Although receiving a camera for her 11th birthday, Maria Sturm recalls a time when she first picked up her mother’s analogue camera at the age of 16. “The photographs I took then were mostly of my friends who became muses,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I photographed the same people over and over again, definitely with more focus that at the age of 11.” Now, the Romanian-born and Germany-raised photographer has exhibited across the globe and has won countless awards, including the shortlist Guernsey Photography Festival, finalist for Vonovia Award for Photography, winner of SPE Student Award for Innovation in Imaging 2017 and many more.
Her ongoing series, You Don’t Look Native To Me, in particular, has garnered the photographer much attention. It all began after speaking with her stepfather (based in America) way back in 2011, who shared a story about his friend, Jay – a Native American from an unrecognised tribe, the Monacan Nation of Virginia. “To be Native American and unrecognised was such a strong connection to me,” says Maria. “I was wondering: ‘who are the people or the institutions that decide who you are and who you are not?’ I literally stumbled across this work and couldn’t get it out of my head. My dad also told me that Jay has blonde hair and blue eyes – I paused and realised my confusion. Why can’t someone identity as Native American and have blue eyes and blonde hair? This reaction shook me up so thoroughly that I knew I wanted to make work about it.”
This inquisitive mindset formed the premise of her project. “Being ignored is not a unique experience to the Lumbers [the largest state tribe in North Carolina]. There are over 200 unrecognised tribes, spanning from East to West and North to South,” explains Maria. “If you resemble the stereotypical look of a Native American person, people question your identity, your lineage, your heritage. Other times you can be literally visually ignored because you may pass for African American, Latino or White. People don’t recognise you and that’s the paradox.” This contradiction is a puzzling one that marks invisibility in a multitude of ways. Maria is drawn to this story and strives to give visibility to those from unrecognised tribes, sparking conversation around alienation and themes of belonging.
While launching the You Don’t Look Native To Me series in 2011, Maria at first thought she’d take portraits in a landscape frame, “as a symbol for the land they don’t have,” she says. However, this became too static for the photographer. On her journey to Pembroke, Robeson County – where she shot the series – her process changed in an instant, becoming a “fly on the wall” who “could just photograph without the photography being as directed as before.” Immersing herself in her surroundings was a beneficial and necessary approach to the project; her shots are intimate, telling and offer a questionable take on identity and what it means to be part of a community.
Gathering her findings, Maria explains how all of the people she’d met identified as Native American yet were in a country where “being Native was either romanticised or dismissed” – “they carry their identity on their shirts or on their skin,” she explains. This can be seen through tattoos or clothing with Native motifs, “conveying pride” but also functioning as a form of proof. She asks: “What makes you Native? The blood quantum? The look?”
Conclusively, Maria’s role in this project was born from the contradictions that she felt. “I was so stunned by my own reaction that, if I can have a physical reaction somebody else could experience it too.” Therefore, she aims to create images that challenge our perception of identity, creating candid and honest narratives that bring her audience into a state of awareness.