Pearl Harbor Survivors

Pearl Harbor Survivors

Ralph Lindenmeyer, who was stationed at Ford Island during the attack, was on his way to a day of surf and sun in Waikiki after attending Church.  He saw the swarm of Japanese planes flying over the base towards Pearl Harbor.

I grew up in somewhat of an anti-Asian family.  Its not like we were totally racists and threw eggs through the neighbor’s windows…its just my father had some issues with who the US chose to go to war with most of his life.   Mrs. Hymer, our next door neighbors for most of my childhood, was Japanese and her half Japanese kids were my childhood pals.  Al was my hero, there was nothing he could do wrong.  Chris was the brain and I wanted to be smart like him and Nina, well, she was a babe.  My parents loved the family.  My super close friend in high school, Sant, (now Cheksant for some odd Buddhists reason) was from Bangkok, my NYC buddy is Yong from Korea, George Lee is Chinese, and Yukako is…of course…Japanese.   Not to mention I do live near Chinatown and can’t escape all the Asians around me here in Honoruru!

So to say anti-Asian, I mean that in a propaganda type of way because of how the US stereotyped Asians (even Bugs Bunny got into the act!)  In the 20th century, we did wage war against three, no four, possibly five types of Asians.  My father fought against two (maybe three) so I guess you could say he wasn’t fond of people who were trying to kill him.  (They weren’t found of you either, Pop!)  Of course they didn’t hit him but the pleasantries were duly noted.  I also think my father was racist in a foodie type of way because he never forgot the revolting stench of fermenting kim chee in remote Korean villages as a young soldier.  And he claimed (and believe me, he claimed LOADS of things) he encountered little kids in Vietnam gnawing on dried rat skins but, again, eh…?
But the attack on Pearl Harbor is what got him started on his anti-Asian rants.  He told me how he and his friends thought of ways to join the army as teens.  He was somewhat upset when the Japanese surrendered because he missed his chance rain revenge on those who dare to attack a military base on an American territory (that quiet possibly had been occupied by the West illegally for some time…er…what?)  But he wouldn’t have to way too long for his wish to come true.

Anyway, as a kid, we watched all those old war movies where Filipino or other non-Japanese actors portrayed the mean, cold-blooded Japanese.  They always seem to laugh when they killed a poor, unsuspecting, fresh faced, white American soldier.  (Funny, there were no black actors in those movies…and the only Latinos were, uh, well…ah Anthony Quinn…yeah…but, he covered his Mexican-ism.)  That mocking, sinister laugh that only murderous non-Japanese Filipino or slanty-eye Latino actors (Ah! That’s where they all were!) make when they portrayed those blood thirsty Japanese soldiers.  I recall my father saying once…or maybe I saw it in one of those movies…the Japanese laughed when the bombed Pearl Harbor.  They laughed as they killed all those milk-fed boys from Iowa.  I grew up thinking “those dirty Japanese rats!”  forgetting that I just spent a good long summer afternoon playing with that “half-dirty Japanese rat” Nina, who, as I must confess, my first Asian love.  I think she was about five years older than me but it didn’t matter.

I digress…it was just stupid propaganda films my father watched when he was a kid and then made my brother and me watch when we were kids.  Propaganda is powerful.

Seeing how Pearl Harbor was dramatically attacked on film, I developed a special spot for a place I had never seen.  I never gave much thought to the men aboard those sinking ships as they were always actors and in the back of my mind, I knew they’d be all right.  So when I first came to Hawaii on a work trip back in the 90′s, the first place I visited was the Memorial.  It was stunning.  Unbelievable to see the dreams of my childhood, from film/video to reality.  I though “wow.”  What else could I say?  From the Memorial, there, swimming just about 10 yards away…the smokestack of the USS Arizona!

But what was more unbelievable were the real, live, in living color, survivors!  Not those young actors I saw in the movies.  Grizzled old war vets in cheap aloha shirts.  Tough old guys who made it through the attack.  Some smiled gleefully when approached by tourists while others seem to suspiciously eye those young Japanese tourists who probably failed to understand the chaos created by their grandfathers.  The survivors were living history right before my eyes.  I think I might have talked to one or two of those guys but it was just small talk and we went our ways.  Still, it was like seeing George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, at least for me.  As I said, from cellulose to reality.

So years go by and somehow we end up permanently living in Honolulu.  I went to several Pearl Harbor ceremonies for work and realized many of those survivors I saw about eight years ago were gone.  I knew at that point I needed to make portraits of some of these guys before it was too late.  With the help of Daniel Martinez, the National Parks Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial, I was introduced to the right people to start my documentation project.  He and Lisa Ontai share responsibility for helping me create these images.

The project evolved over the years since my first tries in 2006 and 2007.   My technique and vision have evolved from the beginning as well.  This last session in 2010 took place at the Hilton Hawaiian Village during a ceremony dinner for the survivors.  Jamm and Erica, my best assistants for the day, helped do lights and wrangle veterans to stand for my camera.  Again, there is no way I could have created this work without them.

During the session, I could tell Jamm choked on a few of the stories the vets told and Erica seemed visibly moved by what she saw and heard.  They are a little younger than me and grew up in Honolulu so they probably didn’t think much about Pearl Harbor as much as I did, but I think they walked away with a bit of history and understanding.  I’m glad they helped and participated in this project.

When talking to the survivors, its as if these men still live in the past.  I don’t mean that to disparage these men but they surely cannot escape the past that defined their lives.  Its hard to image being 17 years old and seeing friends dying horribly.  Seeing bombs blowing up all around you.  Seeing your world torn asunder.  We Americans always have that we-are-the-best attitude and nothing can stop us.  Before the war, propaganda portrayed “…the Japanese as nearsighted, bucktoothed, harmless children…” How could these nearsighted fools do this?  And do this to, us…THE US!?!?!  It surely was a blow to the American psyche.

The attack, of course, defined the Pearl Harbor survivor’s futures.  It defined their attitudes, the way they lived, how they lived…even what car they would drive.  I once asked a survivor if he drove an imported Japanese car.  He emphatically stated… “no.”  But these days, little if any of these men still carry hate towards the Japanese.  “They had a job to do as did we,” said one veteran.  And so many buried the hatchet and went on to befriend many of the Japanese war vets brave enough to visit Pearl Harbor and pay their respects.

In 1991, Japanese pilot,  Zenji Abe, who participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, attended several of the Pearl Harbor memorials the name of peace.  During a live broadcast several months before the 50th anniversary, he extended his hand in a sign of reconciliation to several Pearl Harbor survivors.  They begrudgingly accepted his hand shake but it was the start towards peace and understanding.  However, many Pearl Harbor survivors still refused to accept Abe or other Japanese war vets presence at the Memorial’s solemn ceremony.  But over time, Abe’s yearly persistence to reconcile with the past, finally won many over.  Abe now has a special part in the lure of Pearl Harbor as a man who created chaos, yet begged and finally won closure and forgiveness for a war half a century before.  And as that Pearl Harbor vet said…”They had a job to do…”  Mr. Abe died in 2007.

There is nothing more to say about the portraits as I feel they stand on their own.  I feel their eyes link all the portraits together.  Their fears, painful memories, and horrors cling to them, 69 years later.  Yet, through the wrinkles and stubbly faces, you can still see that young boy, on the deck of his ship, fighting for his life, and for the life of his country.  As we know, those who survived won.  They won with a vengeance.  A sad vengeance if you think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…yet that’s a story for another day.

So just like his son, my father’s fake anti-Asian stance never amounted to anything other than heated words over popcorn and old war movies.  He cried when the Hymers moved away.  He loves watching Jackie Chan movies, and he loves Yukako.  He also likes bad Chinese food but once accused us of feeding him dog and baby fetuses when we took him to eat dim sum.  I think he eventually ate it but I didn’t think to check under the table when we left.

My father has always embraced my nutty friends, whether they were Asian or not…so long as they left their kim chee at the door.

You can see the entire gallery at  The survivor’s gallery is under projects.

The humble beginnings…

The humble beginnings...

While editing and doing some archiving, I found a disc of old images from my time working for the community newspaper in San Antonio.  How humbling to see how I started off and what images I shot as a student and budding photographer.

I shot the Mexican dancers at a community event on the West Side of town.  I remember being in love with this shot because of her loving reaction to her partner.  She’s so happy.  I photographed this event for the San Antonio Express News community newspaper, The Sun.  Each district of town had their own edition so there was always something different to shoot.

So many times, I’ve seen how digital has changed the field of photography.  Even more importantly, how cheap credit has allowed many people to purchase pro equipment and how digital has allowed the average flickr type to create amazing bodies of work.  Now students and prosumers can compete with full-time professionals.  I know I’ve talked about the old Nikon gear and manual focus lenses but I can’t stress how it was such a different time.  There was no Photoshop, no Lightroom, no computers!  Darkroom, stop bath, fixer.  A steel can and reels.  A red light bulb.  It was so long ago and technologically speaking, it was truly the dark ages of modern photography.

What may have taken several hours to create can now be produced in seconds.  I remember shooting an event like football or a late night press conference.  I’d have to  leave half way through to get back to a darkroom, develop film, print from the negative and make a 10 pm deadline.  Now I’m shooting boxing matches and transmitting images in between rounds.  I’m talking seconds to get an image from a digital camera into a laptop, process the raw file, caption it, and ftp’ed to a client.  Seconds!  And technology will eventually allow streaming images to be sent directly to an editor thousands of miles away as the photos are being shot.  I mean they do that now with TV live feed so surely they will find away to get images on line immediately.

A mime play shot for the San Antonio Express News community newspaper, The Sun.  I was probably paid $25 per assignment back in 1997.

Whats more interesting is seeing how my professional career in Hawaii has evolved.  How my views have changed…from portraits to street work.  How I’ve visually grown.  I constantly read art books.  Study old paintings.  Visually stimulate my senses so I can “see” when I put the camera to my eye.  And its working.  My timing is different, my angles are changing.  My views are evolving. I try to look at images as paintings.  I try to think of how a painter or sculptor would see a face or scene.  My actions seems so far away from what I used to shoot.

The family above had parts of their home catch fire in San Antonio due to faulty wiring in a junction box.  The family holds the box which caused the problem. (I think thats what happend!)  The Sun Community Newspaper, 1997.

 These images seem so long ago but when I view them, I can clearly see how I naturally had a vision but it wasn’t developed.  It was raw, unexpected, and unreliable.  I was just a kid with a few cameras and pocket full of film.  Sure, I was in my 20s.  I though I knew more than I did but couldn’t prove it.  I knew I wasn’t good enough to get a staff job at the Dallas Morning News or the LA Times but I though if they gave me a chance, I could do it.  The Express News gave me that chance but it was shooting for their community newspaper. It was really bad work on my end but in many ways, I think it was some of the best stuff around.  I shot so many images of real life that it made me realize what life was about.

Lilly Tejeda is the mother of Frank Tejeda, a local politician who had high hopes but sadly died of cancer a some time after this picture was taken.   His death was a loss to the Hispanic community as he might have gone to much higher positions.  I remember going to her humble house on the South Side of San Antonio and asking her if we could take the photo of her and her son’s pictures.  How much they looked like.  Funny, this image still makes me sad.  She held a brave face but she knew her loss.

How far I’ve come from the 90s to the 2010s.  How arrogant I was to think I new so much but in reality I knew nothing.  The base was there but the experience was not.  So many kids and prosumers I’ve encountered over the years here in Hawaii and elsewhere seem to think because they have a digital camera, have a few images published here and there, they are equal or better than me or anyone who has shot for years.  Maybe they are.  If I had top digital cameras and technology back on my side in the 90’s, maybe I would have been just as good.  But what they lack is experience.  They don’t have any experience shooting high school plays, community dances, kid’s swim meets, or a local strawberry fair.  I regularly would drive an hour or so out to the the middle of nowhere to shoot a portrait of man who raised a prized steer.  All for about $25!  There is lots to really say about starting from the bottom.  It humbles you and makes you realize you don’t really know what the hell you are doing.

I shot an event for Reuters a few weeks ago and worked next to the Honolulu Star Advertiser’s senior photographer Craig Kojima.  He’s in his 50’s or so but walks around like he’s a nobody.  No attitude, no beef, no nothing.  He wears those ridiculously stupid shoes that you can put your toes in…you know the ones!  Ugh!  He’s such a great guy and he knows how to shoot. After looking at his take the next day in the paper, I realized that experience trumped anything I did that day.  He shot unbelievable images that I failed to see.  And why was that?  Experience.  I called him a few days later and told him so.  He laughed in that soft, fatherly way and denied he was any better.  Yet he clearly has 20 plus years on me.  Experience counts.  Not workshops, or degrees, or attitude.  Experience makes up for anything some stupid classroom can teach.

Would I go back and shoot the community newspapers again?  As Sarah P would say, “you betcha!”  In a Texas heart beat.  Those were the best days of my learning photography years.  From there, it just got more complicated, harder, and more depressing.  Moving to New York essentially took all the romance out of what I though photography was.  At the community newspaper, I was in a dream world.  I thought this last Sun’s assignment would get me into the doors of National Geographic.  I really did.  And who’s to say it wasn’t going to happen? A youngster can dream, no?

So when George Lee comes knocking on your door to shoot a Pulse assignment, you might want to reconsider his offer.  You just never know…

pdf of Star Bulletin

Just a quick post to show the actual page that ran on Sunday along with the original file I sent to AP. Nice use of space and text with the image. The page designers used the empty space well and anchored the rest of the paper on the bottom in the sand.

Did I preconceive this shot before hand thinking of a layout or page use? Not really but I did have an idea of what I wanted to illustrate. As I said in my last post, I wanted to convey the idea of Hawaii getting back to normal after the tsunami warning was rescinded. The use of the empty space, the whitewash pointing at the surfer, the board shape, the shape of the surfer, the color of the sand…it all works. I would have never guessed this image worked the way it did however; harking back on that subconsciousness of photography, it worked well.