Behind the lens

Photo courtesy of Raymond Chee A self-portrait of photographer Raymond Chee. Photo courtesy of Raymond Chee
Photographer Raymond Chee’s portfolio includes portraits of Navajo men and women adorned in their fine turquoise and silver jewelry. The above portrait is of Glenda Begay.

Diné photographer combines passion of portrait and landscape, creating award-winning images

Raymond Chee, 30, grew up in LeChee and picked up his first camera in the sixth grade.

A friend of his passed away and Chee captured images for a celebration of life video. “That’s really where it started,” said Chee, who is Navajo. He has been taking photographs ever since.

After studying sculpture in college, Chee moved back to LeChee and was introduced to Lionel Bigthumb, who had just started Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours.  

“Lionel took me under his wing. He was very passionate about photography, too. We would do photography in the canyons at night,” Chee said.

Chee spent the next nine years guiding for Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours, constantly perfecting his style in photography and learning from the canyons.

The canyons helped Chee find his passion and unique style for photography. “The canyons taught me a lot about light.”

“Integrating photography with guiding goes hand in hand. The photography aspect of it allows to create a connection with [guests]. It’s a visual connection,” Chee said. He gets messages from guests he took out years ago inquiring about photography tips and techniques. “I’ll give them my input and leave it up to them.”

Photography is somewhat of a prerequisite for being a guide in this area, according to Chee.

The image isn’t always the goal for Chee when it comes to landscape photography.

“It’s a therapeutic feeling for me. Everybody has their thing. Mine would be going out and doing some landscape photography. I go off of how I feel. It can be a beautiful day, even at 35 degrees if it’s sunny,” he said about the winter months around the Grand Circle. “I think only people from the southwest would know that feeling. People would say it’s cold but when the sun is out you can feel the warmth.

“It’s the best time to shoot Lake Powell. It’s so still. Nobody is out there, and it creates a mirror effect. Even on days when it’s crummy and raining, you can smell the earth and the plants. You can even hear the birds chirping.

“It’s very soothing to the soul. Any condition that is thrown at you, you can capture the show and share that beauty. All of the slot canyons have their different personalities. It’s amazing to see how all that water cut through the land. How life and time work together and create beauty. Life and time are essential to creating beauty.”

Portrait photography is also one of Chee’s specialties.

“My direction in photography, where my passion began to grow, was in portrait photography. I’m more of a people person. I like to get to know the person and capture what tells their story. I started photographing local elders that had a story to tell,” he said. “It started with taking photos of my grandmother. She was never really the type to allow photos to be taken of her. The first photo I took of my grandmother, I only took three photos. It was cold and my mom gave her a blanket and on that second shot, boom, I nailed it. That photo gave me recognition with the Navajo Nation art community.”

Chee was moved as to how he saw his grandmother reacted to the photograph.

“I wanted to return that feeling to other families, and so they can have photos of their family members,” he said. “I can provide images that also tell a story to leave behind – the heart-felt portrait.”

Another portrait Chee has been recognized for is of a family elder on his wife’s side who was a military veteran.

“I took a photo of him and a storm was rolling in. It was summertime and he was old, too. He got dressed up in his old uniform. The way the direct light was hitting the ground it caused a serious reflection off the painted desert. The clouds actually turned purple. I showed that photo to my wife’s grandmother and it brought her to tears,” Chee said about the image he created by blending his landscape and portrait photography.

The man in the photo was Chee’s grandmother-in-law’s brother.

With the closure of Antelope Canyon, Chee is coming up on one year this March since guiding his last tour. He has been able to stay afloat because of his unique angle with photography, shooting portraits for families and businesses such as Change Labs in Tuba City.

Change Labs is an award-winning, Native-led organization on the Navajo and Hopi nations growing the next generation of Native American entrepreneurs. Chee’s photography can be viewed on his Instagram page: _raymondmchee