Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q&A with Photographer Maria Sturm

IMAGE HEADER: Maria Sturm

Grounded in a personal journey that spans Romania, Germany and the United States, photographer Maria Sturm has forged a path as an award winning photographer for personal projects that have informed her commissioned work. She has shot for outlets such as Greenpeace, the Wall Street Journal and Die Zeit, a German national weekly newspaper, and presented work in a variety of spaces including the British Journal of Photography, Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia and at Aperture Foundation in New York City. Drawn to identity as a theme, Sturm’s photographs are imbued with an unflinchingly, subtle presence of human vitality applied democratically to all of her subjects. We reached out to Sturm to discuss her work and her latest foray into film, a new avenue inspired by the birth of Sturm’s first child in the fall of 2020.

Manny from the series "You don't look Native to me" about the federally unrecognized Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. Photography by Maria Sturm.

DUGGAL ART SCENE: From your perspective, as a person who was born in Romania and raised in Germany, what was most surprising to you about the story of unrecognized indigenous communities in the United States featured in your award winning series You don’t look Native to me?

MARIA: The fact that there are unrecognized Tribes. Learning about this was the main motivation to work on “You don’t look Native to me”. Nine years ago in 2011my step dad told me about his friend Dr. Jay Hansford C. Vest from the then federally unrecognized Monacan Indian Nation from Virginia. I stumbled over the word unrecognized. What does it mean? How can there be Native American people who are unrecognized in America, what are the criteria for getting recognition and which institutions are deciding about who you are and who you are not? Here’s a short explanation: To get full recognition you have to petition at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and prove your Nativeness, meaning you have to prove you are Native enough. Unrecognized Tribes that don‘t meet the BIA‘s standards, e.g. because they have lost their language, their history or are mixed-race, aren't eligible for financial support or any land rights by the United States government. 

My initial research at home was frustrating, as there is just so little information or media coverage about unrecognized Tribes. Later when I travelled to America, I was again surprised by how little people actually know of unrecognized Tribes. 

Later in the conversation my dad told me that Jay is blond and has blue eyes, I paused for a while, realizing my own confusion. Why can‘t a Native American have blond hair and blue eyes? Where did I absorb the image of the “Movie Indian”? I didn‘t grow up watching western movies, still I had an image carved in my head of somebody I had never met. I started thinking about how we absorb references and solidify tropes. My own reaction shook me up so thoroughly, I knew I wanted to make a work about this. I thought if I can have a physical reaction to a contradiction that leads me to question what I think I know, someone else can have the same experience and this is why I believe this work is important. I think my own migration from Romania to Germany also plays a tiny role. Growing up I was frequently asked where I was from. Because my appearance somehow made me stick out somehow. Sometimes I was fed up with this question, because I didn’t want to be any different, I just wanted to fit in. 

The Monacans were one of six Virginian tribes that were recognized on a federal scale as of January 2018 - Native activists speculate that Trump signed this because of the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline route going through Monacan Land, which prior to recognition, was just American land with a higher population of enrolled members of the Monacan Nation, it wasn‘t reservation land. And this is how fast things get complex.

Independent campaign to raise the youth vote in the European Elections 2019 EUnited.co is an artist run campaign by Clara Nebeling, David Uzochukwu, Wendy Huynh and Maria Sturm, Katinka Schuett and Anna Tiessen. Photography by Maria Sturm.

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Several of your personal projects share an interest in the idea of agency: Georgian youth and wanderlust; teenage brides in Romania; the visibility of diversity within indigenous identity in the United States; or, the youth vote in Europe. What attracts you to this type of storytelling?

MARIA: At their core these projects all deal with identity, and I would say all of the personal work I’ve done so far, some more obvious than others. And that is something I think about often in general or feel attracted to when looking at other artists' work. I wouldn’t say I’m married to a specific way of storytelling, although the first three bodies of work you mentioned do have the same approach and mode of working. Collaborations — like in the case of the EUnited project, where I’ve worked with Katinka Schuett and Anna Tiessen and within our campaign also with David Uzochukwu, Wendy Huynh and Clara Nebeling, and the work A parable (that was developed for our first exhibition of a newly formed artist collection), and For Birds’ Sake in collaboration with Cemre Yesil — allow me to delve into different ways of thinking and trying new things. I’m very grateful for these opportunities to grow, because you get stiffer in the way of working or more comfortable over the years. They help you to loosen up a bit and to look in other directions again, which you tend to forget because you’re focused so much on a specific way of working. They’re nurturing, inspiring and refreshing and I can recommend this to everyone. How beautiful is the realization that we have so much to learn from one another?!

Mariam and untitled landscape from the Series Country Roads about Georgian youth. Photography by Maria Sturm

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Along with personal projects and exhibitions you have an active life as a commercial photographer. Do your personal projects and commercial work overlap or intersect?

MARIA: Yes they do! Sometimes I wonder about this, not that I wish for it to be any different. I’m very happy I can be so enthusiastic about my commissions. Maybe it’s my curiosity in general and the fact that when first approaching editors I showed only my personal work and I had never thought of making a portfolio especially to get commissioned work. I’m just one person, one brain, one mind. 

Izabela from the series Be Good about underage married Roma teenagers from Romania. Photography by Maria Sturm.

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, what is the first thing you would like to shoot post-pandemic that you cannot photograph now?

MARIA: I always flirted with the idea of making a movie. I visited my mother last year in October, who lives in Arizona now, and we talked about her raising me in Romania during Chernobyl. I was just 9 month old when the accident happened. A year later in October 2020 I gave birth to my first child during a pandemic. I’m working on writing a script about a mother and child relationship and how one dictates the other and vice versa taking place during a dictatorship, the Ceaușescu regime. The challenge is of course to make it interesting for an audience outside of my head, beyond people who grew up in Romania during that time or raised children then, and to mirror my experiences as a young mother living with an invisible threat with those of my mother. 

View more work in the series You Don’t Look Native to Me and others here: mariasturm.com 

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