Vera Saltzman: O Human Child
Growing up in Cape Breton, where relocation is a given, I moved many times. Each move was challenging, and often left me feeling uprooted. I turned to my photography to forge new connections and develop a sense of belonging. In later research I learned of the idea of a “primal landscape” – the notion that we form attachments to objects, traits and people in our childhood environment that we carry with us into adulthood. In our adult years, this “primal landscape” informs our feeling of belonging and rootedness, or sense of place. This theme forms the underpinning for much of my work.
The impetus for this particular series, O Human Child, came out of a desire to better understand the place that I currently find myself, rural Saskatchewan. I turned to the writings of W.O. Mitchell, who is praised for establishing the literary geography of the prairies, in hopes that his words would help me gain a sense of the Saskatchewan identity.
In his seminal book Who Has Seen the Wind, Mitchell depicts life as a child in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Through stories of everyday events of a young boy trying to make sense of life, death, and God, he addresses universal themes in an authentic Canadian prairie voice.
As I read, I began to question what life is like for children living in small prairie communities today. How do community and landscape shape their personal identity and sense of place? In a time when the online world has opened up for communication, learning, and entertainment, when family farms morph into commercial operations and rural communities shrink with migration to urban areas, how will their primal landscape impact them as adults?
In this series, “O Human Child”, I take a contemporary look at children growing up in rural Saskatchewan and consider how the tensions and complexities of childhood today both contrast and mirror those of Mitchell’s time.
In Who Has Seen The Wind, Mitchell’s young protagonist searches for the patterns and significance underlying the human experience as he learns about his world through the local people, animals, and natural forces. Though the theme of inevitable death is ever present, this novel is also a celebration of innocence, spontaneity, and natural freedom.
This series invites the viewer to reflect on issues today’s youth grapple with in rural Saskatchewan. Are children today, as in Mitchell’s depiction, still learning about their world through story, animals, and physical exploration of nature? to ask “Siri” or “Google”? How does spontaneity and play (or lack thereof) impact their sense of place and identity?
O Human Child showcases 18 black and white portraits of children of a similar age to those in Who Has Seen the Wind (between age 4 and 11 years) who live in rural Saskatchewan. The children are photographed in their own environments: in small towns or rural communities, on First Nations Territory and farms. Danna Lee stands fiercely in front of the lake as if protecting the water; Samuel poses with a goose after a morning hunt with his father; wearing her fashionable New York City t-shirt, Kaida tightly grasps the leash of her dog; Kennedy crosses her arms, intently staring into my lens with the town school that has been closed because of low enrollment in the background; and Nathan, who moved with his family two years ago from Korea, proudly poses with his soccer ball.