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Photo series ‘Safe/Not Safe’ shows where these Utahns of color find refuge in an unsafe world

Through a lens of trauma, ordinary places can feel threatening. But sharing that pain can bring healing.

(Photos by Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) At left, Davina Smith is photographed at a Cottonwood Heights crosswalk as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Smith feels unsafe at crosswalks after she was almost struck by a car. At right, Smith is photographed at the Bells Canyon trailhead, a location where she feels safe.

Davina Smith remembers the disregard on the driver’s face as he sped toward her, forcing her to leap from the crosswalk and onto the sidewalk for safety. “He looked at me with no care in the world” after she yelled at him through his rolled-down window, she said. “And he was a young white guy, and that scared me. If I didn’t jump out of the way ...”

She had been jogging in her own Cottonwood Heights neighborhood, in the bright sunlight, she said, and it seemed like the man had tried to run her over on purpose.

On that summer day in 2020, Smith, who is Diné, had made a conscious choice to exercise in a public place in an effort to feel safer. But for Smith and other Indigenous women and women of color, safety is a recurrent worry, despite precautions they might take.

More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice, the majority by at least one perpetrator who is not Indigenous. As a result, ordinary places, such as supermarkets, gas stations and crosswalks can become threatening, a reminder of the harm the person experienced.

To shed light on the disproportionate rates of violence that people of color experience nationwide and in Utah specifically, artist Denae Shanidiin and photographer Jonathan Canlas created the “Safe/Not Safe” project. The photography series features portraits of Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC), each photographed in a place where they feel safe and another where their inner alarms go off, usually after a traumatic experience.

“I want to demand that the public addresses these cases of white supremacy and recognize that it is everywhere,” said Shanidiin, who is Diné and Korean and the concept director of the project. “And it’s not OK that we live in a world where nearly every person of color feels harmed in the world that they live in.”

‘A sea of whiteness’

Smith is an advocate for Native families and ancestral lands, as well as education in Salt Lake City. Before 2020, she had used her love of running to promote causes that are important to Indigenous communities. In 2019, when she was the executive director of SLC Air Protectors, she ran 330 miles from the Navajo Nation to the Utah Capitol — with a leather medicine pouch of herbs from Bears Ears National Monument slung across her back — to raise awareness of climate change.

But Smith’s “unsafe” photo in the series conjures the memory of a different journey, the one she was on when the car almost struck her. She is photographed standing in front of a crosswalk in her neighborhood, the blurred white stripes on the street in the background. In the foreground, she wears dark winter clothes, her forehead is tense, her eyes reddened. Her expression emanates anxiety.

This contrasts with her relaxed, easy smile in her “safe” photo, in which she’s surrounded by dry grass, wood and stone at the Bells Canyon trailhead. Since Smith can’t often go home to San Juan County because of the pandemic restrictions, she chooses to go to the mountains to hike and meditate. “That’s an area for me to reconnect with Mother Earth,” she said, “and just to refocus, reenergize, rejuvenate myself.”

(Photos by Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) At left, Abrianna is photographed at Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Abrianna — who is held by family members in the photo — says she feels unsafe in the outdoors after she was stalked and sexually assaulted while hiking alone. At right, Abrianna is photographed in her home, a location she feels safe in. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not name sexual assault victims, but Abrianna agreed to the use of her first name.

For Abrianna, a 28-year-old Mexican woman also featured in the series, the outdoors have a different meaning. She said ever since she was stalked and sexually assaulted while hiking alone at Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon, the seemingly tranquil spot feels unsafe to her. (The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not name sexual assault victims, but Abrianna agreed to the use of her first name.)

In a photo at this location, Abrianna is embraced by her sisters, as tall dry grass reaches their knees. Her eyes are closed, her expression is soft, yet sad. Her shoulders lift with tension, even as her relatives wrap their arms around her.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Evangaline is photographed inside her white pickup truck, a location where she feels safe because it blends in with other cars in Layton, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Denae Shanidiin identified Evangaline only by her first name, out of Evangaline's concerns for her safety.

Shanidiin and Canlas have included several other stories in the ongoing series, offering different perspectives on where the subjects find safety. Evangaline, a Black artist, said she feels safe in her white pickup truck because it blends in with similar vehicles as she drives in Layton. Shanidiin identified Evangaline only by her first name, out of Evangaline’s concerns for her safety. “Something about driving in a truck makes you feel safe on the road, it’s easier to go about my business without fear of unnecessary police interactions,” she said.

(Photos by Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) At left, Moroni Benally is photographed at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, a location where he feels unsafe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. At right, Benally is photographed inside his home, a location where he feels safe.

Photographed sitting on a couch next to a window in his home, Moroni Benally, coordinator for public policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Restoring Ancestral Winds, looks comfortable with a kind smile. But the toll of overcoming the challenges he felt being gay and Indigenous in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shows up in his “unsafe” location: Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

With serious eyes and tight lips, Benally is the focus of the image. The spires of the Salt Lake Temple loom behind him, even as they’re so blurred they almost disappear. “I did 14 years in conversion therapy within the church,” he said, “and when it didn’t work, there was the move to excommunicate me.”

(According to the LDS Church’s General Handbook, the faith “opposes any therapy, including conversion or reparative therapy for sexual orientation or gender identity, that subjects a person to abusive practices.”)

Benally recalls a time when he chose to risk injury in order to escape racist harassment. Once when he was riding in a taxi, he said, the driver called him a racial epithet. When Benally asked him to stop the car, the driver refused, so Benally opened the door and rolled out of the moving cab. He left the situation bleeding and bruised but felt a sense of freedom, dignity and self-worth, he said.

He now feels empowered by the actions he has taken to defend his identity. “When I came out as gay, I took the power away from the church to determine my humanity. When I rolled out of the moving cab when the driver repeatedly used racial slurs, I was safe, my dignity was intact,” he said. “I refuse to let them make me feel unsafe.”

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Nikki is photographed as she is held by her partner at home, a place where she feels safe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Denae Shanidiin identified Nikki only by her first name, out of Nikki's concerns for her safety.

For Nikki, even being at her safe place, her home, while being held by her partner, brings back negative thoughts of her past experiences. Shanidiin identified Nikki only by her first name, out of Nikki’s concerns for her safety. And although Nikki enjoys spending time outside hiking, running or biking, outdoor trails feel unsafe to her. As people accumulate on the trails, her fear increases, “because you’re always in a sea of whiteness,” she said.

‘We want viewers to feel shocked’

Stalking as well as domestic, sexual, dating, and family violence are some of the issues that Indigenous people frequently face and that have lead to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis. Out of the top 10 cities where such crimes against this group happen, Salt Lake City is ninth, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. Out of the top 10 states, Utah is eighth.

“When we look at our public health data, we look at things like disparity in access to employment in education and income, access to opportunities, all of those things are reflected in these negative health outcomes, which include vulnerability to violence, social isolation, not being supported by your community, all of these things are risk factors for violence,” said Alana Kindness, researcher and consultant for Restoring Ancestral Winds.

For Canlas, the aim of the project goes deeper than showing that some people of color are not feeling safe in Utah. “We want viewers to feel shocked,” he said. “We’re taking these portraits of people and places that they may recognize, but they don’t think twice of it being unsafe to them.”

So far, the reaction of people of color has been a sense of acknowledgment of the frequent risks they face every day, said Canlas. But, for white viewers, it’s a different story. “It’s completely utterly shocking to them. How could this possibly be happening? Because they live in this safe bubble,” he said. “They don’t have the dangers that come along with being a female, person of color, or LGBTQ in a state that is predominantly white and Mormon.”

Finding healing through stories

Shanidiin is the director of MMIWhoismissing, an educational campaign for missing and murdered Indigenous people, and she knows this danger personally. Growing up, she said she was othered for looking Asian at school, and at home, her mom and sisters were victims of domestic violence and stalking by white perpetrators. The “Safe/Not Safe” project, along with the Missing and Murdered series she co-created with Canlas, represents a way of overcoming such trauma.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Denae Shanidiin, concept director of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series, is photographed at the Utah Capitol as part of the project. Denae feels unsafe at this location because she feels it's a place where many decisions and laws are made that protect white supremacy.

In her “not safe” photo, Shanidiin poses in front of the Utah Capitol. Her face conveys the anger she has accumulated throughout the years. For her, this space represents many decisions and laws that are made to protect white supremacy. From the viewer’s perspective, she stands nearly as tall as the imposing building. Behind her, a man holds an upside-down American flag with one hand, and with the other, a rifle.

Shanidiin said she was harassed by a white woman at the Capitol. For the artist, the building is a manifestation of all the problems she tries to combat when she visits, as well as a reminder of all the challenges she has endured being a woman of color in Utah.

“I know it all too well, and everyone else too. So [Canlas] has been through this with me, and you can see it in the images,” she said.

But Shanidiin added, “I don’t cry about these things anymore. Because there’s healing in telling these stories and acknowledging this pain.”

To view more work by Denae Shanidiin and Jonathan Canlas, follow @safe.notsafe and @mmiwhoismissing on Instagram and visit MMIwhoismissing.org. More photos in the series are posted below. If you are a BIPOC resident of Utah (Black, Indigenous, or other person of color) who would like to be a part of the series, email Denae@mmiwhoismissing.org.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Sabrina is photographed at her childhood home in Sandy, a location where she feels unsafe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Sabrina, along with her twin sister, was abused by her white former stepfather when she was young. Much of the abuse took place in this home. Denae Shanidiin identified Sabrina only by her first name, out of Sabrina’s concerns for her safety.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Evangaline is photographed in a grocery store, a place where she feels unsafe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Denae Shanidiin identified Evangaline only by her first name, out of Evangaline’s concerns for her safety.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Nikki is photographed with her partner in her home, a place where she feels safe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Denae Shanidiin identified Nikki only by her first name, out of Nikki’s concerns for her safety.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) At left, Will is photographed at the Utah Capitol, a location where he feels unsafe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. At right, Will is photographed at his best friend's house, a place where he feels safe. Denae Shanidiin identified Will only by his first name, out of Will's concerns for his safety.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Nikki is photographed with her partner and chickens at home, a place where she feels safe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Denae Shanidiin identified Nikki only by her first name, out of Nikki’s concerns for her safety.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Denae Shanidiin is photographed at the Utah Capitol, a place where she feels unsafe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. For her, the building is a manifestation of all the problems she tries to combat when she visits, as well as a reminder of the challenges she has endured being a woman of color in Utah.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) Abrianna is photographed at Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. Abrianna says she feels unsafe in the outdoors after she was stalked and sexually assaulted while hiking alone. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not name sexual assault victims, but Abrianna agreed to the use of her first name.

(Jonathan Canlas | MMIWhoismissing) At left, Michelle is photographed at a gas station, a place where she feels unsafe, as part of the "Safe/Not Safe" photo series. She says she has been harassed at several gas stations by men, and often doesn't feel safe stepping outside her car at such places. "There are too many stories of women last being seen at gas stations, and I don’t want that to be me," she said. At right, Michelle is photographed in her home, where she feels safe. Denae Shanidiin identified Michelle only by her first name, out of Michelle’s concerns for her safety.

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