Dispossession will be opening a ‘solo’ show in the Lobby Gallery of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday, November 15. I will be there for the opening (4-6pm, food and drink will be served) to give a brief, informal artist talk and to chat about the next component of the project – an academic art-based research project with my brother, Dr. Jeff Masuda. One product of the project will be a documentary film (pending funding).
A fairly revealing interview I had with John Endo Greenway of The Bulletin about my life experiences that ultimately led to the creation of Dispossession appears in their October issue. I spoke a lot about these experiences in my artist’s talk at the Japanese Canadian National Museum in October. The Bulletin is a monthly magazine (print and web) about the Japanese Canadian community and has been around for many, many years (1958, perhaps even earlier under a different name…?). You can read the interview on The Bulletin’s website, or below.
Born in Edmonton and raised in a suburb called Sherwood Park, filmmaker and photographer Greg Masuda had what he calls a very ‘Canadian’ prairie upbringing. “We’d do Canadian things like play hockey and baseball, eat Canadian things like Kraft Dinner, perogies, and steaks. But occasionally some sukiyaki would find its way to the table or my Dad would say something in Japanese that none of us understood, and I’ve known how to use chopsticks since I can remember. A couple times a year we would make it down to where my Dad was raised, near Lethbridge, and it was then, when we visited my family there, that a little more of our Japanese roots came out.”
By the time Greg was thirty he was living the Canadian dream—Vice President of a company that was one of the stock market darlings during the late 90s, a very good salary, plenty of stock options, a wife, a house in the suburbs, two nice cars in the garage, a dog and cat. As he says, “Every measure of success I had grown up with had been exceeded and my future was looking bright.”
At the end of 2005 though, within a matter of months, Greg’s world collapsed around him, the life he had carefully constructed in tatters. After the dust had cleared he was left feeling unfulfilled, somewhat taken advantage of, and depressed.
He began to question what he calls his neo-liberal values, eventually rejecting the corporate mindset where “good people can be made to say and do awful things in the interests of the shareholders.” As he concedes, “I’m not proud of that phase of my life. But I needed that wake up call to begin being true to myself. It’s the genesis of the work that I’m doing today in photography and film.”
That work is what brought him into the Kizuna exhibit, where his large-scale work Dispossession takes up much of one wall in the gallery. Now living in Vancouver, he was invited to take part in the project and he jumped at the chance to dig deeper into his roots in the community and to explore how the Japanese Canadian experience fits into the broader picture of what it means to be Canadian and displaced.
Interview: Greg Masuda
Your life took a ninety-degree turn from the one you lived up until you were thirty. What was it like to experience such a dramatic shift, not only in lifestyle, but approach to life itself?
At the beginning of 2009 I was set to carry on with that career. I was determined to get my CA to complement my executive experience and I was two months into articling at a big accounting firm in downtown Vancouver when a friend of mine planted this seed about film school. I had never considered making movies before but it sure sounded like a lot more fun than doing taxes and audits. Practically speaking, it was financial suicide, but in my heart it just felt right. I’m not a complete idiot though—I was in a good position to do it—my expenses were low, I had no dependents, I had some money in the bank and I figured I was still pretty employable if it didn’t work out. Still it was extremely scary, especially the money part, because I’ve never had to worry about money before, but also I suffer from some serious imposter syndrome . . . I had been a photographer on the side for a number of years but I just didn’t think I was good enough to actually make it in the arts. But then I imagined myself on my death bed reflecting on my life and wishing I had gone to film school when I had a chance—and that’s what pushed me over the edge. I think I’m doing pretty well for being only 18 months all-in, but I still get scared if I think about money for very long.
As part of the project, you went into the archives looking for inspiration. What did you find there?
The first photograph I saw during my research was the one that inspired the aesthetic for Dispossession. It’s a photo of an RCMP officer leading a long line of Japanese families outside of the immigration building in Vancouver, circa 1945. That photo represents the eastward displacement of Japanese Canadians during the internment, including my own family’s relocation from Shawnigan Lake to the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta.
I also spent a lot of time looking at the New Canadian from January 1942 onwards, especially during the first few months of 1942, before anyone knew their lives and their community were going to be confiscated by Canada. The gravity of my family’s loss really hit home for me. It made me angry with Canada actually, something I’ve never felt before.
Your contribution to this project is a single photograph, or at least that’s what it appears to be on the surface. In reality, the piece you have created is made up of many works that you have stitched together with Photoshop. What made you decide to work on such a large scale?
In November 2009 I began to work as a camera assistant on a CTV documentary about Vancouver’s world famous photo conceptualist artists including Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and Rodney Graham. Their work was very new to me. They work in a large scale format which sometimes takes years of planning and production to create. Witnessing these masters at work completely changed my approach to photography, and I owe them credit for inspiring this new approach. I tried to mimic some of their methods and the scale of their work in this piece, and, for the most part, it seems to have worked. But it’s not my first piece either. I did a ‘practice’ piece for another small show in June, a photograph I call Repulsion.
Can you talk about the thought process behind creating this piece?
Beth Carter asked me to participate in Kizuna a whole year ago but it wasn’t until August that I actually decided what the photograph would be. After a conversation with Lily Shinde about the internment, the photo began as an idea for a documentary film seeded by my brother, about the dispossession of populations in Vancouver starting with colonization of First Nations, then the Japanese Canadian internment, and finally the gentrification of today’s Downtown Eastside community. Whatever form discrimination takes, be it racial or socio-economic, it’s the same thing repeating itself over and over again over the past 150 years. It’s shocking what was acceptable to society and endorsed by our government in the past, i.e. the genocide of First Nations and the racial hatred of the Japanese, and I hope that people will realize what’s taking place right now on the Downtown Eastside and to see that it’s equally unacceptable. I hope that this piece will add to the voices of the community that have been trying to get that point across all this time. It’s sad but I think the majority of Vancouverites, and Canadians for that matter, would just as soon see the whole neighbourhood gentrified with condos and coffee shops. There’s just so much ignorance out there.
It’s quite a remarkable work—what should people look for when they see it?
The exhibition photograph is 9.5 feet wide by over 2 feet tall, that is, it’s pretty big but there is a lot of detail to look at as well. It’s meant to be scrutinized, from a very micro view of the details of East Hastings, to the much larger picture that you can only appreciate if you stand back ten feet. I hope the viewers take the time to really look at this photo from all perspectives you need to really appreciate it.
Also, everything is in there for a reason. The location was very carefully scouted. Notice that they’re walking away from the Woodwards building for example—there’s a reason for that. The people in the photo are there on purpose, their gender, race, age are all intentional. Some are ghosts and some are not. The trees are black and white while Hastings Street is in colour . . . The direction the people are walking and even the directions they are looking are intentional. The little girl is looking right at you. Some viewers have even pointed out details that I hadn’t intended to put in but speak to them—like the graffiti you can see through the RCMP officer and the fact that it sits right where his heart is. What that means to her might not mean anything to someone else, or it might mean something completely different. There is a ton of intention and information put into this piece but it really depends what the viewers see for themselves and what messages they take away from it. I hope they get my message, but maybe take something else away that’s unique to their experience too.
You’ve moved from the outer reaches of the Japanese Canadian diaspora to the community’s historic home, the downtown eastside. You’re still young, but you have lived those two realities. Have you learned anything about what it means to be Japanese Canadian, or being a hapa?
I don’t actually live in the Downtown Eastside but I spend time working and volunteering there. I was on the board of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House for a bit and I’m also on the Advocacy Committee of the Powell Street Festival. My experience working in the neighbourhood has kept me grounded, especially when I was working for that big accounting firm. You can get so caught up in work and business and nearly everyone around you is chasing material wealth and bigger and better things. I actually depended on my work in the Downtown Eastside to save me from buying back into those ideas.
What I’ve also learned, from my research and my time in the Japanese Canadian community, is that the internment was very real, and very devastating. I myself am a product of the internment if it weren’t for my father’s relocation to Southern Alberta, he would have never met my mother and I would not exist today. But, since I do, I have taken every opportunity to learn about this side of my family. The more time I spend in the archives, the more I feel that I am part of the Japanese Canadian community.
Was this your first time delving into the archives? What do you bring away from this project?
Yes, it was my first time, but I attended a genealogy workshop last fall that was very inspiring. I looked into what it meant for my family. I also found fear mongering ads in the New Canadian from Vancouver businesses trying to capitalize on the Japanese Canadian question and that’s what really makes me sad. We think that the internment was racially motivated, and it was, but there is also a pattern of financial motivation in all instances of Vancouver’s dispossessed. Greed isn’t unique to Vancouver of course, but it’s been ground zero for a lot of battles over property and land—real estate—for as long as Vancouver has existed. It’s shocking—and the saddest part is that it’s happening again right now. This is what I’ll take away the most, as my brother and I continue this research for a documentary film.
You’re heavily involved in film, what projects are upcoming for you?
I am pitching a new film project about hereditary cancer to a theatre of international commissioning editors and industry professionals at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 28. I also have some photographic projects in mind that will pick up where Repulsion left off. I start a three month internship at the National Film Board on October 4. My brother and I are also working on a documentary film in the same spirit as the Dispossession photograph.
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?
I don’t know how many times a friend, acquaintance, or someone I don’t even know, has come to me for advice about photography. With over a decade of shooting professionally under my belt I guess it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that people might expect me to actually have some wisdom to impart, and as it turns out I often do. So I open my mouth and I begin to talk and what I discover is that I sometimes (often) need to resist getting carried away with my advice so as not to flood my poor student with more information than they can handle. That is when I realize my affliction – I love to teach photography.
One time about five years ago I attempted to corral this enthusiasm and created a photography club at work where I taught beginner/intermediate SLR/DSLR techniques. It was a pretty popular little club for its brief existence; alas, the stresses of the office quickly distracted me from that endeavour and it floundered. I don’t work in that office anymore…
Then two years ago I was asked to teach a short class on how to take better photos with a disposable camera. I threw together some information about composition, getting closer, changing perspective, some stuff on parallax, how to operate the camera and flash, etc. and, as simple and restrictive a tool that a disposable camera is, the class was a hit. Since that first class I have I dressed it up a bit and now teach a series of similar classes using point-and-shoot digital cameras. I am often very impressed with the photos my students produce.
Today, that momentum is building. On a regular basis I am teaching small classes and private tutorials on subjects ranging from point-and-shoot basics to DSLR techniques, from street photography to Photoshop for photographers. Chances are, if you are a beginning or intermediate level photographer, whether you’re shooting with a state-of-the-art DLSR or a $100 point-and-shoot – if you’re ready to move to the next level, I might have something to teach you to get you on your way. Give me a call for rates.
As part of their new photographic exhibit Two Views: Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank, the National Nikkei Heritage Center and Museum is holding photography workshops and guess who is teaching? Yep, Yours Truly!
I am holding two workshops: one for people who wish to learn and practice how take better pics with their digital point-and-shoot cameras (January 23), and one for those who want to learn and practice the fundamental skills necessary to master their Digital SLRs (February 20).
These are both beginner/intermediate classes with a limit of 20 students per class. Each 2 hour session is only $20. To learn more and to book a spot, please visit one of the links above for contact and booking information.
Last week Jessica Taylor, founder of Pacifica Photography, asked me if I would be interested in volunteering my photography services for The Kettle Friendship Society’s upcoming art show, Art Against Stigma, part of the 13th annual Eastside Culture Crawl. I was more than happy to help and shortly I found myself at The Kettle housing offices with a room full of artwork and two enthusiastic volunteer assistants, Dion and Jesse. Our task: photograph every piece in the room so that they could be used for promotional and archival purposes. In the hectic 7 hours that followed, we had unpacked, photographed, and re-packed 305 pieces of art that were on their way to be framed and displayed at the upcoming show November 20-22.
I have to admit, the quantity of work for this volunteer effort was a bit overwhelming. Dion, Jesse and I had a good flow going by the end of the day but often we would come across a piece that needed more than a slight adjustment of lighting to make it look its best. Some pieces were behind glass, and rather than use a polarizer (to avoid a slightly blue cast that it introduces), I darkened the room and hid my reflection by spending most of the afternoon covered by a dark blanket. I spent two nights in post, straightening and cropping, cloning and healing (to fix some seams in a not-so-seamless seamless paper background). Due to time constraints I had to forego any perspective oddities or lens distortions – shooting straight on with a 50mm lens and keeping the subject well away from the edges helped.
All of the artists that participate in Art Against Stigma have mental health disabilities and, as the title suggests, the show is designed to shatter the preconceptions that people have with “mental health disability” – it shattered mine. What immediately struck me was the quality of the art. Several times a new piece would be placed in front of my lens and I would think “wow, that would look good on my wall”. Then I would see how reasonable, and often how downright inexpensive, some of those pieces were going to be sold for. Dion, Jesse and I made mental notes of which ones we might snap up for ourselves. Today, a week later, I had to be reminded that all of the artists have mental health disabilities. I guess I’m comfortable in that knowledge and have already moved past it because when I look at these pieces all I see are some very talented artists.
The Art Against Stigma Art Show is organized by The Kettle Friendship Society and is one of several shows in the 13th annual Eastside Culture Crawl visual arts festival in Vancouver. The show runs November 20-22 at 1725 Venables Street (at Commercial).
Sunday, October 18, 2009. Four hours. Thirteen photographers. Six locations. Seven hundred forty-four portraits of happy, willing Downtown East Side neighbours.
I do not recommend that anyone walk into Vancouver’s infamous Downtown East Side and begin snapping photos. Even carrying a camera in the area will certainly attract angry looks, likely some angry comments, and perhaps even angry actions from residents weary of their portrayal in popular media, impatient with the world looking in on them as if they were on display in a zoo. The first time I ventured to the downtown east side with my camera, I was a naive outsider, and I was on the receiving end of those angry looks, comments, and yes, actions. I don’t go there with my camera anymore, unless I am invited.
Vancouver’s Downtown East Side can be a hazardous place for photographers, that is unless you are well known and well trusted – the Downtown East Side Neighbourhood House is just that. A fixture at the corner of East Hastings and Jackson for over three years, the Neighbourhood House is a tiny, grass-roots community center happily decorated with a brightly painted wall mural and a small street-side garden – both curiously free of any fences, graffiti or trash – the Neighbourhood House cares for its neighbours and its neighbours care for it. The people that staff it are happy, selfless and welcoming to anyone that wants to visit. You can get a hot coffee, a healthy meal, a good conversation, participate in one of their many food or craft programs, or maybe even get a photography lesson from yours truly.
Only a well-trusted organization like the Downtown East Side Neighbourhood House could attract 744 Downtown East Side residents to participate in an ambitious project like Splendour In The Night. The show is the manifestation of the long-time vision of the Neighbourhood House’s Executive Director, Joyce Rock. Now in its second year, many residents sought us out to have their photo taken for this year’s show. You might have noticed that there are no photos in this post. This is because all of the photographers gave their word that their work would be used solely for Splendour In The Night. Not a single photo will make it into our portfolios. No pay, no pictures, no expectations. Just the opportunity to get to know the people from a neighbour’s perspective, as friends.
Splendour In The Night is a celebration of the neighbourhood, for the neighbourhood, by the neighbourhood. It is an outdoor slide show, portraits projected on a big screen beginning at dusk on the longest night of the year – the winter solstice in December – and running until the following morning. The show will take place outside, adjacent to Oppenheimer Park in old Japantown. It is not a media event. It is not a protest. And the public is welcome to stop by and enjoy the show.
On Saturday, October 10, I had the pleasure of being Fran Chelico’s 2nd shooter for the wedding of Jenn & Justin, a very expressive, fun and photogenic couple. This is my second wedding working with Fran and I’m looking forward to more next year.
Fran Chelico is an extremely talented and successful wedding photographer. It’s no wonder – she has all of the right stuff: an energetic and positive personality to attract and direct her couples, an ability to adapt to changing light, locations, and personalities which helps with shooting on the go, sharp business acumen and professionalism to manage and grow her business, and an easygoing attitude which makes her fun to work with. Oh, did I mention she has a great eye, and beautiful style? She was named one of Vancouver’s favorite wedding photographers by the readers of Metro News and is constantly in demand throughout every wedding season.
Weddings are where I cut my teeth in the world of professional photography. In 1999, while I was studying with the New York Institute of Photography, my little sister asked me to shoot her wedding. This was of course a great honour and I felt a huge responsibility to deliver professional results – I got down to work studied the wedding genre voraciously for the next six months. Soon the word was out and my friends Monica and Ian also booked me – their date: the day after my sister’s wedding, in a city three hours away. When August finally arrived, I was terrfied, afraid I’d mess up my exposures or miss a critical shot. I learned quickly why so many photographers shy away from weddings – they are very stressful and a lot of work!
Fortunately the hard work was worth it – the results were amazing – and I was off to the races, working my corporate job during the day and moonlighting as a professional wedding photographer on weekends. I put up a website, printed some business cards, signed up with Queensberry Albums, discovered and honed my style. I learned that had the most fun, and therefore the most strength, in shooting documentary-style, also known as photojournalism or verité in the filmmaking world. By my fourth season I was busier than I could manage and had to make a decision. I had the momentum to make a living as a photographer with my bread and butter coming from weddings. In parallel however, my career as a corporate citizen was in high gear and was demanding longer hours and more energy. I chose what made sense at the time… and sadly decided to let the photography fade away. I continued to shoot for two more summers, but turned away all but a few jobs reserved for friends and referrals from my favorite past clients.
Three years passed while my expensive gear gathered dust – it made sense to sell it but I just couldn’t bring myself to. In 2007 I picked up and moved to Vancouver then this spring, following an overwhelming heart-felt urge, I left a great job at one of the world’s largest professional services firms and took the plunge, back into the creative world, to study filmmaking. Within three months I had produced/directed my first film, Surviving In The Cracks, which went on to be selected for the Vancouver Short Film Festival this October. I also wanted to start shooting weddings again so I connected with some photographers in town and picked up a few jobs as a second shooter to get myself back on my feet. In addition to my film projects I’ve been shooting with the Powell Street Festival Society and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, I followed Canada’s Governor General around at We Day, and I’m beginning to teach, assist, and shoot various jobs with a major photography studio in Vancouver. I am back in the game, and this time, it’s with my whole heart.