“Red West”: Interview with Jennifer Osborne

By in Interviews on 18. May 2016

A Canadian photographer Jen Osborne explores the unique phenomena of the ‘Indian Hobbyism’ throughout Eastern Europe in her work “Red West”. The hobbyism attempts to simulate Native Americans way of life, traditions and reenact some notable battles. There are dozens of pow wows (spiritual gatherings), camps, adventure parks arranged through Europe. The photographer attended different gatherings of the hobbiest through Russia, Poland, Czech Republic Germany from 2011 until 2015 as well as the film settings left from the popular series Winnetou.

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OSTLOOK: Hi Jen, firstly, can you tell us something about you which we can not find on the internet?

Jen Osborne: I’m more positive than my work seems.

OSTLOOK: How did you become a photographer? How would you define your photography style?

Jen Osborne: I became interested in photography in high school. I had a pretty cool photo teacher, and actually I really hated my traditional fine arts teacher, so I suppose that connection encouraged me to spend more time with the photographic medium. I just call myself a photographer now. I am tired of labelling. I find those conversations rather boring. The term “Contemporary Photography” drives me nuts. What does that really mean? We all make photos today, so all photographers of this time are “contemporary”. I think it is pretentious when people working in the documentary vein obsess over proving they are “artists”. It appears as insecurity to me.

OSTLOOK: How does your work process look like? What is the balance between your own projects and assigned work? How do you find inspiration for your photography projects?

Jen Osborne: To be honest, most of my published work is self directed. I rarely get assignments. But I am able to “make a living” off of my personal work. I get inspiration out of real life – rarely does it come from other visual work, no matter how much I enjoy it. I really need to be out in the world, in high stimulus surroundings. I deal well with chaos and I like to find still places there.

OSTLOOK: I’ve read that you were working on the “Red West” for around 4 years. But how did you first got an interest for this topic and the project?

Jen Osbourne: I began shooting The Red West in February of 2011. When I decided to leave Vancouver for Berlin, I spoke to a Native American filmmaker friend of mine, Cowboy Smithx, about Germany. We were working on a film shoot at a residential school outside of Vancouver at the time. If you’re not familiar with residential schools, they have a dark history. They were used from the late 1800’s up until the end of the 20th Century to remove Native American children from their households to “assimilate” them into white culture. These schools set the stage for abuse, molestation and even the sterilization of young First Nations students, and nearly 4,000 children died while attending them. In light of that heavy energy, Cowboy said “Germans love Native Americans”. And I started to investigate.

OSTLOOK: Was it hard to get an access to groups of hobbyists in different East European countries? How much time did you spend in every camp? How did the relation evolve?

Jen Osborne: This was all very problematic. It’s something I don’t like to think about, because never have I been treated so poorly by my subjects. Of course, some of them were very kind to me and happy to have me there, but in most cases I was left feeling like a complete intruder. The community is deeply insecure about what they are doing. They know it is controversial in the eyes of many North Americans and they really don’t seem to believe in their actions. I had the impression with some subjects that they only do this hobby because they couldn’t seem to help romanticize a culture that could never be theirs. It’s like cheating on a shitty boyfriend — it feels good and you know it’s wrong, but you just can’t help doing it anyway.

I did have some nice times there though and the odd person out was wonderful so I take good from those experiences too. But the overall experience was quite torturous despite how funny the pictures are. I find it much easier working in a war zone, or with drug addicts, for example. So then why did I continue on with The Red West? Because it is an interesting story to tell, and I wanted to understand the psychological landscapes of the people depicted. In most cases, I only subjected myself to a week of living with different communities at a time.

OSTLOOK: Do you know,  if there are similar hobby groups in other parts of the world?

Jen Osbourne: There are a lot of Americans re-enacting the Wild West too — but that is all I am aware of.

OSTLOOK: Has your work been shown in the States or Canada? How was the reaction of the Native Americans to those gatherings in Europe?

Jen Osborne: I did publish this series in America (Mother Jones) and in Canada (Geist). Many mixed reactions came up, especially in online posts regarding this work. The reactions were very divided – many said it was appalling, and others said beautiful and insightful things such as “when white man follows the red path good things are ahead”. I am very happy to have had the opportunity to generate important discussions around the theme of cultural appropriation.

OSTLOOK: You write that the imitation of Native Americans allowed people of Eastern Europe to find a psychological escape in the time of the limitations during the Soviet Union Time. What is the meaning of mirroring the culture of Native people nowadays? Is it only a hobby or does it goes beyond?

Jen Osborne: Many are playing with this hobby – and, many are attempting to “be” a living relic from the past. But “The Hobby” is considered by some participants to be a kind of “bedroom secret”, and many wish for the movement not to be publicized. I am not sure if that is out of embarrassment, or out of a wish to keep it from being commercialized. But despite the intentions that underline Indianist re-enactments, the use of Native American representation raises controversy regarding the theft of culture. While they deeply respect and admire the culture with which they are so fascinated, they are also aware that their actions are easily misinterpreted and may come across as offensive to non-participants.

Cultural appropriation issues aside, participants often refer to the hobby as a form of “serious leisure”. There are a lot of reasons why one would enjoy this style of life, after surpassing the initial struggles of integrating into it. The community is deeply engaged in sustainable living. Many are motivated by a desperate desire to revisit the old world, where there are no plastic containers, ugly labels or blinking lights around in every corner. Camp life is more simple and survivalists find it deeply satisfying and calming. Friends can come together, to spend time with each other, building a community they feel comfortable to truly play within.

OSTLOOK:  What are you working on at the moment? What is  your “master” plan for the future?

Jen Osborne: I am currently working in Ukraine. I just started a project about female soldiers. I try to take everything day by day, so I can’t really say I have a master plan. But one goal is to keep my health and mobility.

OSTLOOK: Thank you, Jen, for a great Interview. We are excited to see your new work from Ukraine!

Check Jen’s website to see the full series: www.jenosbornestudio.com


Jen Osborne is a Canadian photographer residing between Berlin, Kyiv and Vancouver.

Posted by Ksenia Les

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