Dr. Walter Soboleff, Gunalchéesh

We have much to be thankful for. Sh tugáa haa ditee yagéiyi át kaax.

(From the Tlingit Phrase of the Week from the Sealaska Heritage Institute website.)

Our thankfulness stems from having known Dr. Soboleff and being the recipient of his decades of service to the community doing so many distinct tasks for the community that he so obviously loved.

Thinking about Dr. Soboleff's passage "Into the forest" as they say, left me sad. His service to the Church and Native organizations intertwined with so many families in Southeast Alaska. He performed our parent's wedding ceremony back in the 1940's; it must've been soon after he earned his degree at the Theological Seminary from the University of Dubuque. My only baby picture has my dad cradling me and my mom holding my hand on the same day that Walter baptized me in the Presbyterian Church. Everyone is in their Sunday best and it's a happy photograph.

Like many other teenagers of the day, my mom, Anita Brown McNeil was one of his students in the church bible school in the early 1940's when she was still a teenager. Our family connection with Walter goes back long before I was born.

In January of 2009, I got a call from Todd Antioquia, the Director of Communications for Sealaska Corporation. He asked if I was interested in doing some commissioned art for their upcoming annual report. The theme had to do with "the spirit of perseverance," and they wanted me to photograph three elders who epitomized this spirit and use my visual aesthetic with the compositions.

One of the elders was Dr. Walter Soboleff. We talked about how we wanted the final print to look, and I loved the idea of making prints that honored these three elders from Southeast Alaska (Dr. Soboleff represented Tlingits, Dolores Churchill represented Haidas and Mary Jones represented Tsimshians).

The first step towards this project was making the portraits, and I shot them all with a set of portable strobes set up in one of the meeting rooms at the Sealaska building in February of 2009. There was a heavy snowstorm and Walter was attending meetings all day and it was challenging to fit me into his busy schedule.

I had a good idea about how I wanted to portray Dr. Soboleff in his collaged print because I knew that he had a gentle sense of humor and a sharp wit. My challenge was to try and capture this fleeting moment. He came into my makeshift studio with a very neutral expression, like he was deep in thought about something else. Having worked for various projects with Sealaska over the decades, I knew a lot of his colleagues very well, so I started asking about which one he left in his dust today, and that made him actually laugh. I told him "I bet it was so and so," and that left him grinning. It was a good natured banter, and I got him to laugh again by saying "I bet 'so and so' came back from lunch looking like he needed a nap," and he laughed again, which is the photograph that I ended up using. We both enjoyed the good-natured jokes, because in reality, his colleagues are the hard driving types who don't put up with much nonsense in their lives.

I was finished with the photographs in pretty short order, and he stood up, shook my hand and gave me a nice complement. He's had his portrait made dozens of times by pros over the years, and he said "You're good. You're really good." I told him, "I ought to be, I was baptized by one of the most intellectual ministers in Juneau." He laughed again, because he clearly remembered both my mom and grandmother, and of course, baptizing me all those decades ago.

Walter's gentle spirit is what made the print work. Here is to you Dr. Walter Soboleff, for having made this a much kinder, better world for all of us.

Sh tugáa haa ditee yagéiyi át kaax.

Story Copyright Larry McNeil, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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