An Interview with Will Wilson

Marina Tyquiengco conducted this interview with Wilson via email in April 2016, after meeting the artist while reviewing the exhibition, Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy for First American Art Magazine, in which Wilson’s work was included.

Will Wilson
Will Wilson, Glenn Ross, CIPX DAM, 2013, Digital Photograph of Tintype Original, Courtesy of Will Wilson


Marina Tyquiengco: What does your creative practice look like? How do start or conceptualize a photo series?

Will Wilson: With AIR, it was about a deadline—a show at the Heard Museum in Phoenix in 2004-2005. I knew that I had a great opportunity to create work that would make an impact, so I kept my AIR protagonist costume and gear in my car, I wanted to be ready if the occasion to create presented itself. I was also in the middle of a very large public art project, the Barrio Anita Mural Project in Tucson, AZ ( This project enabled me to build an amazing studio in a decommissioned fire station. We created a state of the art digital printing lab and a wood and metal fabrication shop. It was an important moment when ideas and resources enabled the manifestation of indigenous knowledge and imagination.

I grew up with the 1970’s post-apocalyptic films, Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, etc, while commuting between Tuba City, AZ and San Francisco, CA. This became source material for an investigation of environmental degradation and development gone awry. Contextualizing this problem through the lens of a post-apocalyptic Diné protagonist set against the Cinescopic landscape of the American Southwest and Dinetah simply made sense. I was also thinking about strategies of public address that could reference cultural and environmental genocide in a manner that granted access to a wide audience. What better place to set a post-apocalyptic narrative than the beautifully empty Western landscape of the rez? A future/past space inhabited by a solitary Indian man with a gas mask is the perfect setting in which to raise questions of sentinel populations struggling to respond to catastrophe. I think that these images are also a response to the empty landscapes of the 19th century Western Survey expeditions.

In terms of process, I think that I aggregate ideas and do research and then when the time is right I start to make the work with a kind of tenacious zeal that comes from the understanding that working with materials often unlocks knowledge (material knowledge) I wouldn’t normally have access to. Through material investigation I reveal connections that are usually invisible.

MT: Do questions of time impact your artistic process? If so how do you think about time?

WW: So much so. Indian time is coming. A clock without hands. Temporality understood through the lens of Indigenous Visuality, whereby vast expanses bear witness to the reconciliation of a Western space/time divide. Photography for me is about time travel, plain and simple. Its ability to indexically register the world before it arrests time and turns space into a transient narrative object that can be altered, manipulated, and transformed.

MT: Your photography practice incorporates very new technology such as animation combined with classic photographic techniques like tintype. What does the capability to merge these technical temporalities mean to your broader practice?

Well one aspect of this interplay is meant to disrupt the binary between the modern and the traditional. It opens space for a “trans-customary” practice, one that moves between state-of-the-art storytelling technology and customary practice.

MT: Can you talk about your series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange? From our previous conversations, there seems to be an emphasis on collaboration and thus breaking down power relations between photographer and Indigenous subject(s).

WW: Sure, I sometimes ask the question, “what if Indians invented photography?” what would it look like? Would it be more about a ritual engagement around a shared understanding of the power of representation? Would reciprocity be central to this undertaking? I’m also trying to link me practice to this notion of Relational Aesthetics something that Nicolas Bourriaud has developed around a set of artistic practices that often privilege artistic engagements over artist objects.

I also want to put ethics back into aesthetics.

MT: When creating your different works, are there any questions about art making or the photographic process more broadly that you find yourself returning to?

WW: I grew up between the reservation and San Francisco, and while I am by no means fluent in Navajo I do understand a good amount of it. Especially when I am around the language and the events of the day, which gives me a context for translating conversation. Anyway, when I found photography I felt like I was given an expressive voice that had been absent in my experience of this my Navajo world. I guess what I am trying to express is that for me there is a profound connection between my vision as expressed through photography and the Navajo orality that constructed my world, even if it did happen in translation.

Will Wilson is a Diné (Navajo) photographer who spent his formative years in Navajo Nation. He studied photography at Oberlin College and received BA in Art History and Studio Arts in 1993. He received his MFA in Photography in 2002 from the University of New Mexico. Wilson’s work is in numerous collections across the United States. He has held visiting professorships at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Oberlin College, and the University of Arizona. Wilson is part of the Science and Arts Research Collaborative (SARC). Wilson is currently the Head of the Photography Program at Santa Fe Community College. Wilson addresses issues of representation with a focus on ethical image making through photography.