-risk youth, said it started with a phone call in 2007. In the preliminary stages of the documentary, someone picked up a notecard with the Nespelem photograph on it at the gift shop of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where Charlo, who also owns and operates Buffalo River – Fine Art Photography on the Plateau, had placed some of his work.
The notecard continued to circulate and developed into conversations with Charlo and eventually a contract.
“I’m really pleased with how they’re handling it and what they’ve done with it,” Charlo said.
The most noticeable change is how the image has been sepia-toned and the American flag colored – something Charlo always wanted to do.
“It’s ironic seeing this image presented as I wanted it done,” he said.
A million new eyes will get to view Charlo’s photograph, and a million new emotions will be stirred.
That’s part of the image’s beauty, Charlo said. “How people interpret the piece? What they see? How they feel?
At the April 1 preview in Seattle, a World War II veteran approached Charlo and said the photograph reminds him of the flag-raising photograph of Iwo Jima, where a Pima Indian was among those to raise it.
Another woman said the image spoke to her.
“To me, that’s the highest compliment,” Charlo said.
Charlo has his own interpretation.
He sees the teepee and the teepee poles support the American flag.
“To me it represents that we – Native people – are still here and still vibrant. We are not a conquered people. We are a contributing people.”
Native Americans, he said, take great pride in the country and its flag. One of Charlo’s photography exhibits pays tribute to the American Indian men and women to have fought in foreign wars like World War II veteran and Nez Perce Edler Horace Axtell and the work of the Navajo Code Talkers, Billy Walkabout, who during Vietnam was awarded a number of medals and was wounded six times and those who are currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanishtan.
“The American flag has always been special to us and has always been a part of our celebrations,” Charlo said. “Whether its on parade, it’s always included in our grand entry at pow wows along with the POW flag and our Eagle Feather Staff. Our pride in being American Indians is directly related to our pride in the life and service of our veterans. These are our flags, too.”
The series is set to air later in April. The five episodes are After the Mayflower, Tecumseh’s Vision, Trail of Tears, Geronimo and Wounded Knee.
Chris Eyre, director of the first three episodes of “We Shall Remain,” has been involved with the series from its onset.
“You can’t understand America in the 21st century if you don’t understand the Native experience,” he said. “What connects these five films is the resolve of their characters. This country is founded on people striving, being tenacious and moving forward…this is a look at that, through Native eyes.”
Reach Brenda Sexton at email@example.com or 360-802-8206.