A Winnipeg visual artist wants to change how aboriginal people are viewed with Perception, a photo series that shows portraits of Winnipeggers with and without racist labels.

Perception by K.C. Adams aims to break down negative stereotypes aimed at the aboriginal community.

"I really just want people to switch their thinking. You know, not judge a book by its cover," she told CBC News on Wednesday.

Adams has carried the idea for years but said it was the controversy surrounding Lorrie Steeves, the wife of Winnipeg mayoral candidate Gord Steeves, that made the timing right.

In 2010, Lorrie Steeves wrote on her Facebook page that she was "really tired of getting harrassed [sic] by the drunken native guys in the skywalks."

She added, "We all donate enough money to the government to keep thier [sic] sorry assess [sic] on welfare, so shut the f--k up and don't ask me for another handout!"

Lorrie Steeves has since apologized for the comments, which came to light earlier this month and overshadowed her husband's campaign for days.

"We can't make rash judgments," Adams said.

"We have to think of ourselves as human beings. Instead of 'us' and 'them,' it should be 'we.'"

Models asked to think about labels

Adams asked her models to think about what it's like to be called various stereotypes, such as "squaw," "victim," "homeless" and "tax burden."

"The headline that I chose was 'government mooch' and that's because people always think we get free education, so why aren't we choosing it? Well, that's not the case," said Kim Wheeler, one of the models.

"I think the worst thing, though, that people could call me would be 'squaw' because it's such a derogatory term and they use it to try and hurt you."

The photo of Wheeler with the "government mooch" label is paired with another portrait that includes a description of her as a "mother, writer, publicist, producer, homeowner [and] golfer who paid for her own education."

Wheeler said the worst racism she faced was in high school, and her first portrait exhibits how she would feel if her children had to go through the same thing.

"I'm a pretty big mama bear when it comes to my kids, and if they did that … that would be the look they would get," she said.

Perception is currently online only, but Adams said she has thought about posting the photographs in bus shelters to keep the conversation going.

Peyton Veitch, who saw the photo collection, said he wishes it wasn't necessary to break down racial stereotypes.

"Unfortunately, they're words you hear so often in this community," he said.

"People I don't think realize the damage that those words can inflict, but moreover, how inaccurate those stereotypes are."