‘I never looked back after that’: photographer Dana Gluckstein speaks about her career at MTSU

Photo and Story by Eric Goodwin / Contributing Writer

Dana Gluckstein, the award-winning photographer, spoke to students and faculty about her new exhibit at MTSU and her globe-trotting career in the Bragg Media and Entertainment Building on Thursday evening.

A diverse audience came to hear Gluckstein speak about her exhibition titled “DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition” in the Baldwin Photographic Gallery. While many in attendance were pursuing different degrees or careers, all raised their hands when Gluckstein posed the question: “Who here wants to make a difference?”

DIGNITY addresses the indigenous tribes around the world that Western culture rarely sees. In doing so, Gluckstein highlights the change indigenous tribes face when coming into contact with the modern world.

Gluckstein never set out with that purpose in mind. Her career in photography began when she asked Leo Holub, a photo professor at Stanford University and contemporary of Ansel Adams, if she could sit in the back of one of his photography classes. From there on, Gluckstein said, her passion was discovered.

“I was a psychology major; I was planning to go and get a graduate degree in psychology,” she said in a phone interview with “Sidelines.”

Gluckstein fell in love with fine art during her junior year in Florence, Italy, when she began toting an instant camera.

“I came back my senior year and never left the darkroom in the basement,” she said. “I fell in love with photography.”

Gluckstein told her parents she planned to move to San Francisco and become a photographer.

“There was a silence for a few moments, on the phone, and my mom said to my father, ‘Don’t worry, she’ll do it,'” she said.

Soon, Gluckstein got her first assignment with “San Francisco Magazine,” shooting people in the Bay area like artist Grace Slick and athlete Joe Montana, for a column called “Persona.”  She started photographing annual report work during the Silicon Valley boom in the 1980s, and it was this line of work that introduced her to her creative passion.

“One of (the companies) sent me to Puerto Rico, and I said to myself, ‘Here I am, a long way from home with my heavy camera and my equipment, and what do I want to do when I leave here?’ And I went to Haiti.”

Gluckstein’s decision to drastically change the direction of her life is one she shares often with college students.

“I never looked back after that,” she said.

Making these decisions in life is okay, according to Gluckstein.

“You think you know what you’re gonna be doing, and all of a sudden you make a shift- what’s beautiful about life is our journey,” she said. “It never stops our questioning of who we are.”

That statement is fitting for the work she exhibited. Throughout the years, Gluckstein has photographed indigenous peoples from around the world in places like Haiti, Kenya, Bhutan, Hawaii and Indonesia. One common theme among these cultures is how people maintain identity in a changing world.

Photography Student Jasmine Weatherspoon admires the work in that “you can take time to look at an individual as opposed to a group of people … and kind of analyze their lives through that image.”

During the lecture, one attendee asked how indigenous tribes find a balance between preserving their culture and adapting to modern culture. Gluckstein said that she truly discovered this transition when she photographed the tribes.

“I thought in my imagination it was going to be traditional,” she said.

However, what she found was traditional tribal customs mingling with an evolving society. In one 2007 photograph from Namibia on display, two Ovazemba girls pose for Gluckstein’s camera. Both are wearing traditional garb with patterned skirts, but one is wearing a bra. The other girl, bare breasted, is carrying a necklace with a cell phone attached.

Attendees had much to say about the work Gluckstein is doing and how she inspires their own work, whether it be with photography or other media of expression. Steve Fishell, an MTSU student and musician who plays alongside Emmylou Harris, admired the activism displayed in Gluckstein’s work.

“I think that an exhibition like this just speaks to how important the whole world is as one rather than as one group of people pitted against the other,” he said.

Cadie Davis is a photography student at the university. She finds the way Gluckstein came about putting together DIGNITY inspiring. One of the things Davis was struggling with, she said, was figuring out where she wants to go with photography.

“[Gluckstein] was just doing it because it was something that meant a lot to her, and it was something that she felt like she needed to do,” Davis said.

Despite the challenges faced by indigenous peoples around the world, Gluckstein said we have much to learn about the world from these people. When visitors walk into the exhibit, the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a personal friend of Gluckstein’s who fought aginst apartheid in South Africa, are posted on the wall.

“Indigenous Peoples remind us…that the first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of creation,” is a quote said by Desmond Tutu and is the forward in Gluckstein’s book and on the wall of her gallery.

This interdependence is called Ubuntu in Africa.

“Ubuntu is about wholeness, about compassion for life,” she said.

It is this Ubuntu that Gluckstein seeks to convey through DIGNITY.

“Indigenous people have a gift to give to us,” she said. “And that is a reminder that we are made for harmony, interconnectedness, and that if we don’t understand that very quickly, it will be the demise of our world.”

This time of transition, as Gluckstein described, is one wherein we have to speak up against injustice. DIGNITY, Gluckstein said, was the “creative tipping point” for President Barack Obama to adopt the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Despite this success, Gluckstein sees some parts of the world taking a step backward for indigenous rights, like right here in America.

“The walls need to come down,” Gluckstein said.

Gluckstein’s work is sponsored by Amnesty International, which is currently fighting for the rights of Sioux tribes affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline, whose construction President Donald Trump gave the Army Corps of Engineers the all-clear for, has not received an Environmental Impact Statement, which Gluckstein, along with Amnesty International, said is in violation of UNDRIP.

Gluckstein recognized the importance of standing with Native Americans in light of the country’s history with natives, and urged those who wish to stand in solidarity with the Sioux tribes to join Amnesty International’s Urgent Action and call the Army Corps’ comment line, to urge the Corps to start the Environmental Impact Statement review of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Gluckstein made one final statement before heading upstairs for the DIGNITY book signing.

“Sometimes we have wake up calls in life,” she said. “And we have to listen to those wake-up calls.”

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To contact News Editor Brinley Hineman, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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