The following is an interview with photographer Brian Y. Soto by curator Lisa Henry.
Lisa Henry: Is this a nationally touring exhibition? Jane Nakasako at the Japanese American national Center mentioned that it was not originally organized by JANM. Is JANM it’s last stop?
Brian Y. Sato: It could be, but no, it isn’t a nationally touring exhibition. It began at the JCCH (Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii), in their gallery and sponsored by their organization and private sponsors. Being that the exhibition is a means of expressing our gratitude to the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) we then wanted to travel it to other islands in the State of Hawaii so that surviving Nisei and their descendants would be able to view the show.
I photographed Nisei on the six major islands of the Hawaiian Chain: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Big Island, Molokai and Lanai. As I mentioned, it first opened in Honolulu at the JCCH, then traveled to the Lyman Museum in Hilo, HI. It then moved to JANM, and will travel back to Hawaii to the Kauai Museum in June. We are working on getting Gokurōsama to Japan and other cities in the U.S. and Canada.
LH: What was your inspiration for this series?
BYS: The abbreviated explanation is that I realized that I was no longer happy living in the world of commercial photography. I felt a need to do work that was more meaningful to myself and also of benefit to others.
One day, while perusing photographs of Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) in a library, it dawned on me that many of the photographs seemed rather impersonal and unrevealing. Often, the photographs of Issei sugar plantation laborers depicted them in their work clothes, covered from head to toe to protect them from the scorching sun and dusty conditions. How unfortunate, I thought, that they are equally covered in a cloak of anonymity. What are their names, where did they come from, what are their stories?
It was then this thought creeped into my mind: Is anyone photographically documenting the Issei’s offspring, the Nisei, the first American generation of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii? I did a bit of investigating and it seemed that no one was documenting the Hawaii Nisei in still photographs, so I decided to dive right in and do it independently.
LH: Do you work in other genres? Is portraiture where you feel you are making your strongest work?
BYS: Living in Hawaii, it’s difficult not to be drawn to photographing forests, volcanoes and the ocean, but I most enjoy creating simple still life images and portraits. I was always bad at portraiture; and that is probably one of my motivations for attempting this project – I relished the challenge.
For me, it was not only a matter of seeing, with regard to creating a successful portrait. To my surprise, I discovered that during the course of photographing my Nisei subjects, my personality has undergone a gradual transformation toward being more gregarious, more patient, tolerant and generally more sensitive to people’s feelings.
LH: What kind of camera do you shoot with and why?
BYS: I’ve used camera makes and formats from 35mm to 4X5, including a multitude of medium format systems. For the Nisei project I use a Fuji GX 680 6X8cm tilt-shift camera and black and white film. Well, I certainly didn’t use the Fuji GX 680 because it’s small and lightweight! It is bulky and heavy but it offers great control in camera movements and yields high quality images. I worked for 15 years in a commercial black and white lab, so self-processing of the negs was not a mystery, just a chore.
LH: Now for a fluffy question – how would you compare LA w/ Hawaii?
BYS: I don’t quite understand exactly in what areas that you want me to compare LA with Hawaii? Well, I could compare LA with Hawaii in a dozen different subject areas, but let’s pick food, since I am sort of a foodie. It’s probably not exotic by LA standards, but we don’t have Peruvian-Japanese food in Hawaii and I must say that the meal I had at Don Felix was upper-level comfort food!
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