Nani Welch Keli‘iho‘omalu ’14 graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR in May 2018, with a degree in rhetoric and media studies. Although she planned to work in marketing or fashion on the mainland after college, recent events took her in another direction. This past summer, Keli‘iho‘omalu was offered the chance to photograph a campaign for Sig Zane’s collaboration with Hurley. The gig turned into a full-time job managing the Sig Zane website and working with its creative design team to photograph and produce content. We talked about the connection between her new role and her Hawaiian roots.
Do you have a specific aesthetic or narrative goals for your visual work?
I try to convey who the subject might be when they aren’t in front of a camera. I want my photos to depict an authentic person and experience. There’s a long history between Native Hawaiians and photography. In the past, Western photography has portrayed us as many things, such as the exotic other or noble savage, by situating Hawaiians outside of modernity (sitting next to huts, dancing hula, partially nude). This depiction has even been commercialized to push a false and outdated portrayal of Hawaiians in order to advertise Hawai‘i as a tourist destination. My goal when shooting not only Native Hawaiians but anyone is to tell their story and share a narrative that works against past assumptions or that creates a new understanding.
It seems like your work with a local company like Sig Zane is a great platform for doing that.
While I was in college, my identity became way more important to me. I realized not everybody goes over to their friends’ houses and has to bring food, and take off their shoes in front of the house, and give a hug and a kiss to their aunties—things that are so specifically rooted in Hawai‘i that I love so much. Being around a bunch of creative, driven people in Hawai‘i makes me extremely happy—especially being able to work and at the same time learn about my own culture.
I learn things every day from everyone in the office. They all speak Hawaiian, and they’re all very culturally rooted. This job has been fulfilling not only because I do what I love, but I’m also learning a lot about my own personal identity.
Do you draw on your relationship with the Hawaiian landscape as well?
Growing up Hawaiian has a different meaning for everyone, but I think we’re all connected through the land. I grew up in Waimea, but my dad’s family is from Kalapana, and I’ve spent a lot of time there. The lava flow in 1990 was on track to take our home like it had taken so many others, but the moment it got to the edge of our property, across the street from Kaimū Bay, it stopped and began flowing towards the ocean. Though we mourn the loss of Kaimū as it was where my dad and his siblings, as well as our past generations, grew up learning to swim, fish, and surf, the redirection of the lava saved our home and my family’s way of living. My grandpa taught my dad and his seven brothers and three sisters how to live sustainably by only taking what you need, giving back to the land, and gathering in traditional ways like throwing net, creating dry land loʻi, and hunting. These virtues were instilled in me and all of my cousins, and they resonate with me through my photography.
Editor’s note: This profile first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Ma Ke Kula.