Photographer from Northwest nominated to be Toronto’s new photo laureate

A photographer who grew up in Northwestern Ontario is slated to become the next photo laureate for the City of Toronto.

Nadya Kwandibens, a member of Animakee Wa Zhing #37 First Nation located south of Kenora, was nominated last week to be the third person to hold the position.

According to the City of Toronto, the photo laureate honours a photographer recognized for exceptional work that focuses on subjects relevant to Torontonians. As the first position of its kind in Canada, the photo laureate will use their perspective to create a dialogue on contemporary issues through photography and visual arts, the city said.

Kwandibens currently lives in Toronto, where she has been on and off since 2008, and founded Red Works Photography, a company which says it empowers contemporary Indigenous lifestyles and cultures through photographic essays, features, and portraits.

Her story starts in the Northwest, where she said she grew up in foster care throughout the region.

“I grew up separate from my family and separate from my culture,” she said. “I was placed alongside my siblings in several homes throughout the area and even in Manitoba as well.”

“So I didn't grow up in my First Nation.”

Kwandibens said she moved to Thunder Bay right after high school and enrolled in the film program at Confederation College.

“That's where I first picked up the camera, although I didn't finish the actual program,” she said, noting her passion for photography was ignited then. She also attended Lakehead University where she studied English literature.

“It's really interesting how things come full circle and you know that initial vision and passion [and] holding that own space for me just to tell my own story and explore other stories,” she said. “That's why culture figures prominently within my work is because through my creativity and exploring my own self throughout the years I realized there's that connection to my own community and who I am intrinsically, innately, [and] inherently.”

She said visiting her family and homeland on Treaty 3 territory is something really important to her, given she grew up separated from her family and her culture.

Kwandibens said she has travelled extensively across Canada as a portrait and events photographer for the past 16 years and is a Canon Ambassador, who are photographers selected to represent the Canon brand. In 2018, she won the Ontario Arts Council’s Indigenous Arts Award.

She was back in the Northwest recently with a photo exhibition called the Red Chair Sessions, focusing on the importance on reclamation of Indigenous spaces and languages. It was held at the Muse in Kenora during the summer of 2021 and at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in the fall of last year, which also included an artist talk in October.

“I always say just speak from your heart, create from your heart, and you’ll draw attention to what you're passionate about and what your community looks like, you know, show that. Because representation matters.”

She understands the importance of representation, being the first Indigenous and first two-spirited person to be nominated to hold the position of photo laureate.

“I think it's going to be a really beautiful opportunity over the next three years,” she said. “That figures so prominently in my mind.”

“To hold space for others I think is an important aspect of photography especially because it's a simple act of being present and of just visiting with people and I just happen to hold the camera.”

She said she’s always interested in challenging and expanding her own practice and drawing in different communities.

“I'm excited to really think and explore and connect with different artists in the city,” she said. “I could potentially collaborate with [them] and also help advocate and promote their work as well within the city.”

Kwandibens said the position has a three-year term and comes with an annual honorarium. She said it also includes an opportunity to “develop and bring to fruition a legacy project for the city.”

“I'm really excited for those opportunities and finding the different intersections that can happen with the visual arts community,” she said. “I'm always interested in different and new stories [asking] what makes people tick? What are they about?”

Her appointment as photo laureate becomes official after Toronto city council votes at the end of March on accepting her nomination which came from a selection panel, she said.

Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Thunder Bay Source