Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Family Photography and Persecuted Communities: Methodological Challenges

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Family Photography and Persecuted Communities: Methodological Challenges

Article excerpt

I FOUND THE PHOTOGRAPH in one of my Obaasan's embossed leather family albums. As a young girl I was always fascinated by this photo. It was there among the black and white snapshots recording my mother's carefree childhood before the Second World War. The photo itself is nothing remarkable. It is a 5" x 8" family portrait taken around 1936 in a photography studio in Vancouver (see Thomson 2005). Ojiisan (Yatsumatsu Nakashima) and Obaasan (Miyuki, nee Mukai) look young and stylish sitting confidently poised with their three small children, my Aunt Lillian, my mother Rosalie, and my Uncle Bob.

Every time I look at the photograph, I carefully study it, feeling pleasure as I recognize everyone, noting a wayward curl in Aunt Lillian's girlish haircut and the minute details of Ojiisan's steadfast gaze. They are all there, before me, like a cast of characters from my mother's stories when they lived in their house on Jackson Street overlooking Powell Grounds in the heart of Vancouver's Japanese Canadian community in the 1930s. I have written about this photograph before using it as an example of their prosperity before the war (McAllister 2006), before the Canadian government used the War Measures Act to strip their rights and classify them as enemy aliens along with over 22,000 other Japanese Canadians. It was before "all people of Japanese racial descent" were rounded up, their possessions and properties liquidated by the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property and sent to internment camps, road construction projects, and sugar beet farms in the prairies as part of a larger plan to remove them from British Columbia (BC) and later Canada (see Adachi 1991; Sunahara 1981).

When I first examined the photograph using methods of analysis developed by Annette Kuhn ([1995] 2002) and Marianne Hirsch (1997), I came to realize that it captured the story of an ideal family, one that my mother lovingly imparted to me as her daughter. It was a story that as her daughter I became complicit in protecting, to the point that I was unable to see the evidence of their duress and loss visible in family photographs taken in East Lillooet where they were interned from 1942 to 1945. As I discuss next, it was only by approaching these photos from the distance from my position as daughter, through the voices of others, that I was able to release the emotional grip of my mother's stories and see the details in the internment camp photos that told another story. I came to realize that my mother's idyllic story as a way to protect her family, keeping their unity and happiness intact, averting the gaze from the losses, humiliations, and intergenerational damage that Japanese Canadian families underwent in the hands of the Canadian government. Strangely, though, despite all my self-reflexive efforts, I never noticed the shadow on the bottom edge of the photograph, a flaw in the process of development, that spreads upward as if slowly dissolving their image. My inability to perceive the spreading shadow, a mark that mars an otherwise perfect picture of their prewar plentitude, was shocking. I noticed it only three years ago when I presented the photo during a lecture for my course on photography.

Methodologically, in order to analyze photographs, as Hans Belting (2011) argues more generally in relation to pictures, we need to understand how we have been socialized to see. I have been socialized to see family photographs in a particular way. I did not see the shadow creeping into the photograph's frame, threatening to dissolve the image of the family. Given the way I averted my gaze from the signs of duress in the internment camp photos, did I also avoid the shadow because it metaphorically pointed to what was outside the photograph's frame: the call for a "White Canada Forever" (Ward [1978] 1990) that was gaining momentum in the 1930s with anti-Asian groups lobbying to remove Japanese Canadians from Canada (Sunahara 1981:7-15, 24). This shadow threatened not just my mother's family but the existence of all Japanese Canadians. …

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