YAKIMA, Wash. — As she stood outside and studied the sky on Jan. 7, photographer Toni Reed didn’t like what she saw. Three women, her subjects, waited nearby in light rain and fog.
Reed had asked those women — sisters Neville S. Benson and Martel Benson and their niece, Kam Gleason — if she could photograph them wearing traditional Yakama regalia. She’d seen their photos from the Ellensburg Rodeo and the Pendleton Round-Up and wanted to take her own portraits of them.
She had asked and they had agreed, so the photo session behind Neville’s house proceeded before the weather got any worse. It didn’t take long; Reed got shots of them separately and together before heading home to Toppenish for an initial edit.
One photo — Kam on the left, Martel in the middle and Neville on the right — stood out immediately. They were strong, stoic, beautiful.
“As I was going through the session … I saw that picture. There was something about that picture, even in the raw format,” said Reed, who owns A Simple Impression and has been a professional photographer for about five years. “It came out of the camera almost perfect.”
That photo inspired Reed to create a photo series featuring women of the Yakama Nation in traditional attire, with the goal of making an album to donate to the Yakama Nation Cultural Center.
Martel and Neville recently joined sisters Terri Benson and Annie Rae Benson in a photo shoot for the album with their mother, Kalea Benson.
“I’m really glad she’s bringing it out because there’s a lot of women who don’t get their pictures taken and I believe that they should, especially our elders; they’ve worked so hard,” Neville Benson said. “I want a lot of pictures of the elders that we respect.”
Those images are invaluable, Benson said.
“I wish we could have gotten more pictures of our past loved ones. I think it’s great idea of honoring the Yakama women, with everything going on with missing and murdered women,” she said.
Reed has photographed about 25 women in about a dozen sessions. She especially wants elders to participate; while she’s charging a reduced $30 sitting fee for the series, there is no fee for women 65 and older.
And while Reed hopes to finish the album this summer, she also wants to photograph as many women as possible, so it could take longer.
“I did not expect such a high response as I have had,” said Reed, a mother of two and beauty school student whose husband is an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation. “At first I was thinking of 10 to 12 pages, but now I’m thinking go big or go home.”
After talking to the women in the original photo, her husband and her extended family, Reed outlined her plan for 20-minute outdoor portrait sessions of Yakama women in a Jan. 29 Facebook post on her professional page.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do because I live out here, a lot of my friends are Native, my extended family are Native,” said Reed, whose mother was also a professional photographer. “I’m very wowed by their traditional clothing, their traditions.”
Participants choose three digital images from those sessions, Reed said in her post, and she selects one photo for the album, noting that they must sign a contract to allow her to use their images in the album.
Shared 202 times, the post got 186 reactions and dozens of comments. Some expressed concern about exploitation or that Reed was profiting off Native women, thinking she would create albums or calendars she would sell. Reed addresses those concerns in the comment thread on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/asimpleimpression/.
“This is something I don’t plan to profit off of, remotely. Ultimately the money is going to be used for my gas to come and go from sessions,” Reed said of the sitting fee.
Profiting from the photo series is “farthest from my intentions. I’m doing this to donate a book. If I do decide to make albums, I would have to get their permission.”
If Reed created a book available for purchase by the public, it would feature only those who wanted to be included, she stressed, and would be sold locally through the tribe, she said.
“That is something I would talk to (portrait subjects) … and the tribe about,” she said.
Reed wants to be as transparent about her photo series as possible and so continues to respond to questions and any concerns on her Facebook page. Many, like the Benson sisters and their mother, have commented that they are interested in participating.
“I like it. I think it’s fine,” Terri Benson said as they prepared for their recent photo shoot. “Everything is fine.”
Terri wore a shell dress and a basket hat (patl’aapá) made by her “auntie.” She carried a beaded bag with an intricately detailed butterfly, and, like her sisters, had wrapped her braids in strips of fur, hers held in place with abalone shells.
“I’ve been telling my sisters, get your outfits together,” Neville said. “My mom made all our dresses. My mom’s made me so many wing dresses; there’s like 20 or more wing dresses. I have two shell dresses and a … full buckskin outfit.”
She wore a buckskin dress and beaded cape with a Yakama design, a beaded knife sheath given in commemoration of her first elk kill, a shell necklace, beaded horse pendant and horse earrings.
“We love our horses,” she said.
Annie Rae’s cape featured rows of small tubelike dentalium shells separated by long strips of tiny rhinestones. Martel, who’s getting married in August, plans to wear a traditional veil of dentalium shells.
Though the weather was better for the most recent photo shoot behind the house, there was a brisk wind. “Hold your feathers, mom!” one sister said of the two eagle feathers tucked into Kalea’s hair on the back on her head.
“I haven’t worn feathers for a long time, since my husband passed,” Kalea said.
Reed took dozens of photos, some of Kalea by herself, others with all the sisters and their mother.
“Annie Rae, please put your chin down just a tad. Terri, can you bring your arm up a little more? Perfect,” she said.
They’re all eager for more precious family portraits to display in their homes.
“We just moved in our home. We still have tons of pictures to hang up,” Neville said. “Normally our walls are full of portraits — my mom and dad’s rodeo photos, the grandkids.
“I’m all about family portraits, We had lost my dad and my brother, so those are important to us. That’s another major reason” for getting family portraits taken, she added.
Reed’s photo project is also important as a historical record, Neville said.
“I see her vision of preserving the culture … her bringing out everybody in their regalia and being proud of the culture and our background,” she said. “This is our homeland.”
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com