Milwaukee based photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki returned to Tule Lake, the Japanese-American internment camp where his father was held as a child. Located in far northern California near the Oregon border, many of the former barracks buildings, which were hastily constructed in their day, were given to WWII veterans through the homesteading initiative and continue to be used as barns and even houses. Miyazaki calls the project Camp Home.
Brett Myers: Had your dad told you many stories about his internment, and did you bring a lot of preconceived notions with you to Klamath Falls Basin?
Kevin J. Miyazaki: Typical to many Japanese American families, my dad didn’t speak too much about his time in the camps (in addition to Tule Lake, he and his family were also incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming). He didn’t avoid it, but my siblings and I only became more interested as we got older. Unfortunately, we never asked as many questions as we should have, when he was still alive to answer them.
The Klamath Basin is a rural, farming community, set in the high desert. I grew up in the suburban Midwest, which couldn’t be more different. I was a bit nervous at the start of the project, not knowing how I’d be received. But while there, I often thought about the arriving Japanese Americans, and how uncertain they must have felt. And also about the homesteaders, who came to the area to start new lives – many were from the Western U.S., but not from the area specifically.
BAM: I imagine you searching for evidence of what the buildings were once used for, yet aside from the photo with Japanese writing scribed onto a wall, there doesn’t seem to be much available. How did that make you feel?
KJM: You know, I really wasn’t searching for evidence of the Japanese Americans, so the writing I photographed was surprising and powerful. Rather, I was trying to document the evidence of habitation and life within these buildings, as well as their transformation. They had once held families during the war, against their will, but thankfully were re-purposed afterward. In an earlier project, I documented my childhood home, with a similar visual approach. I think what we choose to surround ourselves with can say a lot about people.
BAM: In your artist statement you describe the importance of interacting with the new building owners, who in many cases are families of WWII vets who were given the former barracks after the war. You write, “We each have unique American histories to share, and it’s within the walls of these structures that those histories meet.” What was that interaction like for you and for them? What did you talk about?
KJM: The people I’ve met have been really kind and open to me. The interactions and conversations have varied, from short, brief encounters, to longer discussions – not always involving the former camp or the war, but on topics like farming and land use. To me, the greatest generosity has been shown in the simple act of allowing me to photograph their personal, private spaces.
BAM: You might have one of the best about pages I’ve ever read.
“It’s pronounced \ mee-uh-zah-kee \…Half caff, with room for cream. I love the freedom, but I have to buy my own paperclips…The photo editor at the magazine gets to decide. I’m afraid neither Laverne nor Shirley actually live in Milwaukee…I don’t, but am happy to recommend a good wedding photographer. Yes, I know print is dying – why not sign up for 11 months of Travel + Leisure, and get the 12th issue free?”
It’s so irreverent, which isn’t a descriptor I would use to describe your photography. I’d be more likely to describe your photos as composed, deliberate, and quiet. Do you agree? And if so, what does that say about how you approach photography?
KJM: It’s interesting, because I photograph a wide variety of things, in both my fine art and magazine work. And in general, I think I approach the subject at hand – whether it’s a person, a beach or a plate of food – in generally the same way. I like symmetry, and approaching things straight on. What I’m after is the cleanest possible image – not that there can’t be lots of information and texture in the picture – but I want what’s important to be evident to the viewer. And I guess the result of that attempt at centeredness and clarity are quiet images. Which is all quite funny, because my life in general (house, bank account, refrigerator) isn’t very orderly. And while my work may not express much energy, I’d say in person I have a bit of a sense of humor, combined with a restless creativity.