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Faces of a Generation: Brian Y. Sato on Photographing the Nisei in Hawai'i

Many of the most compelling photographs in Brian Y. Sato's collection of portraits were almost never taken.

His subjects were the Nisei -- second-generation Japanese Americans, in Hawai'i. The majority were in their eighties. And more than a few of them did not want to be photographed.

"On many occasions I got the facetious remark, 'I going broke da camera if you take my pikcha,'" Sato recalls.

"At times, they might have said that because they were actually flattered that someone wanted to photograph them, and made the statement to sort of camouflage that flattery," says Sato. "But on many occasions they refused to be photographed until I explained to them, sometimes repeatedly, the larger meaning of their photograph in the context of the project, and that their participation in this documentation is important."

"I recall telling them, 'If all of you Nisei refuse to participate, then the stories of your generation will be lost forever,'" he adds. "I told them that they should do it for the sake of their children and grandchildren."

The result was Gokurōsama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai'i, an exhibition of black-and-white images presented by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i and now on view at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

"The feedback about the photographs has been 100 percent positive," says Sato. "At the debut of the exhibition at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i in 2007, quite a number of family members of the subjects were in attendance. I remember one family in particular that congregated around the photograph of their mother/grandmother for over an hour!"

"The greatest compliment to me has been when someone close to the subject says that the photograph is that person; that it reveals who she/he truly is," Sato says. "Sometimes I get lucky. Recently I sent photographs to a daughter of a subject and to a subject himself. The daughter said that the photograph of her father is him because I had included two of his favorite things in the photograph – a jeep and his goats. I never even realized that the rusted frame of a car behind him was that of a jeep, but she noticed it immediately and to her it meant a lot."

"Turns out that his nickname is Jeep," says Sato.

"One amusing fact is that many of the Hawai'i Nisei men have nicknames," Sato notes. "Now that I mention it, I don’t recall any of the Nisei women having nicknames, and I wonder why. Some of the nicknames are quite funny -- Bright Eyes (he happened to be blind), Jockey, Juicy, Branny (my dad’s, because he was brainy, he claims), King Tut, Tarong (Filipino word for eggplant), etcetera. Someone should research this phenomenon and write a book about it!"

"The wife of another subject wrote in a thank you card that the photograph of him sitting on a tiny stool in front of a tree, cupping an orange in both hands was fitting," says Sato. "Here is what the wife from Japan wrote: 'He really love the orange tree. Ono [delicious] too. Molokai people call to him 'Kenji Orange.' He so happy. Thank you.'

While the exhibition drew considerable local interest, Sato was surprised to learn that it also attracted attention around the world.

"A Japanese American publication called the Hawaii Herald wrote a story about my exhibition, and apparently, there are subscribers who live in countries far removed from Hawai'i," Sato says. "A Hawai'i local who now resides in Germany read about my exhibition, then e-mailed me to say that she appreciated my efforts to document the Hawai'i Nisei and urged me to go over to her home island, and photograph the Molokai Nisei. She gave me the essential introductions and contact information and I eventually made it there and was able to meet and photograph the engaging Nisei of Molokai thanks to their support."

"The people of Molokai are still bonded by community values," Sato comments. "When someone passes away, everyone helps with the preparation for the funeral. Lanai is the same way. The plantation-based tradition continues on those two islands."

That sense of devotion to community, says Sato, is what originally inspired him to embark on the project.

"My late sister, Charlene Junko Sato, was a scholar and also an activist, in the very best sense of the word," Sato remembers. "Her sense of social responsibility influenced me. That influence, in combination with a growing dissatisfaction with doing commercial photography, led me to the epiphany that photographing the Nisei would make a contribution to preserving their legacy and also satisfy my need to do more meaningful photography."

"What I believe distinguishes their generation has to do with kachikan, or values," says Sato. "And my feeling is that this value set has been diluted with each successive generation. In general, I don’t see this as a good thing. It may be regrettable, and also inevitable. I do make comparisons between the Nisei and their descendants, and in conversations with Sansei [third-generation Japanese American], Yonsei [fourth-generation], and Gosei [fifth-generation], I get this feeling that they lack the 'right stuff.' Perhaps it’s something that cannot be avoided because our lives are much easier now, thanks to the sacrifices of the Nisei, and we have become 'soft' in character due to the absence of real struggle and adversity from our lives?"

"In comparison, the Nisei struggled through a tumultuous period in history, and came through it successfully, in large part due to their kachikan," notes Sato, who is a Yonsei. "It would be foolish not to absorb the benefit of their experience through their stories."

"A misperception about the Nisei is that they are all alike in character and thought," says Sato. "There is a risk of stereotyping when describing the Nisei as a group. I am not totally innocent in this regard. One purpose of the exhibition was to focus on the Nisei as individuals. But that is easier said than done, because we have such a strong perception of them as a group, which blinds us to the fact that although they may share points of commonality, they are individuals like anyone else, not of a single mold."

Sato says that accurately capturing the range of colorful individual personalities was his main creative challenge.

"I have to admit that I was a bit embarrassed to be thanked with such sincerity by family members of my Nisei subjects for including their father, mother, uncle, auntie, sister or brother in the exhibition," says Sato. "I guess that I never gave much thought to how the viewers would react to the photographs. My only concern was to make photographs that satisfied me in content and expression."

For Sato, finding satisfaction led to taking a major departure from his usual work.

"From the beginning of my career till the present, I have enjoyed photographing still life," says Sato. "Photographing people was not my favorite thing to do. It required too much 'work' to have to deal with a live subject. In the excitement of embarking on this new photographic adventure, I just jumped into it, not giving a thought to the logistics of it all, and how I would manage the actual photography of these people. It was a risky move, given that I had very little experience in photographing people."

"My personality had to undergo a transformation," Sato says. "I was not a person who took control of situations without effort. Admittedly, I am a reticent person by nature. The transformation toward becoming more gregarious has been gradual but necessary."

"Ironically, it was another personality trait of mine that helped to nurture this change – an affinity for challenges," says Sato. "I am realizing that although I lacked experience in photographing people six years ago when I began the project, it was the enjoyment of the challenge that, in part, made the whole process seem less of a task than it was. In retrospect, projects that are challenging seem to have a way of stimulating self-knowledge and self-discovery."

* * *

Gokurosama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai'i
February 14 - May 24, 2009
Japanese American National Museum

Gokurōsama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai'i is an exhibition of 35 black & white portraits by Honolulu photographer Brian Y. Sato.

See more info >>www.janm.org/exhibits/gokurosama/

©2009 Darryl Mori

gokurosama hawaii nisei photographs portraits