Indigenous photographer challenges the whiteness of travel photography

Shawn Johnston's 'Nations and Voices' project is on display at Cafe Pyrus in downtown Kitchener.

Shawn Johnston's 'Nation and Voices' project on display at Cafe Pyrus in Kitchener

Shawn Johnston's photography exhibit, Nations and Voices, will be on display in Cafe Pyrus until mid July. (Alexandra Burza/CBC)

An Indigenous photographer is challenging the whiteness of travel photography with a new exhibition in Kitchener. 

Two years ago, Shawn Johnston was just an amateur photographer with a dream to travel the world.

Now, their photography exhibition, titled "Nations and Voices" is exhibited at Cafe Pyrus in downtown Kitchener.

Johnston decided to take a year off from their job as a student co-ordinator at the University of Waterloo's Indigenous student centre to pursue their passion.

At their day job, they encourage their students to re-claim their voices and celebrate Indigenous identity. That job translated to a series of portraits Johnston took while travelling.

"I really wanted to use my photography as an opportunity to bring a spotlight to people's voices," Johnston said. "There's so many times where those stories go untold."

Nations and Voices is a photography project celebrating Indigenous identity and personal narrative through a series of portraits. (CBC/Alexandra Burza)

White-dominated travel blogging

Johnston is Anishinaabe and was particularly drawn to the stories of the Indigenous communities in the countries they visited.

"I found that there were a lot of similarities, which was really surprising to me, especially with issues with colonialism, with oppression, with discrimination," they said.

"But then there's also that resilience as well too."

When Johnston was doing research in preparation for their trip, they said they found that travel blogging was very white-dominated.

They decided to share their journey online and to be an Indigenous voice within the online travel community.

"Within the first few months I gained quite the following online. And while I was travelling, and I was in different countries, I started getting messages from people who were following my trip saying, 'I've never seen anybody like myself represented in the field of travel,'" they shared.

Photography school on the horizon

The response was beyond anything they expected, Johnston said, and encouraged them to continue to travel and grow their photography project.

Right before returning to Waterloo's campus for Indigenous People's Day, Johnston had just returned from a trip to Belgium.

The success of their first exhibit also motivated them to hone their craft and return to school for photography in the fall.

Johnston says this couldn't have been possible without the Waterloo region arts community, which supported them in their fundraising efforts.

"They were the ones who believed in me when I said that I want to take off for a year and live out of my backpack, which was such a crazy idea," they said.