By Ann Starr
4 November 2013
Ghost Stories: Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa’s Tour of “Resurfaced” Japanese-American Internment Camps
I’m a fan of documentary photography. I love reading the stories in the images, the more complex the better. So Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa’s November show at the ROY G BIV Gallery in Columbus immediately struck me as something special. In Resurfacing, he presents both barren desert landscapes and urban landscapes uncannily desert-like, for none of them—vast as they are—include people. They are as remote, dry, and washed-out as the plains of sand and sagebrush devoid of habitation. How do we know these are not merely landscape shots? Because he has captioned them, and his captions both identify places and serve as titles to the stories that accompany them.
Kuroiwa’s sites, so impersonal in appearance, are all related by what has been erased: the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps on these sites during the Second World War, and camp structures that held them.
Were it not for Kuroiwa’s caption and the two-paragraph note that accompanies this photo, we wouldn’t know that the image, left, is of the Leupp Isolation Center where “problem inmates” from other camps around the West were transported for discipline (read: torture) in rumored underground facilities. Lacking material evidence beyond these couple of disintegrating structures, how does collective memory last? How is history documented?
The premise of this show is that physical evidence can indeed be blown away, knocked down, or resurfaced. In human cases, it can be silenced by violence or death.
Kuroiwa’s eerie view of the symmetrical, perfectly laid-out Golden Gate National Cemetery has a story fraught with invisible ironies. In it are interred the bodies of Japanese-American combat troops, men released from internment camps to fight in the War. The story he tells in the note to the images says that 14,000 such men fought, leaving their families behind in camps. Theirs was the most-decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the military. Yet the Tanforan mall, beyond, occupies the site of the former Tanforan Racetrack, were Japanese-Americans were lodged in horse stables on their ways to permanent camps.
All the internment camps were situated in barren countryside—desert or scrubland that would discourage escape attempts. One of the aspects of the invisible story, though, is that the camp populations were not bent on escape, but tended to established their own well-organized, coping societies in accordance with gaman, the Japanese discipline of acceptance and hard work, a turning inward rather than to aggression. That civilized characteristic, too, has been scrubbed out of history.
The photographs in Resurfaced emphasize the sense of the missing by Kuroiwa’s choice of points of view. These emphasize sky, distant horizon, or, in the Leupp photo, an upward leading line to a eternal vacancy, away from the ground under which men were tortured.
Kuroiwa’s show wholly depends on the interplay of image and text. I took in the hazy, haunting photographs, which left me feeling a little disturbed, with more questions than answers about their significance. Turning to the texts provided shocks: The stories are always grim or heart-rending. They sent me directly back to the photographs, which were instantly filled with the stories that had been invisible before. The haze was still there, but the ghosts had souls; the sand was marked with footprints of women and children who planted gardens in spite of everything.
The quality of the texts is as important as the elegance of the photography in a project like this. These two skills do not always coexist in visual artists, but Kuroiwa does well in most cases, maintaining a lapidary style that fits his purpose of documenting history in which he has investments of moral value and emotion.
Of the “Tula Lake Segregation Center,” right, he writes:
“On May 24th, 1944, Shoichi James Okamoto was shot and killed on this site. Okamoto had been sent outside this camp to retrieve lumber by a construction supervisor. At the time of the shooting, Okamoto was attempting to re-renter the relocation center. The guard who shot Okamoto was later acquitted except for a $1.00 fine for unauthorized use of government property—the bullet.”
Well done. It’s a description brief and unadorned, as spare and cold as the image presented. He doesn’t tell us about the weather: He lets our imaginations worry over the particulars; we inhabit both the photographed and unseen space.
Here, the written and the visual meet the ideal of being equal partners. Neither, alone, could tell the whole story nearly as powerfully as the two. It’s noteworthy that the artist provides with his statement a bibliography of recent historical research sources that inform his project, so we are not left questioning the veracity of his anecdotes. He notes when information is reported rather than documented.
This show succeeds on so many levels. As unlabeled photography, it is haunting. The flat, seemingly featureless landscapes are imbued with life by incidents we would in other places barely notice at all. The splintery poles and the rusting tanks are focal points in apparent nothingness. Add the scripted stories, and those strange, scarce populations of indifferent things assume poignant and sometimes terrifying meaning: The documentary purpose is revealed, as is the passion of the artist.
In his statement, Kuroiwa writes that he wants to translate the “Japanese facade of ‘Gaman’…into the tangible shame, pain, and injustice under the surface.” He’s achieved his goal. He’s done it not without exhibiting gaman himself, if that quality means facing hardship with self-control, kindness, and discipline. Resurfaced demonstrates all of those qualities. But there is translation too: By the end, we know who he is, where he stands, and just how he feels.