Kayla Isomura: packing for unknown journeys


Seeking yonsei and gosei in Greater Vancouver and Victoria regions for a photo project in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of redress.

When Kayla Isomura ran this notice in The Bulletin and social media over the final few months of 2017 she couldn’t know what the success of the call-out would be. With a legacy of silence within the Japanese Canadian post-war community, there was no guarantee she woud receive much of a response at all. Thankfully, despite a slow initial uptake, she has ended up with a full shooting schedule, including both west coast Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans from the Seattle area, one of the stipulations being that they live within driving distance of Vancouver.

The Suitcase Project asks yonsei and gosei (4th and 5th generation Japanese Canadians and Americans) what would they pack if uprooted from their homes with only a moment’s notice. Participants will be photographed in their homes and then interviewed about the items that they chose to pack.

The resulting exhibit will be on display at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby from June to September, 2018.

As Kayla prepares to start shooting at the end of January, she spoke to The Bulletin by email.

I’ve admired your photography for several years now, following you on Instagram, mainly. When did you first pick up a camera? And did you take to it right away? Do you have any formal training or are you self-taught?

Thank you, John! I am often asked how long I’ve been doing photography, and I usually never know how to respond. Truthfully, I first picked up a camera when I was 12- or 13-years-old. I inherited a 4-megapixel camera from a great uncle and used it on school field trips for fun. It wasn’t until Grade 11 that I took a photography course in high school (also for fun). I learned the basic mechanics of shooting in film, developing in a darkroom and things like the rule of thirds. I took the class again the following year purely for fun, but I remember being a lot more interested in it in that senior year, experimenting with Photoshop and coloured film. I followed a few photographers online (Flickr at the time), but couldn’t emulate the work I was seeing because I was shooting in film or on a point and shoot camera. Silly, I know, but a lot of the work I was inspired by then were self-portraits shot on a 50mm f/1.8 lens. The following year, I began studying journalism at Langara College, which is where my interest in photography really sparked. I used my journalism program as an excuse to buy a digital SLR. My dad bought me a second hand camera body, which was produced in 2006, that I still use today as a second camera. My time at Langara was spent with a lot of experimentation and practice with portraiture. Later, I took a few lighting classes through Langara’s Continuing Studies program, which proved to be really valuable for what I want to do today. Since full-time photography school has never been in the picture, I think the primary way I’ve learned is simply shooting a lot, observing others and other work, and asking questions if anyone’s able to answer them.

The Suitcase Project is your first major photography project. What was the inspiration for the project?

While I was travelling for a few months around this time last year, I started to think about what I wanted to do when I came back to Vancouver. One of the biggest things was working on photography work I never had the chance to do. I’ve always been interested in a mix of work: fashion, editorial and photojournalism. I realized many of the photographers I follow on Facebook and Instagram create similar work, whether it’s the editing style or the type of models they shoot or even the locations. Everything is about looking good for “the ‘gram.” While I realized this type of work was doable (and very pretty), it wasn’t personal. It can easily be copied and reproduced, so what had more meaning to me? What would set me apart as a photographer when I think of what sets apart the artists I admire? I thought about how my own experiences could play a role in this.

Returning home, I somehow found myself thinking about internment and what would I pack if I was facing the same turn of events. Beyond me, I was very curious how others would respond. I applied for the National Association of Japanese Canadians’ (NAJC) Young Leaders Fund to help support the idea, and while I was waiting to hear back about the grant, I began mentioning the idea to folks. The initial response made me realize this was something I would do regardless of funding. Thankfully, I did receive some funding from the NAJC and upon my initial grant application, Sherri Kajiwara, Director/Curator of Nikkei National Museum, offered me space to exhibit it at the museum and the opportunity to work at the museum on my exhibit full-time.

Additionally, in 2016, I actually had an idea for an intergenerational photo project that never made it off the ground. At the time I was thinking about political and social issues that may differ from my time now to when my grandparents were my age, for example. Stemming from that, I think identity and my involvement in the Japanese Canadian community played a big role in developing The Suitcase Project and future works I have ideas for.

In hindsight, I think the moment Japanese Canadians and Americans were forcibly removed from their homes is significant. This moment every family faced was doubtfully captured by camera, but everyone had some form of choice to make. No one could predict the losses they would face during and after this time period. Had they known their remaining possessions would be sold or looted, how would they have packed differently? What people chose to pack also differed by age. I’ve learned of the many records teenagers packed at the time and how photo printing was in high demand shortly before families living in Vancouver were interned. We live in a digital age where all forms of entertainment and memories can be held in one device, but what if you had limited electricity, no access to the internet and were left to live in a shared shack in the middle of nowhere?

You’ve sent out notices calling for participants – what has the response been like?

The response has been enormous. I’ve had more than 90 individuals and families sign up, and the vast majority have been eligible to participate. Even on social media, I’ve read a few comments on different pages that have shared the call-out and they’ve been quite encouraging. While I’m only able to physically photograph folks within a certain driving distance of Vancouver, I’ve had people express interest from other cities across Canada and the States.

How did you decide who to include? Or did you take everyone who qualified?

The sole qualification I had was identifying as yonsei or gosei. I thought previously about specifying the connection to internment, but I assumed anyone who signed up would have a direct connection to it. After opening it up to Japanese Americans, I realized this wasn’t the case. I’ve had a handful of people sign up whose families weren’t interned, but faced other things. One person shared that their family was immediately forced to Japan and also went into hiding in the States. So yes, I’ve accepted everyone who met my one qualification. However, not everyone has expressed commitment yet, so I currently have 45 individuals and families I am expecting to photograph to date.

Do you have any preconceptions walking into this project?

I certainly had some preconceptions before I even posted my first call-out, but I think the sign-up process has changed that. Prior to the first few individuals signing up, I assumed most people in my generation (or who would sign up) would be under 30. However, I’ve had individuals and families sign up aged two to 60, identifying as yonsei and/or gosei. I’m one of a handful of yonsei apart of this project under the age of 25. I also assumed all participants would have direct connections to internment. As previously mentioned, this is not true.

How are the shoots set up? Will you do much prep work ahead of time in terms of getting to know your subjects?

*Participant spoiler alert* Japanese Canadians were given maybe 48 hours notice to pack a specified weight (175 lbs for adults and 75 lbs for children) and leave their homes. While I am still doing research about the Japanese American history, I’ve been told they could only pack what they could carry. I’m recreating this moment with participants by sending them the same “evacuation” notices also 48 hours before our session. At the end of the 48 hours, I’ll be photographing them within their home with what they’ve chosen to pack, and interviewing them afterwards asking what they chose to pack and why.

In terms of prepwork, I can only prepare a few of the questions and ideas for the final visual in advance. I’ve planned some of the technical logistics, in terms of gear, but I think going through the shooting process, things are bound to change. Every shooting situation is going to vary because of the time of day, location and individual, but as someone with a background in journalism, I’m used to thinking on my feet and I actually quite enjoy it. I won’t have the time or capacity to scout everyone’s homes before I visit them so any scouting will take place the day of. For the interview process, I have a small set of questions I intend to ask each person, but I am a big believer in the organic conversation that can happen in-person, so I do expect to ask folks more personalized questions the day of.

Some folks actually took to some of the space in the initial sign-up form and wrote quite extensively about their family’s history, which was very generous of them. It also helped me get an idea of the range of backgrounds I would be working with. In a follow-up form to those eligible, I asked how much they knew about internment and/or their family’s story. What people have chosen to share or how they’ve chosen to express their knowledge online is already helpful in me being able to generate some personalized questions ahead of time. I think the biggest issue will be limiting myself to the number of questions I ask. I could probably spend hours with each person just to learn about them.

The main thing I wanted to do for these photos was use off-camera flash (my apologies if this gets a little technical). I’ve started to really admire lighting and how it can change a photo. This is why I took those couple lighting courses a few years ago. I wanted to be able to control the light and since I will be working out of people’s homes for this project, I can already assume that many places will have limited natural light. This also gives me the flexibility of working at any time of day (or night). As you can see in the cover image, lighting can also dramatize an image, something that was also important to me.

Your thesis is that “generations descended from those who were interned or incarcerated will not have endured the same history, but will remain affected by it in various ways.” How do you think the younger generations have been affected? Has it affected you and your family, do you think?

What stands out to me as a prime example of how internment has affected younger generations is how separated we are from each other and our identity. I never thought of the term “intergenerational trauma” in relation to internment until hearing it through the Hastings Park 1942 exhibit at Nikkei National Museum and through a friend. I suppose that’s a good way to think about how the internment has affected post-war generations in general. Through the generations, we’ve also endured a loss of language and culture. Although I think language was inevitable.

Both sides of my family have long been Canadian-born. I am yonsei and 4th generation Chinese Canadian so I started to think of this question in a compare/contrast sort of way between both sides of my family (results of internment vs non-internment). While I don’t speak either traditional language, we’ve longer eaten more Chinese foods than Japanese foods, and Chinese New Year has always felt like a much larger celebration over New Year’s Day with my dad’s side of the family (although we’ve always celebrated both). I actually never understood the tradition of celebrating New Year’s Day and didn’t realize other (Japanese) families did the same thing until a couple of years ago. I think there was always a lot more mystery with my dad’s side of the family, in terms of traditions, food and where he grew up. I also didn’t grow up meeting my Japanese Canadian grandparents. My mom’s family has always had roots in Vancouver and I certainly did learn more about their history growing up, while I only started piecing together our connection to internment a few years ago. Growing up, I don’t think I recognized myself as “Asian” either. I was somewhere in between — “whitewashed” some would inject — as I grew up with what felt like a majority of white folks. I realize this is to no fault of previous generations, but I sometimes feel at a loss when I think of what cultural traditions are for my family, aside from things we’ve created for ourselves.

As a sansei, I first got involved in the community when I was in my late teens. I was part of a younger generation that was coming into its own, although I was younger than most of my peers. Now that mantle has been passed on to the yonsei and gosei. I’m curious how you see the yonsei in relation to the rest of the community. Do you feel there is a place for you within the community? 

I see the yonsei as the generation that’s wanting to be more connected to their cultural identity and starting to ask questions about who they are and where they come from. I’m not sure if that sits the same with other generations, as most of these conversations I’ve had have been with yonsei. A lot of us have never met other yonsei and when we do, there’s a lot of excitement, energy and wondering. After being part of this community for a few years, I think there certainly is a place for our generation so long as the communities that want to engage with us — or we are already engaging with — are open-minded and receptive to change. Providing opportunities for mentorship, learning and new ideas are key elements to including yonsei and gosei in the existing community. I think what’s also important is how diverse our community is. Many of the yonsei I know who are already part of the Japanese Canadian community volunteer and work in communities that support the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and other marginalized communities, for example. We’re very socially and politically engaged, and many of us want to help where we can boots on the ground.

You’re involved in the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders, now the Kikiai Collaborative. What has it given you, being involved in these group, and how has it impacted the way you see the world and the community?

The first Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference I attended in 2014 was my introduction into the Japanese Canadian community and the social issues that came with it. I didn’t realize there were other Japanese Canadians out in the world aside from my family, and now I’m part of a large network of incredible nikkei makers and doers.

Not only have my taste buds expanded (I was actually afraid of red bean growing up because I never ate it at home), but I also feel more confident with who I am as a person and what I’ve come to value and respect. Learning that I was “Japanese Canadian” and all the excitement and confusion that came with that prodded me into wanting to meet other yonsei and to challenge my understanding of race and ethnic relations. I’ve certainly evolved from my overexcitement upon meeting other yonsei to becoming an active listener, motivated to do things among and with the community.

The sansei were pretty far removed from the internment – in fact many didn’t even know of it until they grew up – yet they took up the cause of redress on behalf of their parents and grandparents. I don’t except you to speak for your generation, but how do you perceive the generations that came before you and the struggles they endured?

I have a lot of respect and empathy for the generations that came before me. I’m currently reading Roy Miki’s Redress, which has been quite emotional. It angers me to read how Japanese Canadians were viewed as too incompetent to vote or unable to assimilate prior to World War II. I can only admire (to say the least) their efforts and achievements when folks were so against them. Even post-war, those who’ve worked hard to achieve redress are inspiring. I have an understanding as well for those interned who chose not to share their experiences with their children. While I know firsthand how that can affect a person, I don’t blame them.

Regarding the sansei generation, I’ve heard stories about how their voices are not necessarily heard as much as the nisei and now the yonsei. After hearing some stories of how they grew up, I’ve really grown interested in learning more about their generation. I actually intend to create a project focused on them.

Your dad Kevin recently joined the board of the NNMCC and your sister Erica recently finished up an internship at the Centre. Is it meaningful for your family to be involved in the community together?

I think now we just have a better idea of what we’re all doing with our lives. It’s funny having my dad come into the community three years after Erica and I have already been involved. The community is small enough that you start to see the same people on different committees or at different events, and I’ve certainly learned a lot about the community since first entering it in 2014. Now I’m watching my dad play catch up, as Erica and I have freely been able to talk about events, organizations and who’s doing what in the community.

It’s interesting that you chose to open up the project to Americans as well as Canadians. Why did you decide to make the project bi-national?

In mid-November, I photographed an event for Densho, a Seattle-based organization focused on preserving the history of Japanese Americans. I took this opportunity out of curiosity about the Japanese American community and what that looked like compared to the Japanese Canadian community. Meeting the folks from Densho, we talked briefly about The Suitcase Project, as I was just in the early stages of looking for participants. We connected quite well and discussed possibilities of cross-collaboration between borders. At the event, I also met a(n American) yonsei who was also interested in learning about each other’s history and also organizing potential gatherings together. At this stage in my project, I only had about 20 folks from the Vancouver area signed up. Seattle being only a three-hour drive away, I thought it couldn’t hurt to reach out to the Japanese American community, especially after forming these new connections. I previously had two individuals from Seattle sign up, with one of them being my cousin so I knew I would photograph her regardless.

I didn’t expect to reach so many Japanese Americans, but part of the reception being so huge was because of the Japanese American community. I contacted about three or four Japanese American or Asian American organizations in Seattle about sharing my call-out and within one week, I had 30 Japanese American folks sign up. At the same time, I finally reached about the same number of folks in the Vancouver area. Not only are folks living in the Seattle area accessible by driving, but I was generally interested in hearing how they would respond to this project idea. This stemming from forced relocations continuing to happen in the world today, but particularly how official bodies in the US have used the incarceration of Japanese Americans as a “precedent” for an immigrant registry, implemented a travel ban targeting folks from Muslim-majority countries and rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy (to name a few).

On a more positive note, including Japanese Americans in this project has created an exciting opportunity to bring our communities together. Just in September, I thought how incredible it would be to organize a gathering that would bring (younger) Japanese Canadians and Americans together and now I have the connections to actually make this happen.

Scroll to top