DISPOSSESSION PART 5 of 5: CONSTRUCTING A SINGLE IMAGE FROM MANY – Reflecting on the creative process of my photograph for Kizuna
It probably doesn’t surprise you to read that this isn’t a single exposure from my camera. This single image, which will be hanging in the museum starting September 10, is actually a composite of more than 30 separate photographs, selected from over 1000 exposures (probably closer to 1500 but I’m not going to count). That’s about the extent of my technique that I’m going to reveal, except to say that in every way, I have never attempted anything like this before. Yes I’ve done photo composites before, but usually a single location, with 1 or 2 people, and 1 or 2 photographs merged into one.
I did two composites earlier this year (not knowing I would use, nay stretch, the technique into this one made up of three locations, 17 people, and 30-plus photos). Cake, right? My computer didn’t think so. (Warning: I’m going to geek out once more for a bit here) Before this project I thought Macs and Photoshop (a legit CS4 version on an 8-month new 27” iMac i7 with 8GB RAM) were fast and stable systems. That is until Photoshop starts saving your files automatically into the “.psb” format (not .psd for those who know what I mean). That means you’ve gone past the maximum file size that .psd can handle into this other realm known as “Large File Format”. It begins to happen around 2GB. When it gets up to 5 or 6GB, that’s when your (my) previously stable system begins to crash and reboots to reduce crashes are the norm. Saving your progress takes 5-10 minutes when you’re working with a 6GB file. Opening a 6GB file takes 5-10 minutes. Then there’s visually inspecting 200 million pixels to make sure there aren’t any defects… and fixing the defects you find (I hope I found them all). Let’s just say it took a whole lot of time to do the post production on this image.
Which brings us full circle. Back to the print lab. I’m still here, in my third coffee shop today, blogging this verbose retrospective. The proofs for my print will be ready to view tomorrow, and the mounting material, aluminum, has been ordered. It’ll then take the better part of the remaining 1.5 weeks before the show to print, laminate, mount, and transport (Does your car have room to move a 9.5 foot piece of handle-with-extreme-care metal from Vancouver to Burnaby? Mine doesn’t) the photo by September 9, in time to be installed for the September 10 Opening Party.
If you can’t make the party it will be on display in the museum until November 27. Hope you can make it out to see it! Oh did I mention the title of the photograph is ‘Dispossession’?
Oh, you want to see it here? Well, maybe I’ll post something after the 10th.
DISPOSSESSION PART 4 of 5: A COMMUNITY (AND THE RCMP) RESPONDS! – Reflecting on the creative process of my photograph for Kizuna
At this point, time was not on my side but I’ve never been one to give up a project I believe in. It could be done. It would be done, one way or another. Call me foolishly ambitious. Two things I had going for me: 1. I wasn’t a stranger to the neighbourhood – I had become fairly well connected to the Downtown Eastside and Japanese Canadian communities in the past three years. 2. the Powell Street Festival was days away – surely I could find a “Japanese-looking family” to appear as “ghosts” in the photograph there! The response was initially slow but then it seemed like overnight I had cast the roles of the ghosts and the three present day community representatives. Doug Masuhara, Derek & Sayaka Iwanaka, Kasey Ryne Mazak, Donna Nakamoto, Ty Evans, Sahali Lee Tsang, Tyler Win, Kaylen Win, Sid Chow Tan, Donna Gilkes, Robert Bonner, Wendy Charbonneau… Cast – check!
The other, very important person I needed to recruit was a Stylist to create the wardrobe for the ghosts. Authenticity was key, so I needed someone who I believed could do the job. Fortunately, my roommate Nikolina Suric is in the biz. She had just finished heading up the costuming department on a TV pilot and was available and interested. Unfortunately, her wardrobe at Capilano University wasn’t accessible until the fall so she would have to purchase and/or make all of the costumes for the shoot, cutting deeper into my production budget. The most difficult costume to find wasn’t a costume at all – we needed a 1942-era RCMP uniform like the one that appears in the JCNM’s photo, leading the families along the tracks.
I contacted my MP, Libby Davies, for help and they referred me to a local RCMP office. I wrote a letter to the RCMP explaining the project and the context in which the uniform would be used – and then waited… with no response (and still have not received one). In the meantime, just less than a week before the shoot, Nikolina found us the real thing at a movie service company, with King’s Crown badges, brown surge, striped jodhpurs, belt, cross strap, hat – everything! The only problem was – as we discovered after battling a few hours of Trans Canada construction traffic between Vancouver and Aldergrove – they wouldn’t rent it to us until we had written permission from the RCMP Intellectual Property Office in Ottawa! And there were only 3 days left until the shoot! (The RCMP uniform is trademarked you see, and after some abuse of these rights by commercial clients (which I learned includes some Olympic clients), the RCMP was coming down hard on anyone with access to RCMP marks.) I sent all of my correspondence to Ottawa and begged for their permission! To my surprise they were extremely responsive – I was shocked when the Sergeant in charge actually answered his phone on the first ring! But, as I learned after two days of back and forth, their response was negative. Permission needed approval from some higher-ups. I lost faith but wrote one more email trying to explain my case further – even if they did approve, there was no way I would get their approval in time for the shoot. An hour later, an email arrived while I was wondering what I would do. It was a yes! They had given me permission to use it for Kizuna! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I happily camped my butt in bumper to bumper traffic on the trip to Aldergrove to get the uniform. Costumes – check!
Where to shoot it? Powell Street? Gentrification is marching east but it hadn’t reached Japantown quite yet (it probably will). I needed a place that demonstrated the real-estate steamroller effect on the Downtown Eastside community. The Woodward’s development was an obvious choice but I needed to check some facts first. I met with some community leaders I knew and began to do some fact checking. Woodward’s was ‘ground zero’ for the Woodsquat of 2002, where promises were made that eventually led to the end of the squat. While the community was invited to the table for extensive brainstorming of how the space would look and benefit the Downtown Eastside (most of which was ignored), and while some low income housing was included (75 family units, 125 single person units), the development of commercial and common spaces and over 500 market-rate condominiums (which sold out in hours at an average of $380,000), has proven also to be a vehicle for middle class outsiders, corporate tenants, and real-estate speculators to displace the poor. Today, Woodward’s is seen by Downtown Eastsiders as a literal reminder (two condo towers cast large shadows over the neighbourhood) and an iconic green light for gentrification east of Main. My choice for the location subtly shows the Woodwards building in the background, to the west (left), with community people (and the ghosts) symbolically walking away from it, eastward (right) – the direction which they are actually being displaced, and the direction that Japanese Canadians were also forced to move, 68 years ago. Location 1 of 3 – Check.
Initially my plan was that the Japanese Canadians would not appear as ghosts at all – they would be marching in the flesh, in costume right down Hastings with the present day neighbourhood people. That was the way it was going to be – until one day I pieced together a concept photo from my Hastings test shoot and the JCNM original. When I dropped these figures into the background, the idea for ghosts was decided. In addition to the symbolic meaning of something from the past, this approach would solve a number of other logistical and technical issues I was struggling with. I didn’t think I would have an authentic 1942 RCMP uniform and I didn’t know how authentic the other costumes would be (all were quite authentic in the end). I also fretted over the nightmare of arranging 10-15 people to hit their marks simultaneously, not to mention drawing a crowd of passers-by, and perhaps the Vancouver Police Department. On my budget, coordinating this safely and effectively was a major risk. But if I did ghosts… that brings us to location #2: the Greenscreen Shoot. This was easy. On my third call looking for a space, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House offered both to manage traffic at the Day 1 Hastings shoot AND open up their space (AND provide healthy snacks!) for my makeshift greenscreen studio for the Day 2 Shoot. Location 2 of 3 – Check.
The third location was the one I was less sure of. Somehow I needed to represent the first, and largest dispossession – that of the Coast Salish First Nations. I initially thought about including old-growth trees in the photo but my second choice was to place First Nations art strategically in the photo. But all of my calls to First Nations artists (Musqueam and Squamish I tried) were coming up empty. Trees it would be. Where are there trees that could represent those that once stood in the area now known as the Downtown Eastside? Stanley Park. Off I went. Location 3 of 3 – Check.
But were trees enough? The main contacts for First Nations leaders were away on vacation. Robert Bonner is Cree, and represents today’s aboriginal population in the Hastings scene, but Cree is not a First Nation of this area. Then, two days before the Greenscreen Shoot, Gary Johnston of the Native Education College returned my call to let me know his sister, Wendy Charbonneau, a Squamish Junior Elder, would be happy to appear in the photograph in full regalia. Wendy was the last piece in this complex puzzle of pre-production.
So three distinct and related communities had responded and were ready to go. Costumes were ready, locations selected. Then came the (relatively) easy part. Actually taking the photograph(s)…
DISPOSSESSION PART 3 of 5: THE IDEA – Reflecting on the creative process of my photograph for Kizuna
The idea for this photograph was not mine. It was my brother’s. My brother, Dr. Jeff Masuda is a professor of human geography at the University of Manitoba now, but three years ago, we both coincidentally ended up moving to Vancouver within a month of each other.
He was doing a post-doc at UBC, researching the effect of environment on health, specifically in the inner city of Toronto, and the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. He brought me onto his project to teach his subjects how to take better photos with disposable cameras. That was my first real exposure to the Downtown Eastside. Another thing we both had in common was our family of course – in the 1920’s our grandparents worked in the confectionery store in New World Hotel across from Oppenheimer Park, right in the heart of Japantown, the Downtown Eastside. My Dad’s family joked that they had to quit that business because the kids were eating all of their profits. The family moved to Shawnigan Lake in the 1930’s where my Dad was born in 1941. In 1942 they were forced to move again, and they chose the Alberta sugar beet fields over internment camps, in order to keep the family from being split 3 ways.
Last year I produced a documentary film about a research project that my brother was supervising and it was a successful collaboration – it’s still doing fairly well for both of us. Jeff subsequently suggested a topic for another film we would collaborate on, this time about the history of dispossessed communities in the area of the Downtown Eastside… First Nations, the Japanese Canadians, and the present-day Downtown Eastside.
In the meantime, I had been doing some volunteer work with the JCNM, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, the Powell Street Festival Society, and PIVOT Legal’s Hope In Shadows. In one project for SPARC BC I was lucky to find myself working with Rika Uto, Donna Nakamoto, and Scott Graham. It was there that I also met Lily Shinde who is on the Human Rights Committee of the Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association – she and I spoke at length about the importance of remembering the internment, and frankly, until that conversation, I hadn’t thought a lot about it since my high school days. She inspired me to always remember and to think critically about that period in our history. I filed our conversation near the front of my mind to come back to later…
In parallel with Kizuna, I began to do some research at the JCNM for this film. The first photograph I looked at in the collection struck me – the conversation with Lily surfaced – and I began to research more. My brother was visiting from Manitoba for this summer’s Powell Street Festival and I arranged a meeting with him, Lily and myself.
I proposed the idea for the photograph – and they were both enthusiastically on board. That was the green light I needed – I merged my research for the film and the Kizuna photograph and began to plan my August – this was an ambitious photograph – with only one month until the Kizuna show could this possibly be completed in time?