This photographer is taking beadwork photos for an Indigenous learning space at Fanshawe

When approached about creating pieces for the school’s new Indigenous learning space, Shawn Johnston, typically a portrait photographer, realized they’d have to get creative.

Shawn Johnston is one of seven artists invited to have their work on display

Shawn Johnston has been spending hours figuring out how to photograph each beadwork piece so the background reflects the subject. This is one of their test shots. (Submitted by Shawn Johnston)

A photography student at Fanshawe College is using an opportunity to display their work to put a spotlight on fellow Indigenous artists.

When approached about creating pieces for the school's new Indigenous learning space, Shawn Johnston, typically a portrait photographer, realized they'd have to get creative.

Because of the pandemic, they wouldn't be able to snap photos of subjects inside a studio.

"I really want to use my photography as an opportunity for community, for people in the community, for their voices to be heard," they explained.

That's how Johnston ended up picking five beadwork pieces, by three different artists, as subjects for the collection.

Shawn Johnston, who identifies as Two-Spirit, plans to photograph this medallion of We'Wha by Donna Noah as part of a collection for Fanshawe College's new Learning Commons and Indigenous learning space. (Submitted by Shawn Johnston)

"There's one of the Two-Spirit person, We'Wha, who's carrying her basket, which represents she's a gatherer. There's stories of Two-Spirit people who are gatherers who work out in the fields, so I'd placed that one in a little pasture of forget-me-nots," they explained, referencing how the photograph was set up.

Shawn Johnston decided to showcase other Indigenous artists' beadwork in their photography for a new space at Fanshawe College. (Submitted by Shawn Johnston)

Johnston, who identifies as Two-Spirit, had the medallion of We'Wha custom made years ago by Donna Noah. The Munsee-Delaware Nation woman has another medallion being photographed for the project.

It's of a women's traditional dancer.

"Powwows have been a big part of my life, since I was young," said Noah. "I always looked up to traditional dancers, a lot of my aunties are traditional dancers, it represents strength to me, that's why I love that medallion so much."

This is one of two medallions created by Donna Noah that Shawn Johnston is photographing for the collection. Noah said women's traditional dancers represent strength. (Submitted by Donna Noah)

Noah said she's honoured that Johnston is photographing two pieces of her beadwork, and said it's amazing that Fanshawe is developing a new Indigenous space.

"I think it kind of makes us more visible on Fanshawe's campus. Because when I went to Fanshawe, we [Indigenous people] weren't very visible then. That was in maybe 2009 or 2010."

Johnston is also taking photos of beadwork by Emma Smith and Hawli Pichette, and is going through painstaking efforts to get the perfect background for each shot.

"One of Hawli's pieces is a picture of a woman standing in front of water, praying, and you see a forest line in the background," Johnston explained. "I wanted the background of the picture to match the beadwork, so I've been spending many hours walking along the river trying to find an area that matches that."

New learning space

Seven local artists and former students have been invited to have their art embedded in Fanshawe College's new Learning Commons and Indigenous space, said the school's Eniigaanzid, Special Advisor Indigenous Education & Development, Guy Williams.

The latter doesn't have a name yet, he explained, but they're leaning toward Kalih Wiyo, which is Haudenosaunee for "good message."

"What we're trying to do with these spaces is to create an opportunity for dialogue to happen, so that we can have these conversations. Conversations among Indigenous people from different nations, but also Indigenous people with non-Indigenous people," he said.

A rendering of the Indigenous learning space, which doesn't have an official name yet, that will be embedded in the heart of the Learning Commons. Fanshawe College is working on the project with Diamond Schmitt, a Toronto-based architecture firm. (Diamond Schmitt/Fanshawe College)

Fanshawe College is working on the project with Diamond Schmitt, a Toronto-based architecture firm. Williams said he was struck by how accommodating the architects were, when discussing their plans for the Indigenous learning space.

It'll be embedded in the centre of the Learning Commons, he explained, in a circular shape that represents the back of a turtle. The glass doors on one side of the space can slide open, providing direct access to a courtyard outside.

"When some of our students saw the first designs, they said 'oh my god, I so get this, I so get what everything in here is all about. We didn't have to tell them what it was all about because they knew, because this was a space designed for them, based on their ideas and community input."

The new Learning Commons and the Indigenous learning space are slated to open in November, and are part of a large physical and virtual project the college is working on, called Innovation Village.


Liny Lamberink


Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She is a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. You can reach her at