Contact Sheet: Julian White-Davis

26 September 2023
By Paul Schmelzer
A black & white portrait of Julian White-Davis ’23 alongside a photo he shot of a flock of birds behind horizontal power lines
Left: Photo by Isaac Crown Manesis ’23  |  Right: Photo by Julian White-Davis ’23

Vashon Island is where, in his bones, Julian White-Davis ’23 feels at home. He grew up there, a dozen miles from Seattle, paddling the waterways and exploring the inlets of Puget Sound. Despite this rootedness, he knows that—historically, politically, legally—he doesn’t belong. “There are groups of people who have more of a right to this place than I do,” he says, “and my being there displaces these other people.” The tension of these realities has set White-Davis on an expansive journey, through the western lands of his youth and, in the year following graduation, around the globe.

For his senior comps, the political science major created the book Dwelling in America. In the summer of 2022 he sought out places in the American West where he felt a connection to land, then photographed points of interface between humans and nature: birds in flight, visually confined by power lines; dense forests sliced by railroad tracks; rolling hills punctuated by towering wind turbines. What he’s made is a conceptual atlas: images map where he’s been, while quotes—from voices like James Baldwin, Wendell Berry, bell hooks, and Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, authors of the influential 2012 essay “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”—signpost his intellectual path.

While Dwelling was a personal, inward-looking endeavor, his new investigation will be more outwardly focused—and potentially more thorny. Thanks to a 2023 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, he’ll be spending three months each in four places, learning from locals their experiences of belonging in historically contested spaces: Belfast, Jerusalem, Cape Town, and Auckland.

His Histories of Settler Colonialism project has sparked plenty of questions for White-Davis: “How is this not just going to be an American white man extracting ideas and images from people all around the world? How can I create reciprocal relationships?”

He’ll look for answers by experimenting with Photovoice, a method he learned about in Meredith McCoy’s Indigenous studies class, in which researchers give subjects cameras so they can control the imagery used to represent their lives. “But I’m taking the idea and flipping it,” he says. “I want to think about it more phenomenologically: instead of a subject-object relationship, I want a subject-subject relationship, using the camera as a tool to supplement that relationship.”

His hope: that he develops enough trust with those he meets that, eventually, he can go to places they choose, where they feel connection, and learn—together, through words and image-making—about the complexities of “home.”

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