An Interview with Untitled.Showa

Untitled.Showa is a platform that uses crowdsourcing in an attempt to uncover information about and (re)unite a number of old photographs with the people in them, their family members, the photographs’ copyright holder(s) and/or appropriate archives. I can’t remember exactly how I first became aware of the project, but I imagine it may have been on Twitter where the project has an active profile. Since coming across the project I have followed its progress, contributed when possible, and used the project’s materials within my classes, and for this contribution to The Digital Orientalist I have the pleasure of interviewing the project’s facilitating artist, Mayu Kanamori.


James: Untitled.Showa’s website tells us that you came across these photographs at a flea market in 2015. But what spurred you to buy them and what motivated you to start the project and go in search of people to return them to?

M. Kanamori: At the time I was interested in finding old photographs of Japanese people in Australia, because I had been researching, writing and staging a play called, Yasukichi Murakami: Through A Distant Lens. Yasukichi Murakami (1880-1944) came to Australia in 1898 from Wakayama Prefecture. He lived and worked as a photographer in northern Australian, until his internment as an enemy alien during WWII. Despite him being an active photographer, his photographs were missing in Australian history, because he was interned, and died during internment. I saw the lack of Murakami’s photographs as a metaphor highlighting the national collective amnesia that Japanese people existed in Australia before WWII. So when I saw the Untitled.Showa photographs, I became curious, because I was already looking for lost photographs.

The 300 photographs (and about 40 documents) were in six different plastic bags. I bought one bag and took it back to my motel room (I was on holiday). I was very curious about the others, so I went back to the markets the following day. When I saw that the other bags had similar photographs, sometimes of the same people…I thought I should not separate them, and ended up buying the lot.

I was motivated to do something about these photographs because:

  • I wanted to understand how and why these photographs from Japan ended up in a flea market in Australia.
  • I am interested in photography.
  • I have experiencing losing photographs and negatives some of which have been returned to me and some of which remain lost.
  • It is often said that people who find photographs will feel compelled to do something about them. There is something about them that haunts us into action.

Untitled.Showa‘s Homepage.

J: You acquired the photos in 2015, but the project (to the best of my knowledge) really kicked off last year – what happened in between?

K: At the time I was working on…other projects…so I didn’t really have the time to do anything about the photographs I found.

For a while I left them with a friend in Melbourne whose Japanese heritage goes back to the turn of the last century. His ancestor had come to Australia (late 1800’s), and settled in Geelong (early 1900s) where we believe the photographs are from. He was also in touch with other old Geelong Japanese families, so I thought he might be able to find out if the photographs had any connection to them. It appeared not.

In the meantime, I had shown the photographs to my friends. Many of them said that they enjoyed the “slow viewing” of images and “reading” photography. The Japanese Australians, especially seemed to take delight in guessing or hypothesizing where, when and why the photographs were taken; others were fascinated with its connection to Geelong. Many told me stories of how they lost their family photographs or how they valued them or how they found items such as war medals that belonged to their ancestors on e-Bay, and questioned the ethics of family photographs being sold in flea markets.

Then when the pandemic brought about cancellation of my plans for 2020, with much time on my hands, I thought it time I did something about the photographs, but being in lockdown, digitising them, seemed like the best way forward.

Part of the gallery of photographs on Untitled.Showa.

J: Could you guide us through how you applied for funding, assembled a team, and launched the site etc.? How were the different project members and partners brought together and what obstacles did you face?

K: I first asked my friend and collaborator Chie Muraoka to put the digitised images up on an interactive website…She manages the Nikkei Australia website (of which I am a founding member). Nikkei Australia has been working on projects to do with the Japanese diaspora in Australia. She has also worked on developing the projects Cowra Voices and Cowra Japanese War Cemetery Online Database.

We applied for our initial funding from the Inner West Council’s Creative and Cultural Resilience Grant. Both Chie and I live in this council area (in Sydney), and the grant was to assist artists and cultural producers in response to Covid. This allowed us to put everything online and to develop online workshops.

When we showed our website to the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, they thought they’d like to support us, and when we showed our website to Sandy Edwards of Arthere, a long-time friend, photographer and photographic curator who I have worked with in the past, she got excited, and thought we could have an exhibition in Geelong and also in Japan. Chie wanted to make the website a tool for cultural exchange between Australia and Japan. She was interested in working with students and having workshops based on the interactive website. We knew we needed someone in Japan who could help us. Sandy knew Colin Smith and Hiroyo Kondo in Osaka who had relevant experience…so we asked both of them if they wanted to join the team. I also contacted my friend and colleague Professor Mutsumi Tsuda from Kwansei Gakuin University…Prof. Tsuda decided to enlist her seminar students…to work with us in workshops, conduct research, and create videos. It was important to work with people from Kansai, considering many of the photos seemed to have been taken in Kyoto and the Kansai region.

Next, we applied to the Australia-Japan Foundation for funding. Chie and I had received funding form Australia-Japan Foundation before for Cowra Voices, and we thought this project could work for them because they were looking for projects that enhanced Australia-Japan relations…Furthermore, at the time they were looking specifically for projects that didn’t require travel to and from Japan because of Covid. Because I am an independent artist, as are my collaborators…we thought best to enlist organisational partners. Through Sandy’s networks, we enlisted the help of 107 Projects to auspice the grant; Vision Image Lab…to print our exhibitions at a discount;…the Japanese Association of Geelong to help us with community consultations, involvement and relationships in Geelong; and Nikkei Australia…to help us with our marketing. We also included the Geelong Library & Heritage Centre and…Arthere in the partnership. After all this we received a grant from the Australia-Japan Foundation to hold two exhibitions – one in Geelong and one in Kyoto.

Our auspice partner 107 Projects offered us a space…to exhibit in Sydney. We weren’t planning on this, so we had no budget, but we couldn’t let the chance go by…and did what we could to re-allocate funds…The Australian media started publishing stories about Untitled.Showa, creating a hype around the project, and with Sydneyites coming out of lockdown…107 Projects decided to sponsor a proper launch with catering for us.

J: Untitled.Showa effectively uses crowdsourcing to gather information about its dataset. Why did you choose this method?

K: Almost all of my projects have involved telling stories using photography and research. Research is often the most exciting part of any project. My normal practice would be to go looking for clues by myself, but there were some reasons I thought it would be better to “crowdsource.” First of all, there were far too many photographs for me to get my head around all at once. I was also locked down in Sydney, and I couldn’t do my research in Japan. I think I also felt a little lonely looking at these photographs and trying to solve this mystery on my own. I wanted to share the trials and tribulations with others. I wanted to work with a collective good will to repatriate something…

J: Has the method proven effective for gathering information about the photos?

K: Over time crowdsourcing has given us many clues, inlcuding the locations of where specific photographs were taken. I think that the website acts as a starting point for those interested to research further, and then it becomes a tool for the people researching to interact with each other and discuss their findings.

Significant findings have come from people in Japan. Some actually took the time to visit a neighbourhood in person, seeing places with their own eyes and talking with people, but they would not have done so without the website and the clues that had previously been posted.

For example, one family member was found by a journalist. A Japanese born language teacher based in Sydney took an interest in the project and was able to confirm that several photographs came featured people from Noshiro (Akita Prefecture). Having previously lived in Noshiro she started contacting people from the area and was encouraged by a friend to send a photograph and a postcard from the collection to the Akita Sakigake Shimpo. A particular journalist decided to take up this case. He visited a temple featured in one of the photographs and talked with the head priest there who confirmed that his grandfather was in the photograph and that he also had a copy! He then identified a pilgrim woman in the group as the sender of the postcard and gave the journalist the contact details for her 90 year-old grandson. The journalist went to see him, and was able to confirm more information. Of course, other photographs in the collection may also feature the man’s family, but since he doesn’t use the internet, it is a slow process. The journalist will visit him again to find out if he wants the originals and to show him other photographs.

So to answer your question as to whether the method is proving effective for gathering information about the photos…yes, it is! Though it also helps to have people willing to meet in person.

The photograph featuring the temple noted above.

J: I imagine that crowdsourcing requires a someone to judge and act on the information that is received – how have you found this process?

K: All comments made on the website are checked before they go up. They are usually no problems with the comments. We had a few we had to delete because they verged on rudeness. Judging the information hasn’t been difficult, since most people want to tell us how they came to those clues – they like to show us another photo that shows it is the same location or a link to a website that gives us a particular information so it is very easy to confirm things.

The process of acting on the information has been more difficult, and it is partly due the pandemic and its restrictions and protocols, and partly due to us not being able to find the descendants of the people in the photographs to return them to. The clues take us to people in their 80s or 90s, and often that is a generation that doesn’t use the internet. We have also found that many older people dislike telephones because of hearing problems and therefore we tend to correspond through letters, but this is time consuming.

J: I’d like to ask about the sort of information you’ve been receiving on the photographs. What is the most interesting thing you’ve found out about one (or several) of the photographs from the public?

K: I find all the photographs very interesting, and all the clues that are sent in adds to that interest. We were able to discover who shot Photograph 301 and are returning it to Sato Photo Studio in Noshiro whose owner is the grandson of the photographer. He wants to hang the photograph in their shop. As a photographer myself, this is a very exciting development… 

Photograph 301 – Copyright belonging to Sato Photo Studio in Noshiro.

J: What remains the biggest mystery?

We still have no idea how the photographs ended up in Australia. The flea market stall holder told me that it came from the estate of a deceased person from Geelong, Victoria. A participant has since contacted the owner of the flea market, but we have not heard back…We believe that we may be able to find out more information about the estates of deceased people in Victoria, but we are unable visit there at this stage…

The most convincing theory is that the photographs were inside drawers of antique furniture imported from Japan. One importer…has come forward, through another participant, and confirmed that this kind of thing happens from time to time, but she said she does not remember seeing this particular set of photographs.

J: What sort of people have been involved in providing information so far?

K: Scholars, researchers, students, people who live in localities of interest, and people who have attended workshops…Most information comes from Japan or Japanese Australians. Some information comes from non-Japanese people living in Japan.

J: You’re also publishing people’s responses, organising workshops, and have even seen the platform used in Japanese university classes! Could you tell us more about these initiatives, their goals and outcomes?

K: We call for creative responses to the Untitled.Showa collection including video, dance, music, and news reports and we publish these on our website. Sometimes they are included in our physical exhibitions. The purpose of these online responses is to:

  • Create new stories, meanings and connections to the once lost photographs, giving them a new life.
  • Create awareness for the project, family photographs, and found photographs.

We’ve also had some workshops. Physical ones in Sydney and several online including ones with students at Kwansei Gakuin University. Each workshop is different, depending on who the attendants are and where we are in the project. Four more workshops are planned for October. The purpose of these workshops is to:

  • Create awareness of the project and an opportunity for the public to engage with it.
  • Ask the public for help.
  • Show participants how to use the website effectively.
  • Call for creative responses to the found photographs.

Engage students in research and give them opportunities to creatively respond, etc.

Untitled.Showa‘s Workshops Page.

J: I think some of our readers will be interested in the technological side of things. Could you tell us more about the platform, it’s design, backend etc.?

K (in correspondence with Chie Muraoka): …The website was created using WordPress, Divi theme, and various plugins for categorisations and search functions. The muted colour scheme was chosen to help the black and white photographs to stand out.

J: What challenges have the website posed to the project? And what challenges have a project of this nature posed to building a website?

K (in correspondence with M): The entire project is about slow viewing of photographs. There are 340 images, and it takes time to view them all, and to view them closely enough to find clues, post comments or start a forum. So the aim is to challenge our short attention span and grit.

On the other hand, it is easy to make a comment on social media, and many clues come from social media followers, commenting on the photographs we send out on social media. We ask them if they want to go to our website and comment, and although some have done so, most have relied on us to manually transfer the information that came to us via social media on to our website. Unfortunately, social media platforms do not have the kind of functions that websites have nor does it give an overall picture of the collection. So there is a challenge to effectively integrate social media with the website.

Our website users are mostly between 40 and 60 years old. This reflects a generation that finds the Showa period nostalgic. We suspect that our social media followers may have a higher percentage of younger users. People in the photographs or those who remember them are in their late 80’s and early 90’s and they may not use the internet at all, so we hope that their children or their grandchildren will be able to find us.

J: Finally, how can people get involved in the project?

K:

  • Have a look at the website, take the time to look at the photographs. If you have clues, please add comments.
  • Respond to the collection of images by writing pros, poetry, making an artwork, writing music etc.
  • Join our free workshops. Dates are announced via social media and on our website.
  • Follow us on social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
  • Spread the word on social media.
  • Send us a message via our website or an email untitled.showa[at]gmail.com.

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