Often lost in the conversation of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is the children left behind.
Photographer Tom Baril has embarked on a mission to change that with the Forgotten Moccasin Photo Project, featured in an exhibition that opened Saturday afternoon at the Lacombe Memorial Centre, amidst several Lacombe Culture and Harvest Festival events focused on First Nations and Indigenous culture.
“I realized no one was talking about the children so I set out to represent the children that weren’t being talked about,” he said. “I named it the Forgotten Moccasin because the children were being forgotten.”
A 20-year-old photographer attending the Victoria School for the Arts in Edmonton, he’d been shooting an event for the Edmonton Public School Board when he came across the work of another Edmonton photographer, Mufty Mathewson, and the REDress photo project highlighting the 1,181 Indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing.
Having been doing black-and-white street photography, which Baril described as “nothing special,” he was struck by the power of the photos and asked his photography teacher how so much emotion could be put into them. He was instructed to research the meaning behind the project and MMIWG and for three months, he did. Then, he realized there were stories not being conveyed by the images in the REDress project, and he was inspired to explore the children left behind.
“I use a pair of baby moccasins and I use them to represent the children affected by missing and murdered Indigenous women,” he said.
While some of his photos are up to interpretation, others are easily understood – the moccasins on the front steps, waiting for mother that will never come home to return, or at the bottom of a slide at the playground, where a mother or a sister will never be there to catch them. Some are a little more raw, including a pair in the middle of a noose, representing how some children of MMIWG deal with tragedy and hardship, and at the same time highlighting high suicide rates amongst Indigenous youth.
Being Metis himself, he says he can empathize with those who have experienced such loss.
“My dad lost his mother in a fire – not the way other women are going missing – but I saw the way it affected him and I can’t imagine my life without my mom,” he said.
“I do workshops in different schools and the thing that hits home most is when a mother comes up to me who has lost a child, or a child who has lost a mother and is like the photos. It’s a heavy project.”
He has two canvassed photos hanging in the CKUA building in Edmonton, and has done exhibitions in Sudbury and Saskatoon, but the exhibition in Lacombe is the first of what he hopes will be many more in Alberta.
The project remains ongoing, and eventually he has hopes to compile the images into a photobook, but in the meantime, Baril has started a Forgotten Moccasins Photo Project Facebook group, which currently has 170 members, to encourage others to take their own photos and share their own stories.
Despite the nature of the project, Baril is optimistic it will help spark change amongst those who view it.
“I’d like them to take away that there is hope, that there will be change. This isn’t just a project that will float around and people will remember the children and start telling other people.”
The exhibition will run until Nov. 30, 2019.