Born in Tokyo and educated in the U.K., 2013 Aimia | AGO Photography Prize finalist Chino Otsuka uses photography and video to explore the fluid relationship between memory, photography, and time. She recently completed her residency at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, B.C., which focused on researching Japanese picture brides and their forgotten stories. We caught up with Otsuka to discuss her residency research, work and experience.
AGO: While you were in Vancouver, you worked inside the archives and collection of the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre. What did your research focus on, and what affect has working in Vancouver had on your work?
Chino Otsuka: The research I conduct is integral to the development of my work. For a while now I have been researching the history of Japanese emigrants. When I found out about the residency component of the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize and was able to choose anywhere in Canada, I knew I wanted to go to the Nikkei National Museum. Since I had previously done similar research on a group of Japanese who went to the Netherlands in the mid-19th century, I wanted to see the museum’s collections and learn more about the history of Japanese-Canadian immigrants.
During the residency I had the opportunity to access and explore museum collections that are not normally seen or easily accessible. I knew very little about the history of Japanese immigrants in Canada, or the hardships and injustice that they suffered. I read and came across so many moving stories. All of this is a very important part of Japanese history, and I’m so surprised that many of these stories are untold outside of Canada.
As my research progressed I became more and more interested in the stories of young women who came over from Japan as a “picture brides,” young Japanese women usually between 17 and 19 years old who came to Canada as in the early 20th century. Their marriages were arranged by showing the prospective bride and groom photographs of each other. Most of these women travelled from Japan and saw their husband-to-be for the first time when they arrived in Canada. I was drawn to their innocence, ambition and courage — their journey. They all longed for a new life in their new country. Yet when they arrived in Canada the life they had imagined was completely different. Hardship and many tragedies would follow them. They struggled and endured so much.
I’ve looked through many photographs and artefacts in the collection and chose to focus especially on their journey to Canada. There is a sense of anticipation around the little moment in their life when they were dreaming about the future. I’ve been working with the old photographs as well as photographing their belongings that they brought with them from Japan.
With your residency now complete, can you speak to the effect that the overall experience has had on your work? Did your work move in a new direction during the residency? If so, how?
The residency has given me a new perspective on my practice, as well as time to explore and experiment with new ideas. The work I started during my residency is not quite finished yet. I’m done with the research and photographing and am now working with these materials through editing and finding ways to present them.
What has the residency allowed you to do in terms of your work and research?
In my work I mainly explore the notion of autobiographical memory, so the residency at the Nikkei National Museum has given me the opportunity to explore and research the history, the collective memory – how the individual memories weave together to tell a story.
In her essay “Chino Otsuka’s Time Machine” Michiko Kasahara writes that your “journeys into the past are not sentimental and do not display a nostalgic atmosphere,” yet much of your work explores issues of duality, history, memory and self. Can you elaborate on/explain your method? Do you agree with the writer’s statement?
I work with the past and many of my works show my past. How I take my works, restage and rework them is really about today, not yesterday.
My works are personal but by carefully selecting the images, and recreating them in the certain ways, I’m trying to engage the viewers’ internal dialogue of their experiences. I hope to make the images/stories resonate and trigger the viewers’ own memories.
Your work, specifically in the series “Imagine Finding Me,” is extremely personal with the subject being your own self and memory. The Aimia | AGO Photography Prize is awarded by public vote. As the subject of the work, what were your thoughts on it being considered in this way?
I visited the AGO during the exhibition while the voting was going on, and when I wandered around the museum strangers came up to tell me that they voted for me. I guess they recognized me from my work, and that was a really strange experience.
*This interview was conducted via email in July 2014 and has been edited for style and brevity.