The People of Powwows

©Clark Dunbar

It wasn’t long after Montana photographer Clark Dunbar began making portraits of powwow attendees that he was completely hooked on the Native American ceremonies as well as the people who populated them. “Their sense of traditions, family, culture is amazing—along with the stories, dance, and other events,” he says. “It quickly became a passion project” that developed into a series, “The Powwow Portrait Project.”

PROCESS: Before attending a powwow, Dunbar contacts the organizers for permission to attend and set up his mini-studio, a one-canopy tent. At the event, he displays a few of his prints to serve as examples. He also wanders the grounds asking attendees if they’d like to be photographed, showing them sample images on his phone.

EQUIPMENT & LIGHTING: The setup is portable and easy to assemble and break down, he says. He photographs with a Canon R5 and just one lens, a Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art lens, usually at around f/8. A single light and reflector are used—a Westcott FJ4000 strobe with a 16x26-inch soft box and a 3x4-foot reflector. The background is a mid-gray color, which aids in post-production.

CHALLENGES: “To get out there and make myself do it,” he says, “the follow through.” Making a commitment to connect with organizers gets the ball rolling.

DELIGHTS: That’s easy—the people, he says. “Being able to show off this amazing culture in these images opens a lot of eyes. So many people don’t know the power and connectivity these communities have, to keep their traditions and culture alive and to educate their children on those values.” 

Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.