Atlas of Derogatory Landscapes

Atlas of Derogatory Landscapes

Ruben Hamelink, 2024 Finalist

The American landscape is filled with racial slurs, originating from the histories of genocide and slavery. This project portrays these problematic landscapes, revealing the persistent legacy that white supremacy has imposed on American society. The core of this project consists of a series of monumental yet straightforward landscape photographs of these often remote and controversial sites. The images will be accompanied by research about each location's historical context, and a reflection on its cultural significance.

Name: Negro Point; Location: New York County, New York; Coordinates: 40°46’56.7”N 73°55’36.1”W; GNIS ID: 971929; Class: Cape.


Name: Squaw Creek; Location: Kickapoo Reservation, Brown County, Kansas; Coordinates: 39°44’23.1”N 95°40’08.0”W; GNIS ID: 472971; Class: Stream


Name: Negro Creek; Location: Johnson County, Kansas City; Coordinates: 38°85’46.8"N 94° 61'68.3”W; GNIS ID: 479578; Class: Stream.


Name: Negro Creek; Location: Kickapoo Reservation, Jackson County, Kansas; Coordinates: 39°33’25.8”N 95°35’20.0”W; GNIS ID: 73462; Class: Stream.

Photographer's Statement: 

Since the arrival of Columbus in 1492 Europeans started renaming the American landscape, despite existing place names used by the indigenous population. Changing existing- or giving new placenames is an expression of power; a symbolic means and a performative act of claiming authority over a place, often used by settler-colonists to distance people from their lands. When the first enslaved African people arrived in the US in 1619, this process of renaming continued, highlighting skewed power relationships.

With the white supremacist ideology so present, derogatory slurs bled from language into the landscape, and were subsequently recorded onto national cartographic maps. The names reveal a trail of oppression that recounts a history of genocide, slavery, oppression, and segregation. Hundreds of places scattered across 'the land of the free' bear witness to this dark history. Examples include Runaway Negro, Darkey Springs, Dead Negro Hollow, Dead Indian Mountain, Chinaman Hat, Squaw Tit, Savage Lake, and Beaner.

Even the National Parks, a supposed refuge of natural beauty for all Americans, are not free from references to the oppression of the ancestors of many citizens. Place names indicate who belongs and who does not. The names immortalize the social and moral values of the oppressor on official maps, legitimizing them, and chiseling them into the memory of future generations. 

Today over 1,400 federally recognized places include denigrating words in their official current or former name. In 2023, over 650 placenames that contained the word ‘squaw’ were changed by a special task force set up by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. In the 1960s the n-word was replaced by the at the time deemed acceptable alternative ‘negro’, and ‘Jap’ was replaced with ‘Japanese’. Although most affected communities welcome the changes, it is also significant to note that some see the changes as erasing their presence from the map, because often the new names have no reference to the peoples living in the area.

While the conversation about the legacies of colonialism and racism is becoming increasingly polarized, this project contributes to the public discourse by presenting an undeniable example of how deeply our world is entangled with historical injustices. This project aims to raise awareness by documenting this form of oppression and showing the potential for change and stimulate processes of decolonization. Recording the names and histories of these places, enables me to build a more complete and nuanced understanding of the complex ways in which photography, language, and power intersect and how they have shaped and still shape our relationship to history, the natural world, and our society.

There is a rich tradition of photographing the American landscape, however, just as landscapes are not neutral, photography itself is not innocent either. It is implicated in the erasure of indigenous people and their lands. In the late nineteenth century, Timothy O'Sullivan and others famously photographed the American landscape for propaganda of railway companies and the westward expansion. In the twentieth century, Ansel Adams used photography to glorify the beautiful nature in the National Parks and advocated for preserving these supposedly uninhabited and sublime areas.

While practically following in their footsteps, I conceptually break with this tradition of romanticizing the American landscape by critically examining and photographing the historical baggage and ideological contamination that lies hidden in the valleys, creeks, and mountains. With modern digital color photos, I emphasize that these are not archival images. Instead, these beautiful, sometimes obscure places, with outdated derogatory names, exist within the modern world, like time capsules containing the problematic ideologies of the past.

Ruben Hamelink
Ruben.Hamelink's picture

Ruben Hamelink (1992) is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker from Rotterdam, The Netherlands. In his work, he examines how people interact with the historical context of their environment and explores how history shapes the identity of a country and vice versa. By documenting the world around him, he aims to challenge assumptions and prompt viewers to consider their own place in the larger narrative of history. He strives to approach each project with empathy and sensitivity, recognizing that the stories he tells belong not only to the past but also to the present and future.

In 2014 Ruben published the photobook; 'Vietnamese Veterans', about the men and women who defended Vietnam in four different wars. In 2017 Ruben won the Celeste ‘In Conflict’ Prize for his photo project 'The Free Runners of Gaza'. With his work ‘Living History’ he won the 2019 Zilveren Camera International Documentary prize. The project shows how different groups of Americans, each armed with their own version of the past, deal with the history of the American Civil War and the legacy of slavery through re-enactment.