originally published at discovernikkei
How did you come up with the idea for The Hapa Project?
The idea actually came to me as a kid, sometime in elementary school. I just thought it would have been cool to know there were other people around going through what I was going through, other people who couldn’t answer the “check one box only” question honestly
Since then, I had always wanted to produce a book and project like this, but never got around to actually doing it because it seemed like so much work and organization (the latter of which is not my strong point)
Sometime in my 30’s, I mentioned it to a girlfriend of mine and she convinced me to do it. It was a ton of work, but definitely a work of love
What surprised you about doing this project?
Many things surprised me about this project. The first is the way it’s been embraced. I had no idea it would take off the way it has, and I’m very thankful for the wonderful outpouring of support I’ve received from so many people
Every day I get emails from people who have found the book or seen the show, telling me it’s the first time they actually felt part of something – be that a shared identity of not fitting in, some sort of intangible community, or even a discussion. For many of us, when it came to discussing ethnic identity, we were never offered a seat at the table
A lot of my career as an artist has come from being in the right place at the right time, or simply being the first person to do something, or both. I didn’t direct Banana Split with the idea of making the first Hapa film; I was just trying to tell my story
And when you watch it, it’s about so much more than Hapa identity … dating politics, masculinity, alcoholism, pop culture … But that’s the same way I look at identity exploration – it’s more than just “I am _______. Next question?” Which is why The Hapa Project is more than a project about race or ethnicity. It’s a project about identity
How did you pick who went in the book?
I originally culled 250 portraits from the original 1200 I shot. We (Chronicle Books and I) planned to use one person per page including their statement. But when I started to lay it out, it seemed much too visually compressed. The pages didn’t have any breathing room and the book felt too tight. So artistically I made the call to cut the number by 50% and put one person/one statement per every two pages
Trouble was, I was too attached to each image to cut any more – every single photograph represented a relationship to me, albeit often a short one, but a valid and real experience nonetheless
Adding to that, I actually found every person’s image and statement interesting on their own terms. It was hard enough cutting down to 250 and now I was supposed kill off half more of my kids? So I threw up my hands and told my editor, “I can’t do it. You figure it out how to edit it down”
Eventually, what happened was we laid out 250 images across all these tables at Chronicle Books in San Francisco. Then, three editors and myself walked around with 30 little stick-on red dots each, placing them on each image we chose individually
It was a bit surreal … quiet and thoughtful, everyone in their own little worlds picking images. Until after about 15 minutes, my editor Bridget exclaimed, “I have a confession to make. I haven’t picked one hot girl!”
The rest of us (three men) stopped, then admitted that we hadn’t picked any hot girls yet either. It turned out we were all being careful of not making this the “hot” Hapa book, the hybrid-vigor-all-Hapas-look-like-Devon-Aoki book. So we laughed at our collective vigilance and decided to pick a couple hot girls to include
How did you pick the cover? Why did you put the girl on the back and spine?
Picking the cover was really difficult. For one, when it comes to publishing, authors rarely (if ever) get to choose their book covers. Sometimes they don’t even get to pick their own author photo! I was fortunate that not only did I get to give serious input on the cover, I got to oversee the entire book’s interior design – font, spacing, layout, etc
The real question was how do you pick one image to represent a book about diversity? How could one image sum it up? I tried several different designs with various faces, vignettes … everything but composite morphs (because I didn’t want it to look like that early 90’s Time Magazine or some Michael Jackson video). But my editor kept coming back to me with, “This looks great, but it doesn’t match the rest of the book”
And she was right. The book is clean and pure in its simplicity of design, format, perhaps even its message, and the cover needed to represent this. A single image can’t represent the diversity of Hapas, nor should it even try. It can just give a sample of my photographic and design styles
So I decided to go with the first person I ever photographed, my former research assistant Jenn. It made sense to me. That trip of the shutter was the beginning of the project, so why not put her on the cover?
But several editors objected to this choice for an interesting reason – they felt she was too pretty. Initially, this took me by surprise. But I gave the argument a lot of thought and ended up using my friend and surfing buddy Shane for the cover and put Jenn on the back and spine. I think it works well and I like having a guy on the cover actually
The funny thing is, dozens of people have asked if it’s me on the cover – like I would put myself on the front of my own book like Oprah on O Magazine! A lot of people also ask if it’s Sean Lennon, even though none of us look remotely alike
How did you find subjects for your book?
It was actually very easy. They were all volunteers from around the country. I’d just post a shoot on the website and people would come out of the woodwork. I did a shoot in San Francisco that was scheduled from 6:00-8:00. I got there at 5:00 to set up and there were thirty people waiting outside. I think when you’ve gone your whole life not fitting into these boxes, you’ve got a lot to say about it
Isn’t that _______ in there? Why didn’t you identify the celebrities?
I was very adamant about not identifying anyone in the book, which is why the names are listed alphabetically at the back. Part of that is safety for the children, but most of it is because I wanted participants to have as blank a slate as possible to work with, to not be burdened by any pre-existing identifiers
It’s interesting with celebrities, because celebrities without their gear – their look or environment or entourage – don’t look like celebrities. They look like people. And that’s what I wanted. I could photograph Cher this way and she’d look like a regular person
Why aren’t the subjects smiling? Why did you have them remove their glasses and jewelry? Why are they naked?
This is also about starting with as blank a slate as possible. Every way we present ourselves visually, from our style to our glasses to our jewelry to our expression, is a way of identifying ourselves culturally and socially. And I wanted people to just be who they were at their base, to be as much as possible at their essence
(On a side note, this can be very threatening to some people who put a lot of stake into their created physicality … a couple celebrities agreed to be photographed, then pulled out)
Another point I should mention is that every participant not only got to write their statement the way they wanted to, they also got to pick their own image. A camera is a tremendously powerful tool and the power dynamic between photographer and subject is palpable. For this reason, I wanted to give some of the power back to the subjects
It was never going to be completely democratic – it is, after all, my concept, my project, and my design – but there are some strategies you can employ to make it less unilateral. Everyone got to see their image and choose to keep it or erase it and shoot again
I shot one woman over twenty times. And the bizarre thing about it was I couldn’t tell a difference between any of her shots. They all looked exactly the same to me! But she kept freaking out, “Oh my god! My eyebrow! Erase it!” or “Oh my god! My chin! Erase it!” I guess some people spend more time in front of the mirror than others
The naked question is always a funny one because they’re not naked. You’re seeing them from the collarbone up, much less than you’d see of someone at the beach or even at the mall sometimes. Plus, when I shot them they’re just usually just wearing spaghetti straps they pull off their shoulders. I think sometimes people just see what’s in their own heads
Where did you shoot?
I shot all over California (Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Jose, San Francisco), as well as Honolulu, Waimanalo, Chicago, Syracuse, Manhattan, and Madison, Wisconsin. Because of funding, I basically shot wherever I was being brought out to speak
Were there any other patterns that emerged?
Easily, at least two-thirds of the participants were part Japanese American, maybe more. I wasn’t able to photograph one person who was part Cambodian or Hmong before the book went to press. Also, the overwhelming majority of the volunteers were female. At some shoots the ration of women to men would be 20:1
It’s the same in the identity seminars I teach at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Women are much more open and interested in talking about their identity than men in this country. I have a lot of theories about why that is
What has the feedback been like?
Tremendously positive. I’ve gotten so many touching letters and emails, people telling me the book brought them to tears … It’s really wonderful to know something I created has touched so many people
At the same time, it’s also been a bit humbling. Here I am working as an artist and filmmaker for twenty years doing autobiographical work, and within three weeks of launching thehapaproject.com, it was getting ten times the traffic of my original artist site. I tapped into something much, much larger than my own work
Have you had any negative reactions?
No serious ones to speak of. Certainly none to my face. I’m sure there are haters out there, like there are for anything. And certainly the bigger you get in the public consciousness, the more people come after you
One result of the Internet’s growth is it has cradled a burgeoning sense of passive aggressivity to go with our culture’s already very healthy sense of self-entitlement. It’s very easy to hide behind a keyboard and flame someone. There’s really no risk
For that reason, when I took over as Department Chair at UCSB, I made a “no email” rule. If someone wanted to discuss something politically charged with me, they had to make an appointment, sit across from me, and look me in the eye. Worked like a charm
We got a couple silly contacts out of thousands. The Japanese American National Museum received a letter saying I shouldn’t be showing there since I wasn’t J.A. Some MySpace freak went off on my assistant because I don’t participate in online forums (!) …
A white supremacist sent me a “scientific” paper about why miscegenation is genetically problematic. And once in awhile we’ll get something from a person claiming they own language and I can’t use this or that term
It’s just the odds, really. The bigger the audience, the more freaks
How did the Polaroids come about?
Initially, when I was offered the show at the Japanese American National Museum, I was both honored and panicked. How could I keep audience attendance up for a 5-month run?
I decided to created an interactive component where participants could take their own pic and write their own statement, then post it on a series of shelves, thinking this would get visitors more individually involved in the project and possibly create repeat visits as it changed and grew over time
To me, it didn’t matter if participants were Hapa in my view or not. Identity is, at its core, a deeply personal and individual decision, and a mandate of this project for me was to never tell anyone else what they were or could be or could not be
Identity is something for each individual to decide … which is why the project includes people who don’t always fall into the conventional definition of Hapa. The way I looked at it, if you want to be a part of this project, then you’re part of this project. Race is a social construct anyway – we’re all essentially African
I had hoped the shelves would fill in 5 months, but they filled the first night with over 500 Polaroids. And as the show extended, they multiplied and began creeping across the adjacent walls, even into the next gallery, which wasn’t scheduled for my work … like an identity virus. I was really happy about that
I think as the show went on, visitors were more interested in the Polaroids than they were in my original work
Have you found anyone else doing similar work?
I already knew a bunch of great Hapa artists – Greg Pak, Velina Hasu Houston, Eric Byler, Erika Anderson, Albert Chong, Laura Kina, Erin O’Brien, Alison De La Cruz, Amy Hill, Kate Rigg, Stuart Gaffney, etc. It’s a pretty connected community. But through the project I got to meet many more artists in person (Ben Sloat, Jeff Chiba Stearns, Dorothy Imaguire) and hear about many more I hope to meet in the future
Probably one person who I share a lot of strategic similarities with is Frank Warren who created Postsecret. We spoke together out in St. Louis recently, and realized our projects were kindred spirits in their methodology. Essentially, both of us just created safe forums for individuals to express themselves. And both of us have been touched with how confessional and honest our participants have been
Did you make a lot of money on the book?
Originally, I wanted to make an ongoing series of books to keep the project going. But economic reality trumped that idea pretty quickly. I’ve lost track, but I’m sure this project has put me at least $10K in the hole. Part of that is the reality of publishing, globalization, and corporate marketing
But part of it was also my own conscious decision in that I chose not to make sellable prints. Sure, a couple people might buy their own or their child’s image, but I knew these prints weren’t going to make any commercial gallery solicit me to show because there was no financial incentive for them
In fact, I knew going in I would probably not even recover the initial cost of printing and hand framing the images. I also chose to give every person in the book an individual print as thanks
It’s funny when I hear people talk about how much money I (or anyone) make off writing books. Here’s a reality check – my advance for 100% Hapa was $20,000.00. Take out agent fees and taxes and that’s somewhere around $12K, which covered some of my equipment and a couple shoots
Everything else – traveling cross country numerous times, lodging, food, printing costs … plus hiring a book designer, web designer, two digital compositors and assistants came straight out of pocket or on the backs of my generous friends, volunteers, and students
So what it comes down to is no, I didn’t make any money on the book or project itself. But for what it did for my art career – both professionally and personally? I can’t put a price on that
It’s a project I’m immensely proud of and the feedback I’ve received has been worth more than I can say. I’ve also restructured my career as a professional artist to compete more as a speaker than as a photographer, writer, illustrator or filmmaker (though I still do all these things)
On a larger scope, the project has helped push the idea of ethnic identity and the whole concept of multiraciality further into the public discourse and that’s valuable. All these intangibles feed me as an artist and as a teacher and as a person
I can’t imagine doing any other job. So when your kid tells you they want to be an artist, maybe it’s an idea worth listening to
You know what? I had this idea a long time ago and …
This is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s because the book taps into some very personal issues with individuals, but a lot of people seem to think they have the right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do as an artist
I’ve received lengthy emails telling me how to proceed or what to change, and stopped many a potentially lengthy conversation from (usually) well-meaning people wanting to be producer/director to my artmaking process. I’ve even had people tell me what project to do next. The implicit ownership is really astounding
Can we have the exhibit for free? Can you speak at … edit my poetry … perform for our …?
I think this ties into the way our culture really doesn’t value or respect art and teaching. Any reality show cast-off gets more press and crowds than a writer or teacher, be they critically acclaimed or not
We watch Sotheby’s sell a Picasso or a Star Trek model for an astronomical sum and say “Wow,” but we steal independent work without a second thought, be that images, music, writing, poetry, even jokes. It’s the prevailing attitude contained in the request to speak for free, to use one’s images for free, to reproduce one’s writing for free, to ask for time
I guess the basic tenet is this: making art is not a hobby or a pastime. If it were, the people doing it for a living wouldn’t be doing it for a living. Teaching is the same way. We pay our teachers nothing and hope they change the world, but we’d never ask a plumber to fix a sink for free
I insist my students take their work seriously and show it proper respect, because if they don’t do it, no one else will. I’ve helped train a dozen teachers and I hope to train dozen more
How did you come to show at the Japanese American National Museum when you’re not J.A.?
I like this question, because in many ways I feel such a kindred spirit with J.A. communities
For whatever reason, I’ve been involved either directly or peripherally with a lot of Japanese and J.A. cultures … I studied the language in college, lived there several times, earned my shodan in shotokan. I wanted a place to launch the show and the book, and the Japanese American National Museum was my first choice
Certainly the J.A. community is very Hapa aware, but if you think about it, it took tremendous guts and a keen sense of the future to schedule this type of show – the first of its kind – at a major museum. My hats are off to Karen Higa for seeing the potential and taking that risk
I really appreciate them taking a chance on me (being a non-J.A.) and hosting the show. Lisa Sasaki, Clement Hanami, and the rest of the staff were great. And Mariko Gordon is my hero!