The Photography of Thomas Jones
For the Health of a Nation
Above: The Shepard Fairey Mural, "Voting Rights Are Human Rights" in Milwaukee
that utilized one of Thomas Jones photos on the lower lefthand side of the mural.
Right: Randi Greendeer who is depicted in the mural Far right: Thomas Jones
documenting who the Ho-Chunk are through portraits, allowing the imagery of the H-Chunk people themselves to define who they are.
“I photograph a wide range of things,” Jones said. “When I am photographing the tribe, it’s generally portraits, but I will photograph things or objects too. But I
actually haven’t shown that much of that type of work. So the majority is portraiture. But then there is work that I do that is more conceptual. There, I’m using objects.
So like in the series, I am an Indian first and an artist second. I’m using toy Indians and I am scanning the base of them. And so they look like biomorphic abstractions
that I am relating to painting.”
For Jones, what makes for the best photography is for the photographer to become familiar with the setting or the people they are photographing and allow the setting
and the people to adjust to him.
“If you are photographing a community, I always feel that it is important that you get to know them first as opposed to just going in and shooting right away,” Jones
noted. “I think that is the same with almost anything. It’s kind of like you are going out and you are scouting either a place or a community. That way, you get a sense
of it first. And it also makes the people feel more comfortable. And then they reveal more about themselves.”
For one of his latest project, it happened that the Ho-Chunk government and he were in the same place as it related to the health of the Nation. Some of the most
severe health disparities in the United States exist within Native communities. And the Nation and Jones independently wanted to do something to promote the health
of the Nation. It ended up becoming a very personalized public relations campaign for a friends and families effect.
“During all of the shutdown, I was thinking that I needed to start photographing and doing portraits of members of the tribe,” Jones said. “And it just so happened
about a couple of weeks later, I was contacted by the health department of the Ho-Chunk Nation. And they asked me to go around and photograph the different
communities. We went to the Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, Wittenberg, Nekoosa, and Black River Falls. I was doing about two of those a day in those areas. I
photographed close to 60 people. They are going to use those on billboards within each of those areas and then make posters also to help promote people wearing
Jones hopes it will have an impact.
“I looked at one statistic and it said that people under 55-years-old who died from COVID-19, 24 percent are Native American, 18 percent are Latinos, 11 percent are
African American and then 30 percent are whites,” Jones said. “And of course, it’s because of healthcare and pre-existing conditions like diabetes, which is rampant
in Native Country. Also there are the types of food that they are eating. A lot of Ho-Chunk are on commodities, which are given through the government. And the
majority of that food is sugar and starch-based. That’s why a lot of them are overweight.”
And while Jones was working on this project, another opportunity to make a statement with his images. On the side of a building around Wells Street and Milwaukee
Street in Downtown Milwaukee, there is a large mural titled “Voting Rights Are Human Rights” that was gifted to the city of Milwaukee by Shepard Fairey, the artist
who created the Barack Obama Hope image.
“Nikki Johnson is working for Wallpaper City out of Milwaukee that does murals throughout the city,” Jones said. “They were the ones who were working with
Shepard Fairey. She saw those images on Instagram that I was posting. That’s how the mural came about. They used one of the face mask images of Randi
Greendeer. She’s the one in green.”
By Jonathan Gramling
One could say that Thomas Jones, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, has been
exposed to the world of photography his entire life.
“I’ve always been around photography,” Jones said. “That’s actually how my
parents met. My father owned a photofinishing business and my mother
worked there. She also worked in the darkroom while she was in the air force.
So the camera has always been around since I was a kid.”
Ironically, it almost took Jones dropping out of high school — Jones is a
professor at UW-Madison’s School of Art — that propelled him along in his
“It turned out I only had two general education courses at the beginning of my
junior year,” Jones said. “And so the counselor said, ‘What do you want to do?
What do you like?’ And I said, ‘Art.’ And so I just took art courses mainly for my
last two years of high school. And then I was accepted to the Institute of
American Indian Art and UW-Madison. I ended up going to UW-Madison. And I’
ve been doing it ever since.”
Jones has been teaching at UW-Madison for 15 years now. And he arrived late
to the world of digital photography, only switching over when the technology
would facilitate his art.
“I just switched over to digital about eight years ago because the cost of
digital cameras was so cost-prohibitive, Jones said. “And I also couldn’t get to
the size that I generally print at. The largest that go to is about 40-50 inches.
And I was using film up to that point. But when the prices got better, I was able
to get a grant to get one. I purchased a digital and now I pretty much only do
On some levels, Jones is the unofficial photographer of the Ho-Chunk Nation,
Jones has two projects he is working on. One is called Relenting Spirits
involving portraits of tribal members with Jones beading directly on the
portraits. The other is called Remnants.
“I’ve been going around to Indian casinos and photographing their carpets I
don’t know how many years,” Jones said. “I was just doing it with my
iPhone. And I didn’t know what I was going to produce out of it, but I kept on
doing it. I’ve gone to probably over 115 casinos throughout the U.S. What
eventually came out of that is I take old depictions of Native Americans in
illustrations, newspaper articles and engravings. What I do is take that
image and I use a laser cutter on glass. I cut that image, which is the central
image. And then on the sides are images of the carpets. The carpets are
supposed to represent the land that we are walking on, but also that
sovereign, Native American land and how we’ve been represented through
media and art through the years.”
And so Jones is on a mission to get the image of the Ho-Chunk out into the
mainstream so that the stereotypes are broken down, one image at a time.
“We’re invisible except for casinos,” Jones said. “It’s very rare to see a
Native American in media or the news. A friend of mine who worked for one
of the major TV networks told me they actually said when a Native story
came up, ‘Oh, we’ve already done our one for the year.’ It’s also in
commercials. It’s pretty rare that you ever see a Native American in a
commercial. I guess that’s where the stereotypes come in. In film and
media, those stereotypes are kind of played out. For me, getting our image
out to the world is important for the younger people, so they can see that. I
think that social media does that. And hopefully that will change within the
mainstream media. There are over 500 tribes in the U.S. There has to be
some story out there somewhere.”
It’s enlightenment one person — or portrait — at a time.