John Hagen is a photographer and digital artist and calls Haines, Alaska, his home. Hagen earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts and in new media arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts and studied photojournalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Hagen was awarded a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award for his photography in 2015. Hagen is both Aleut and Iñupiaq
About the Work
I am an Unungan (Aleut) and Iñupiaq photographer based in Haines, Alaska, a town 1,000 miles from the lands of my ancestors. Though my father’s family was from Northwest Alaska, he was born in Fairbanks and adopted by a family in Haines. My mother grew up in Ugashik on the Aleutians but was relocated to Haines for boarding school when she was young. I know precious little of my diverse cultural background but cherish the parts I do know.
As I have grown as an artist, I realize this question mark that is my cultural background is actually a gift. I do not know much about my Alaska Native ancestors or about the lands they lived on, but I am still shaped by them regardless of these unknowns. I am more keenly sensitive to place, since I don’t feel an original tie to my birthplace the same way many Alaska Natives do. As a result, I am always searching for connections to the land in the place I am at any moment. Through art, I have slowly been able to change my bitterness and cultural confusion into a healthy curiosity.
People, place and the interaction between the two are the inspirations for my art. Through my work I explore how people connect with the land and how they respond to the world around them. Sometimes my photographs capture the natural world independent from human imprint; sometimes they reveal how individuals interact with the environment.
Landscape work from Alaska often showcases the grand, nearly mythical beauty of the place. I seek to create a counter narrative to this postcard-perfect Alaska. In order to subvert this archetypal depiction of the land, I highlight abstract elements of the landscape, the elements that stand out to me and capture my attention.
It might be difficult to specifically place where my photographs were made, but the spirit of the place is conveyed, nonetheless. I photograph the land to help people experience the wonder I sense in a place and the connections I seek.
Finally, as a contemporary Alaska Native artist, I can’t only look to the past but have to strive toward creating a visual heritage for future generations and other Alaska Natives who struggle with identity and place. In researching my own culture, I have searched for images of Unungan people living in the Bristol Bay region. My searches rarely turn up recent images or stories. It’s as if they no longer exist. But we do exist. Since I cannot find those images, I need to make them — not just for myself, but also for my ancestors and for future generations.