Why Dana Gluckstein’s historic book ‘DIGNITY’ is more relevant than ever

Black and white portrait of two people in traditional dress

The Little Beach House Malibu member reflects on 30 years of her historic photographs of Indigenous life

By Landon Peoples   Photographs by Dana Gluckstein

By now, we’re more than acutely aware that activism comes in many forms – from marching to sharing the latest infographic on social media. It should also be universally understood that no act is too big nor too small; what matters is, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg so aptly put it, we do something outside of ourselves that makes life for those less fortunate than ourselves that much better. 

For photographer Dana Gluckstein, whose historic book DIGNITY: In Honor Of The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples showcases Indigenous life in an era of transition, the opportunity to document the stories of others was more a life’s calling than a chance moment of picking up a camera.

For 30 years, Gluckstein travelled across the globe – from the Americas to Africa, Asia, and the Pacific – creating more than 100 black and white duotone portraits. To date, DIGNITY has won three International Photography Awards. It has also played an instrumental role in creating a turning point for the Obama administration to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in association with Amnesty International for its 50th anniversary. The book, recently released in an updated second edition, is a multifaceted project that’s now a travelling museum exhibition; an embodiment of anti-racism, it's a consequential example of the power of images to shift consciousness.

Here, the photographer and Little Beach House Malibu member reflects on DIGNITY’s journey, how important it is to document stories no matter how close or far we are from one another, and the life lessons she’s learnt along the way.

Black and white portrait person in traditional dress
Black and white portrait person in traditional dress

How has DIGNITY evolved over the years?

‘When I started working on this in my early twenties, really as a calling of a young artist, I never imagined that it would become a book connected to the United Nations, that I’d speak at Davos (World Economic Forum), or that it would become an internationally known, touring exhibition. For all of us, we probably never would have started any of this if we knew how daunting it would be. 

‘We were careful in the early years when we pitched to museums to not put the politics up front. We very much focused on the art, and the campaign is powerful because of the art… and the beauty of these faces, the cultures they represent, and the dignity that they hold. But we wanted to be cautious, because many of the museums were still mainstream and not wanting to rock a lot of boats. 

‘Now what’s interesting, as the pandemic (god willing) is lifting in the United States and museums are taking bookings again, is that politics – the BIPOC movement – is very much at the forefront of the curators’ and directors’ thinking. Many of them are wanting to move the needle forward and figure out how they can impact the minds of thousands of people that come through their doors.

‘It’s been part of my message from the very beginning. Times are changing, but a beautiful quote from one of my early meditation teachers Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist Monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King in the 1960s, said that artists are the seeds of change in society – that sometimes our kernels come before the mainstream seeds of consciousness. So I think the DIGNITY work, which came from a very deep, inner core of a young artist, became a seedling of change – and always in conjunction with so many other people who have been on this journey. We can’t do it alone as artists, we need to be united.’
Black and white portrait person in traditional dress

'If you wanted to distill me and my work down, it’s about love... I want people to fall in love with the essence of these images and to feel the connection, to feel the planet – even if they can never go to any of these places. It’s about our oneness'

Black and white portrait person in traditional dress
Black and white portrait person in traditional dress

When did you realise that what you were doing, taking photographs and telling stories, was a form of activism?

‘There are so many angels along the way, which we all have and that I recognise in my own life, who kind of pointed me in the right direction and said, “You’re doing something that’s very meaningful and will be very meaningful. Don’t give up.” Because it can be very lonely working as an artist. My work didn’t fit into a particular box. I wasn’t a National Geographic photographer. I wasn’t only a fine-art photographer. I wasn’t really a documentary or anthropological photographer. I worked in advertising and design work, and I was doing these sidebar journeys to Indigenous places. 

‘In the 1990s, one of the most renowned photographic curators, Robert Sobieszek, began to collect my work for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and really pushed me forward. His curatorial statement said that I was starting to reinvent portraiture with soul. It was a revelation to me as an artist. He was able to put into words what I was creating with my visuals, but didn’t know what the [right] place was. And it was such a tremendous relief, like “Wow, I’m OK. What I’m doing is right.”

‘The next turning point came in 2009 when I was introduced to a wonderful woman who became my book agent. She told me I was ready, as an artist, to create a book and knew the perfect pairing, which would be in association with Amnesty International for its global 50th anniversary. Amnesty had just started a small Indigenous rights division in the US and UK. I didn’t think I was ready, but they greenlit the project, which became the DIGNITY book. I said to them: “If we’re going to put this effort forward, I really want it to make a difference. I want it to become a gorgeous coffee table book that people can collect or that can be included in museums. But I really want it to make a difference, strategically and politically.” 

‘I’d heard that our country had vetoed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, during the Bush years, and I was pretty angry when I heard that. [President] Obama had just been elected and I knew he really cared about the rights of Indigenous peoples, so I said, “Let’s go for it. Let’s try to create a tipping point for Obama to adopt the UN Declaration” – and we did. The book came out, it garnered a lot of press and interviews, and all of the reporters were so respectful; they really wanted to know what people could do. Eventually, Obama invited all of the tribal leaders to the White House in December 2010 and did it.

‘I felt so proud of the team and the work we did; all of the tribal elders whose shoulders we stood upon who came before us, all of the people who did the work for the historic declaration. And I always want to honour the beautiful people who were portrayed over so many decades and became the book and the touring exhibition. It was an extraordinary coming together of so many people. Not only was I called upon in this lifetime to do the visual part, but I also got to write, do interviews, and speak to international audiences. I’m so happy we’re getting bookings again now that museums are opening back up – especially in red states.’

Portrait of Nelson Mandela and Muhammed Ali in playful staged fight pose
Portrait of woman holding camera with two children either side

In the past, you’ve mentioned your awareness that you’re a white woman photographing Indigenous life. How do you think that holds as creative industries call for BIPOC people to be the ones to tell their own stories?

‘It’s such a critical question, and one that I’m discussing every day with the people I work with. We’re all working together and have to pull each other up. It can’t be done single-handedly. One race can’t do it and certainly hasn’t done it. White people have done a tremendous share of destruction. We walk humbly, but that doesn’t mean that as a white woman I can’t feel. And I’ve been feeling this for my whole life, feeling a sense of what injustice is… we must bear witness to the suffering on the planet. That’s where I feel like I connect.

‘I’d like to share a Jewish quote from the Talmud that says: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As an artist, I think I have a tremendous responsibility to do my piece of the puzzle. I’m not in control of any of it. I don’t know the total puzzle. But I can follow the piece of it that feels close to my heart and invite people to share in that journey. That’s my responsibility now: to share that in this BIPOC world. And that journey has been shared all along.’

What’s the underlying message of DIGNITY?

‘Really, if you wanted to distill me and my work down, it’s about love. If you just had to use one word, it’s love. I want people to fall in love with the essence of these images and to feel the connection, to feel the planet – even if they can never go to any of these places. It’s about our oneness.

‘It’s an urgent time. The clock of our planet feels like it’s ticking. We need to come together and find those points of union and answers. We must bear witness to real history and what’s happened in the past. We must educate ourselves. And then we need to find the healing solutions moving forward.’

You’ve spent decades travelling across the world. What’s your biggest takeaway from your trips?

‘What an amazing place this world is. How beautiful it is. What power there is in being human, and how important it is that we survive.’

You’ve referred to your work as your calling. What’s your advice to others who are searching for theirs or greater meaning in life?

‘Follow the still, quiet voice inside that’s always there and dying to express itself. Don’t squash it. What makes it so complicated for all of us is that we don’t always know that voice is true; we doubt it. We all have this negative voice that shuts things down. We need to foster it like a small child and give it a chance to breathe, even though we don’t really know what it’s going to mean.

‘Truly, there were so many times in my journey as an artist that I felt scared, that I got rejections, that I didn’t know if I was on the right path… And there are times even now when I feel that way about the next things I’m working on. But, at a certain point in time, I think as we get older we start to trust that voice and make room for it. Although there are a lot of other things in life going on – raising families, helping loved ones who are very ill, trying to get through the pandemic, fighting for social justice – we need to make time in between all the push and pull for the one thing that calls us.’

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