Nishat Kurwa on Thursday, Nov. 3rd
More than half of the children in British Columbia’s foster system are Aboriginal. Of that number, at least 40 percent are in non-indigenous foster homes. Within this context, photographer Jonathan Taggart documented one Aboriginal family separated by the foster care system, and on the path to reunification. Turnstyle asked him to discuss what he learned.
Turnstyle: You mention the irony that despite the government’s purported ambition to reform the segregation of the foster care system, children are still growing up in non-Aboriginal households in large numbers. Does this dissonance reveal itself in your series, and how?
JT: In a sense it doesn’t reveal itself, both by design and by circumstance. While in shooting this project I did have access to the broad spectrum of parental and family experiences, from the beginning of the reunification process to its successful completion, I didn’t seek access to the other side–the foster parent experience. I know from the parents that their two sons were placed with a non-Aboriginal family; the daughter I’m not sure about, but within the context of this story it almost doesn’t matter. In the time that’s passed since I finished the story I’ve realized that the dissonance I was witnessing was the break-up of another culture: the culture of community and family. The architects of the residential school system understood the implications of this disruption–that essentially, if you want to dismantle the edifices of culture you can simply confiscate its constituent parts, which are the bricks of family and community. I think we’re seeing the same thing happening with an overzealous foster care system today.
TS: Can you talk about anything you experienced during the parental visits that felt instructive for the future of the program?
JT: This project for me was a way of humanizing a set of statistics. Stats are illustrative but they’re not particularly evocative, and they don’t do much to explain what it’s like to have your children physically and forcefully taken away from you; what it’s like to have them cry when they have to go “home” at the end of a visit. They definitely don’t help us understand the developmental disconnect – both of child and parent – that is evident when, after a year of seeing your daughter for only 6 hours a week, you now have to learn her rhythms and sleeping patterns. I think the system could better prepare parents for that re-entry shock, certainly.
The families I spoke to during this project were also at the mercy of the three horsemen of social work, income assistance, and child & family services, and often spent whole days traveling between two or three different offices. They would arrive at one only to be told that there was a ‘T’ left uncrossed at another office, and the trek would begin again. It’s unfathomable to me that these three services don’t recognize that they have common clients (and that in Vancouver these common clients often share a common geography), and that they don’t do more to streamline their processes.
TS: As a non-Native person, can you illuminate the process of gaining the trust of the families you documented, especially given that the subject matter itself deals with a history of exploitation? Because you’ve done so much work in Native communities, what’s your approach in general to documenting them, with that history in mind?
Projects like this are at heart projects about colonialism, both historic and contemporary, and need to be approached with that in mind. I’ve had the privileged opportunity to work with several First Nations communities over the last few years, and each of these opportunities has begun with a conversation about inequality, so that history and reality is very much on the table from the outset. Through these conversations I think it becomes clear that I am an ally, that I’m there to learn, and that my process is very much collaborative, and each of these factors is important, both to me and to the communities I work with. There is a dangerous trend towards cavalierism in this profession–a sense that one can “go in”, shoot a story and get out–and I strongly believe that this attitude contributes not to decolonization but to a sustained state of separation and isolation. The projects that are effective at creating change on many levels are those that emerge from strong relationships, and I’m very fortunate to have continuing relationships with all of the communities I’ve worked with.