Real people are in all those unnamed photos

mething that has always made me uncomfortable as an editor is using photos of people without naming them. Historical photos of Alaska Natives are notoriously nameless; the caption typically reads along the lines of “Native man in a boat,” or “Tlingit shaman in full costume.” So I’m particularly excited to share this issue in which nearly all of the images of individuals include names of Alaskans living (or who did live) authentic, complex lives. 

I attribute it to astute historical and contemporary photographers who either knew their subjects well or took the time and effort to record details. That’s not to say that unnamed pictures are products of lazy artists—anyone who’s photographed an event or even a family portrait in a public space knows it’s practically impossible to gather the names of everyone on stage for a performance or to run after the unsuspecting passersby in the background of your cruise ship shot and jot down their particulars. These days, too, most of us are probably a blurred apparition (at best) or stuffing our faces with street food (at worst) in someone’s travel snapshot posted on social media. Best to remain anonymous in those instances.

But I offer kudos to professional photographers who treat their subjects as real people and not as mere symbols of a specific culture or as curiosities across a social divide as so often happened in the past and still runs rampant in travel photography today. While the rules of journalism don’t require naming everyone in a photo for strictly editorial use, naming adds a richness to an image and denotes respect for the person shown.

Since 2013, the Anchorage Museum has brought historical photos of Indigenous Alaskans from their collections to a booth at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in the hopes that delegates could help identify relatives, friends, or neighbors; they could in about half the prints. Alaska, as the saying goes, is a small town. This effort is a positive step in Natives reclaiming cultural identity and stories and making Alaskan life more interesting for all of us.

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