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 isn’t 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.
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 week 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 artistic career 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.
That’s the same way I look at identity exploration – it’s more than just “I am _______.” Which is why The Hapa Project is more than a project about race or ethnicity. It’s a project about identity.
I originally culled 250 portraits from the original 1200. 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. 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-are-
So we laughed at our collective vigilance and decided to pick a couple hot girls to include.
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 single image (or person) to represent a book about diversity? How could one image ever 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 cover 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 subject zero, the first person I ever photographed – my former research assistant Jenn. It made sense to me. That single 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 a really 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, then putting Jenn on the back and spine. I think it works well and I like having a guy on the cover actually (plus Jenn is on the cover of the hapa.me catalog).
The funny thing is, dozens of people have asked if it’s me on the cover – as if I 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.
It was actually very easy. They were all volunteers from around the country. I’d post a shoot on the website or Facebook and people would come out of the woodwork. I did a shoot in San Francisco that was scheduled from 6:00-8:00 PM. I got there at 5:00 to set up and there were already thirty people waiting outside.
Eventually, we had to move from open-call shoots to shoots with set time slots and individual appointments. For the hapa.me shoots, I did 8 shoots in Los Angeles alone ... each one filled up in a matter of hours after the initial posting.
I think when you’ve gone your whole life not fitting into these boxes, you’ve got a lot to say about it.
I was very adamant about not identifying participants 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 an everyday person.
This is also about trying to start 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 person 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, saying “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 on the street sometimes. Plus, when I shot them they’re often just wearing spaghetti straps they pull off their shoulders. I think sometimes people just see what’s in their own heads.
I shot all over California (Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara), as well as Boise, Chicago, Honolulu, Madison, New York City, Seattle, Syracuse, and Waimanalo.
Easily, at least two-thirds of the participants were part Japanese American, perhaps even more. Because of its historically high interracial marriage rate, the Japanese American community is very aware of hapa identity, and usually quite accepting.
Other populations are harder to find. I didn’t photograph one person who was part Hmong or Cambodian for the original series. And fifteen years later, I only photographed a handful.
Also, the overwhelming majority of the participants were female. At some shoots the ratio of individuals identifying as women outnumbered men twenty to one.
Interestingly, it’s often the same gender ratio when I teach identity seminars at UCSB. In the U.S. at least, it seems women are much more open to having their photograph taken, and more interested and willing to talk about who they are.
Tremendously positive. I’ve received so many touching messages and comments ... people telling me how much discovering the project meant to them, or how looking through the book for the first time brought them to tears. It’s really wonderful and an honor to know that something I created has touched so many people.
At the same time, it’s also been a bit humbling. Prior to the project, I’d worked as an artist and filmmaker for two decades. But within two weeks of the original hapa website launching, it was already getting ten times more visits than my original artist site. I quickly realized I had tapped into something much, much larger than my own work.
Nothing serious to speak of, certainly none to my face. Obviously, there are haters out there, like there are for any public artwork. And the bigger you get in the public eye, the more people come after you.
One result of moving much of our lives online is we’ve fueled a burgeoning sense of passive aggressiveness to go along with our culture’s already very healthy sense of self-entitlement. It’s easier than ever to live in our own worlds, to hide behind a phone and anonymously troll or flame someone. There’s really no risk, no responsibility.
Out of thousands, we got a handful of negative messages. The Japanese American National Museum received a letter saying hapas weren’t Japanese American and I shouldn’t be showing there. My assistant fielded repeated criticism from an individual because I don’t participate in online forums. A white supremacist sent me a “scientific” paper about why miscegenation is genetically unhealthy. And once in awhile we’ll get something from a person claiming they own language and we can’t use this or that term.
I already knew a bunch of great hapa artists – Greg Pak, Velina Hasu Houston, Eric Byler, 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 (Jeff Chiba Stearns, Lynda Barry, Ben Sloat, Dorothy Imaguire) and hear about many more I hope to meet in the future.
Probably one person I share a lot of strategic similarities with is Frank Warren who created PostSecret. We spoke at a conference together once, and acknowledged our projects were kindred spirits in methodology. Essentially, both of us created safe forums for individuals to express themselves. And both of us have been touched with how confessional and honest our participants have been.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, that’s a given. We’re all influenced by others, but there’s a difference between being inspired by someone and just ripping them off. (For example, I got the idea for handwritten responses while viewing the amazing work of photographer Jim Goldberg, and I acknowledge him in my book.)
I love communities doing their own version of The Hapa Project. As long as they aren’t discriminatory, are doing it non-profit, and acknowledge the original inspiration, I’m 100% supportive. These activities have been done across the country and I’m honored to have the work organically replicate and grow like this.
Then there are websites, publications, videos, even gallery exhibitions that are obvious offshoots of my work, done without any nod whatsoever. I’ve only confronted people a handful of times (including once legally with a commercial photographer who not only copied my work, he even used the same title). Most of the time I just let it go.
To quote my favorite comic artist, Bill Watterson, in response to artistic theft, “Only thieves and vandals have made money on Calvin & Hobbes merchandise.”
Originally, I wanted to make an ongoing series of books to keep the project going. But economic reality interrupted 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 the current state of publishing, corporate marketing, and globalization.
But part of it was also my own conscious decision to not to make sellable prints. At most, maybe a couple people might buy their own or their child’s image. I knew these prints weren’t going to make any commercial gallery take interest because there was no financial incentive for them to do so. They wouldn’t sell anything.
I recognized going in that I’d probably never even recover the initial cost of printing and hand framing the images. And I also chose to give every person in the book an individual print as thanks.
So when I hear people talk about how much money I (or anyone) makes writing books, I chuckle. My advance for the book was $20k. Take out agent fees and taxes and that’s somewhere around $12k, which covered some of my equipment and maybe 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 several
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, the book in and of itself wasn’t profitable. But I realize today everything intersects. Which part of my life is my artwork and which is my teaching? My speaking? My workshop facilitation? My career? In reality, I never actually go to work. Life and art, life and making art, constantly overlap and blend.
I can’t put a price on what this project has done for my art career. No matter what else I create, The Hapa Project will be my primary artistic legacy. I used to be resistant to that fact. Now I gratefully accept it.
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 artist career to function more as speaker than photographer, writer, illustrator or filmmaker (though I still do all these things). It’s simply adjusting to today’s world of shifting boundaries and occupations ...
On a larger scope, the project has helped place the entire concept of multiraciality, and perhaps more importantly, the innate right to choose one’s individual identity – it’s help embed these very discussions into public discourse, and that’s immensely valuable. All these intangibles feed me as an artist, as a teacher, and as an individual.
I don’t think of what I do as a job. But in that context, I can’t imagine doing anything else. So when your kid tells you they want to be an artist, maybe it’s an idea worth
This is one of my favorites. Because thinking of something and actually doing it are very different animals. Maybe it’s because the project and book tap into some very personal issues with individuals, but a lot of people feel comfortable telling me what I should or shouldn’t do as an artist. Occasionally they want recognition because they imagined something similar.
I’ve received lengthy unsolicited messages advising me how to proceed or what to change. And I’ve stopped short many potentially long conversations from (usually) well-meaning people volunteering their services to me as my next producer or director. I’ve even had people tell me what project I should begin next.
It makes me think of Stephen King’s response when people tell him, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write.” He replies, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon.”
Would you ask a plumber to fix your sink for free? Or say you can’t pay a stylist to cut your hair because you don’t have the budget for it?
We steal creative output without thought – images, music, writing ... even ideas – respecting the product while dismissing the artists responsible for those products. It’s the prevailing attitude underlying requests to speak for free, to use images for free, to reproduce one’s writing for free, to ask for time. All in exchange for “exposure.”
Making art isn’t a hobby or a pastime. If it were, the people doing it for a living wouldn’t be doing it for a living. This is what we do. This is our work. Teaching is the same way. We trust teachers with our children, expect them to change the world, but pay them nothing and joke about them getting summers off.
I insist my students take their work seriously and show it proper respect. Because if they don’t do it, no one else will. And sure, donate your time and work when you feel it’s appropriate. But make it your decision.
I like this question. Because in many ways I feel such a kindred spirit with JA communities.
For whatever reason, I’ve been involved either directly or peripherally with a variety of Japanese and JA activities – I studied the language in college, went to summer school in Toyama, had my backpiece done in Yokohama, earned my shodan in Shotokan, studied bonsai ... I wanted a place to launch the original hapa show and book, and JANM was my first choice.
Certainly, the JA community is very hapa aware. But even so, it took tremendous guts and a keen sense of the future to schedule this type of show – the first to explore hapa identity – at a major museum. And I will always have immense gratitude to the late Karen Higa for seeing the work’s potential and taking that risk, and to Mariko Gordon for supporting its creation.