Found photographs

Five years ago whilst holidaying in Daylesford, Victoria, I came across the Amazing Mill Markets, a flea market, hosting hundreds of stallholders, with outlets in Geelong and Ballarat. Amongst old CWA cookbooks, pennants from unknown sporting clubs, snow globes with Eiffel Towers, and rosebud printed tea ware with gold rims, I found a collection of black and white photographs: six plastic bags piled on top of each other, with roughly fifty photographs, of many different sizes, in each of the bags.

They were photographs of Japanese people taken in Japan. Most were taken in the 1950’s and 60s but others were much older, including those of men in military uniforms from WWII, and some portraits from the 1930s or earlier. The same people appeared in different situations, giving the impression they were from one family. Some featured workers from a film studio in Kyoto where director Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon was shot in the early 1950s. There was writing on the back of some of the prints, along with a few letters and postcards written in Japanese and official documents such as school identification cards and pay slips.

The stall holder told me the photographs came from a deceased estate in Geelong; that was all he knew. What were these photographs doing in Geelong? I bought all six bags, and have held on to them for the last five years.

City of Dreams 

Last spring whilst visiting Melbourne for a conference, I took a day out to visit Geelong with the view to explore the city that where the owner of the photographs I bought in Daylesford had once lived. Earlier, I had contacted Michael, my friend from high school days when we both studied at the American School in Japan. He later became a journalist, and coincidentally wrote for the Australian Financial Review in Melbourne at the same time I was photographing for the same paper in Sydney. Michael also happened to be the only person I knew in Geelong.

In reply to my email, Michael wrote, “I know Jenny would enjoy meeting you and we could give you a tour of the City of Dreams, incorporating lunch along the way.”

City of Dreams?

Michael and his partner Jenny came to the train station, and in their car, we visited several art galleries and exhibition spaces, looking for a suitable place where I could perhaps show the found photographs, and enlist the help of the community in Geelong to answer some of the questions which kept surfacing.

Who are the people in the photographs? What were these photographs doing in Geelong? Why did the deceased have them in his or her possession? Was he or she the photographer, a collector of old photographs, or a family member of the people in the photographs? Was the deceased Japanese? Living in Geelong? Why were there no photographs taken in Australia? How could we locate the people in the photographs or the photographer/s and their descendants? Should they be returned to someone in Japan? Or in Geelong? What if they didn’t want them? Should items lost or forgotten be left alone? What would the outcome be if the processes of asking and answering these questions involved many people?

Digitisation During Lockdown 

Staying home as required during the pandemic has given me the time to sort and digitize, one by one, the 300+ photographs I found five years ago in a flea market. Purchasing or borrowing a flatbed scanner would have been an option, but instead I peered over each photograph in a bent over position with my DSLR, pressing the shutter to capture an immovable past, its decisive moment come and gone many decades ago, and its artefact, yellowed with time. Or is it? Immovable, that is.

During the tedious task of post processing digitised images: straightening, cropping, and taking out colour casts, I thought about the daily COVID-19 related news bulletins – not that there were any non COVID-19 related news on the bulletin at the time – the closing of borders, the emergency measures dictating what to do or not do by decree of government, the fear, racism and blame. I wondered how I would make sense of the way in which I had lived before the pandemic. Like many people, I travelled, and worked across borders. The subject matter of my work had been about exactly that – people who have crossed borders, specifically about the Japanese experience in Australia. When national borders and nation states necessarily protected us and our loved ones, I was left to wonder what exactly my optimistic perspective as a global citizen meant.

These photographs have somehow travelled to Australia. I travelled to Australia from Tokyo nearly 40 years ago. I made Sydney my home. Last year I made plans to spend one year in Japan to be near my family, to take photographs of the country of my birth. These plans are now in limbo. There is a sense of melancholy in my current undertaking.

Perhaps melancholy is what old photographs, by definition, instil in us. I look for the punctum in every photograph, of which I think I find many. I think, but there is no need. Time past is the punctum, and (should I even mention it) that they were once discarded? Weren’t they? Or perhaps they are simply lost – for now. All of this makes the subject matter of this project, bruising.

But unlike Roland Barthes’ mother, there are people in the photographs who are still alive today. Photographed as children in the early 1960s, many would be my age or slightly older. And there is plenty of optimism in these photographs. Some of the photographs of the children remind me of Nobuyoshi Araki’s early series Sachin, whose eyes reflect Japan’s post war hope for the new; the photographs of the young women workers at Kyoto Daiei Film Studio are full of promise, being part of the creative force that gave birth to Japanese post war films, like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

In this time of lockdown, I am at home in Sydney, quietly digitising and being encouraged by the optimism present in these photographs.

Chie, the Collaborator

I am not alone!

Designer, web developer and friend, Chie Muraoka has agreed to join my search to solve the mystery of the found photographs.

Nine years ago, my friend Anni Cleary, aka the Afactor, passed away. She wrote programming languages, and gifted me a website back in 1998, when not many of my contemporaries had their own websites. I needed a new website, but instead of starting completely anew, which was the way most web designers thought it best to proceed, I wanted to keep my online history intact. I wanted to keep Afactor’s work to be kept alive.

Enter Chie. Chie made me a new website, incorporating Afactor’s legacy.

In 2013, Chie and I began working together on a website for Nikkei Australia, a group of interested individuals who promote the research, study, arts  and cultural practices and community information exchange about the Nikkei diaspora in Australia. We also collaborated on The Cowra Japanese War Cemetery Online Database, a bilingual resource which provides individual information on 524 graves in the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery, located in Cowra, New South Wales; and Cowra Voices, a geo-locative smartphone app, much like a heritage trail app with oral history recordings, exploring Cowra’s unique story of civic peace and reconciliation, especially with Japan.

In times of lockdown, it is apt to find ways to transfer our projects online, and Chie has come to the rescue yet again.

So finally, I am not alone. Chie is working with me again!

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