'Urban Iroquois' photographer Jeff Thomas feels he's finally kept the promise he made 40 years ago

'If I was able to walk out, I would dedicate myself to producing something relevant to the Indigenous community,' the photographer vowed 40 years ago from his hospital bed.
Photographer Jeff Thomas is the 2019 recipient of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Art. (Andrew Hunter )

An unexpected event can change your life forever and inspire one of your biggest successes — even if it might not seem like it at the time. That's what happened 40 years ago to Jeff Thomas when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a telephone poll.

The near fatal accident happened while Thomas was driving from Buffalo, N.Y. to his reserve, the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ont. His young son was ejected from the car. Thomas was left paralyzed from the chest down. Both survived but the experience changed their lives. "It's one of those events where you have to take it seriously, build on it, and use it to propel you to levels you have never thought you could accomplish," he said.

Four decades after the accident, Thomas is an acclaimed photographer who has just won one of the most prestigious visual arts prizes in Canada — the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. But he would have never become an artist, if not for that accident in 1979.

In an interview with q host Tom Power, Thomas said that while laying paralyzed in his hospital bed, he made a promise to himself. If he recovered his ability to walk, he would dedicate his life to making a contribution to the Indigenous community.

Series: Strong Hearts- Kevin Haywahe, Assiniboine, 1990 (Jeff Thomas )
Series: Strong Hearts: Return the Gaze, Joseph Crowe, Saulteaux Tribe, 1990, Sioux Valley Powwow Grounds, Manitoba (Jeff Thomas )

Unable to work, Thomas began to use his camera as therapy. "All of a sudden the camera became a way to rebuild my life because I couldn't return to work again. I was actually told I wouldn't be able to do much of anything anymore, physically", he said, "I took it as an incentive to use the camera to get me out of the house, and to start walking around my neighbourhood and taking photographs. So each time I would go out, I would want to walk a bit farther".

Keeping his vow, the self-described "urban Iroquois artist" made it his mission to use photography to confront stereotypes about Indigenous people like himself, who live in big cities.

The First Spike - Norman Denley, Canadian Pacific Railway Bridge, Mountain Creek, British Columbia 1880-1890, Milwaukee Railroad 'Hiawatha' Advertisement Poster, Father and Daughter, Memory Junction Museum, Brighton, Ontario, 2017 (Jeff Thomas )

Thomas' love for the camera started at a young age, when his mother entered him in a beautiful baby competition. Thomas won and says that this was his first experience in the photography world. He was captivated by it all: the lights, the set up and the camera.

Jeff Thomas' first exposure to photography was when his mom entered him in a "Most Beautiful Baby" contest - and he won. (Submitted by Jeff Thomas )

His collections began with a picture of his biggest muse — his son, Bear, also known as DJ Bear Witness of the Juno Award-winning group A Tribe Called Red.

Speaking directly to his father on CBC's q, Bear reflected on their creative relationship. "You taught me how to do what I do and I know that I have a way of seeing your work that nobody else does… It's all because of that that I feel like my successes are just as much your successes".

Thomas began collaborating with Bear when his son was just seven-years-old. One of his earliest collections The Bear Portraits features his young son in various urban settings. By using his son as a model, Thomas said he wanted to show the Indigenous absence that was missing in photography and art when he was growing up.

The Doctrine of Discovery, Bear Thomas (Jeff Thomas )
Series: Some Things Never Change - Joseph Tehwehron David, 1997, John of Canajoharie, 1710, Library Archives Canada, and Bear Thomas, 1996, Ottawa, Ontario (Jeff Thomas )

Figurines are also prominent in Thomas' work, particularly ones from a vintage "Cowboys and Indians" toy set. By taking these figurines, and placing them in urban settings, his photography collection grew to represent more than just a photo.

Chief Red Robe, "North American Indian", Ottawa, Ontario (Jeff Thomas )
Series: Where the Rivers Meet - Terra Nullius - James Quesace Family 1887, 2019 (Jeff Thomas )

"What I wanted to do was to play with that idea, the symbolism, to appropriate it and use it to talk about absence so it was really about sparking the imagination, and to think about the world in this kind of humouristic way but also in a critical way as well," Thomas said.

Jeff Thomas' work will be featured in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada on March 29 until Aug. 4, 2019 in honour of his win of the Governor General Award in Visual and Media Art.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full interview.

Produced by ​Vanessa Greco. Words by Enrica Ammaturo.

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