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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Intimate archives : Japanese-Canadian family photography 1939-1949 Kunimoto, Namiko


Anthony Cohen, in The Symbolic Construction of Community, writes: "the symbolic expression of community and its boundaries increases in importance as the actual geo-social boundaries of the community are undermined, blurred or otherwise weakened." As Japanese-Canadians were uprooted from familiar communities throughout British Columbia and overwhelmed with the loss of those closest to them, photography was employed to recentre themselves within a stable, yet somewhat imaginative, network of relations. Looking became an act of imaginative exchange with the subject - conflating the act of seeing with the act of knowing. Photographs became "the most cherished possession" at a time when all else familiar had been lost. It is my contention that domestic photographs and albums produced at this time worked to construct, preserve and contain the visual and imaginative narrative of cohesive family stability and communal belonging, despite divisive political differences, disparate geographical living situations, and elapsed family traditions. While acknowledging that photographs construct and embody a multiplicity of meanings, I am interested in the ways Japanese- Canadian albums were employed during the internment to foster a sense of place while internees existed in a liminal or transitional, marginal space. These representations attempt (and of course sometimes fail) to authenticate a seemingly cohesive biography. Declarations of positive experiences abound throughout the seven family albums I address in this project. Yet there is a double nature to these affirmations. Inscribing "happy times" or "joy" alludes to the silent binary of sadness that is effaced from the images. Representations of state surveillance and poor living conditions are virtually never included but did nonetheless exist. It is not my intention, however, to suggest that photographs are entirely deceptive anymore than they are undeniable truths. Rather, I want to argue that the production, organization and narration of photographs enabled internees to resist being subsumed by fears of persecution and obliteration. The intersection of the photographic image with the viewer constructs a narrative of stability, potentially resulting in a positive experience. Inscribing a positive identity onto images of one's body plays a role in the production of contentment: it is an act which simultaneously elides present troubles and safeguards fond memories for the future, it is a conscious and unconscious maneuver constituting one's personal history. Thus the images not only reinforce a positive experience, but also participate in creating one. It is only when anxieties cannot be contained that representation breaks down. "Intimate Archives" seeks to situate domestic photographs of Japanese-Canadians during the 1942- 1949 exile as intersecting with historical crisis and subjective narrative, tracing the possibilities of meaning for both the depicted subjects and the possessor of the images.

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