Daniella Zalcman (American, b. 1986) is a documentary photographer based in London and New York. She is a multiple grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow, and member of Boreal Collective. Her work often focuses on the legacies of Western colonization.
Zalcman's ongoing project, Signs of Your Identity, has received the FotoEvidence Book Award (2016), the Magenta Foundation Bright Spark award (2016), the Magnum Foundation Inge Morath Award (2016), the Arnold Newman Prize (2017), and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award (2017). She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture in 2009. The Open Society Moving Walls Grant will support the expansion of the Signs of Your Identity project to include the United States, where 59 Indian residential schools still operate today.
Beginning in the 1870s, the Canadian government operated a network of Indian residential schools that separated Indigenous children from their parents to weaken cultural and family ties and forcibly assimilate them into Euro-Christian Canadian culture. Indian agents hired by the government would take children as young as two or three years old from their homes and send them to church-run boarding schools. Teachers at these “residential” schools punished the children for speaking their Native languages or observing any Indigenous traditions. School staff also routinely sexually and physically assaulted the children and, in some extreme instances, subjected them to medical experimentation and forced sterilization.
The last residential school closed in 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008. Former residential school students—with the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit organizations—have sued the government and churches, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. The agreement called for compensation and the establishment of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The lasting impact of these residential schools is immeasurable. So many children died while in the system that it was common for residential schools to have their own cemeteries. Languages disappeared and sacred ceremonies were criminalized and suppressed. The Canadian government has officially termed the residential school system a cultural genocide.
Signs of Your Identity combines portraits of survivors layered with images that reference their memories attending residential schools. The work honors the 80,000 living survivors and their path to personal and formal reconciliation.
—Daniella Zalcman, October 2017