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Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006

Focusing on the elusive imagery of identity

Contributing writer

Why would a young photographer from Venezuela studying in Japan choose to spend valuable time recording the lives of Japanese-Brazilians in Brazil?

News photo
Irene Herrera (above) explores through photographs the concept of identity for Brazilians whose ancestral roots lie in Japan. Her exhibit, a photo from which is below, opens Dec. 19 at the Nikon Salon in Tokyo's Shinjuku.
News photo

"It's a long story," says Irene Herrera, opening a portfolio of the 30 photographs she will be exhibiting in the documentary project "Identity: Nikkeijin in Brazil" from Dec. 19 to Dec. 28, at Nikon Salon Juna 21 in Tokyo's Nishi-Shinjuku. And the honor is all her own.

Every step of her way from Caracas (where she was born), to Florida (where she moved with her mother at age 4), to Japan and Brazil and back has been paved with a kind of puzzled determination. There's no such thing as luck, she agrees, but it's still amazing how fortune smiles.

It's rare here for a solo photographic exhibition to be curated. And this project exploring the life and identity of the descendants of the mass emigration from Japan to Brazil in 1908 was curated by a group of professional photographers and one art critic, all members of the management committee of Nikon Salon.

"The salon's Juna 21," she further explains, "is an associated space that acts as a showcase for upcoming photographers under the age of 35. Luckily I'm 30."

When Herrera was 15, her mother (flush with a Ph.D.) took her family back to Venezuela. "My Mom's now busy with social work, helping Latin migrants to insert themselves in American society. I guess this helped serve as inspiration."

Herrera became conscious of wanting to take photography seriously after high school. There she'd been good in math, but gave it up for literature and philosophy; after graduating she went on to study journalism, with audiovisual (media) as her major.

"I did internships on art mags and newspapers, worked in filmmaking and commercial production. I even worked for Variety, writing about cinema from the industry's point of view." Even so, opportunities were limited in Venezuela, so Herrera set her sights on Europe. It was not meant to be.

When a friend suggested she try for a Monbukagakusho scholarship, Herrera hesitated: there were few available in the arts for Latin applicants, and anyway, Japan seemed so far away.

Still she applied, but in a half-hearted kind of way, and even began crying when accepted at the thought of taking such an enormous step. Family and friends were equally alarmed, some believing Tokyo was in China. "But deep down," she realizes now, "I knew a door was opening."

Six months after arriving in Japan, Herrera suffered an acute identity crisis. Meeting other students at Nihon Daigaku, and learning Japanese on what she calls a "Clockwork Orange-type course," it seemed more important to study herself. "Japanese and Latin values were so different. It was only when I met Brazilian-Japanese that I found it easier to relate."

On a trip home, she felt she no longer even fit into Venezuelan society. Befriending and sharing a room with a woman from Paraguay with Japanese parents, she felt more at home.

"It was on my third trip to Brazil that I began seeing Japanese faces. That was so exciting. Some did not speak Japanese. Others had no interest in their roots. Who did they think they were, I wondered. How were they viewed? It was like looking in a mirror, seeing a reflection of my own identity crisis. That's when the idea of a photographic project took root."

Her proposal for "Identity: Nikkeijin in Brazil" became her doctorate. She's been studying six years now, thanks to the Education Ministry's generosity, and will submit her own Ph.D. next year.

All the photographs in the show were taken in Spring 2005. "Over two months I visited 10 cities with large nikkei communities, mostly in southern Brazil, and small farms. It was so interesting."

There are near 1 million descendants of those first settlers, with businesses making miso, soy and sake. And while some farmers cultivate daikon and gobo, agricultural skills have been adapted for also growing coconuts, guavas and bananas.

"In a barrio in San Paolo, I found myself eating beans and singing karaoke. It was amazing to find Brazilian-Japanese who have never been to Japan studying tea ceremony and traditional buyo dance. Normally their body language is 100 percent Latino; they're not at all conscious of body shape, as Japanese are here."

The people she met and photographed in Brazil were open and embracing. "They would say, 'Please come in for coffee! Stay the night! You must go and see so-and so, they have an orchid farm!' Older people still speak Japanese. The younger ones love bossa nova and samba, speak only Portuguese."

This is Herrera's first solo exhibition, and she will be showing some 30 black-and-white prints photographs (hand-developed and printed) and all shot wide-angle.

"I chose the panoramic format because I could see more than just the subject. The environment is also a protagonist. My pictures may look simple but there's a lot going on. Look closely and you can see how Japanese faces blend naturally into the tropical background of South America."

She seeks recognition of her work as a celebration of Japanese settlement in Brazil and the effort and commitment of those early immigrants who concentrated on creating strong lives for their families and descendants. Also she wants Japan to better understand Japanese-Brazilians living here.

Herrera is very much aware that announcing oneself as an artist is about vanity and ego. That's why she's balancing out creative work with teaching film at Temple University, working toward a diploma in NGO and NPO management, and teaching community-based yoga.

"I don't know my future path. I'm just trying to concentrate on the present. Hopefully my skills as a photographer and my interest in serving society through NGO work will come together."

"Identity: Nikkeijin in Brazil," Nikon Plaza Shinjuku, 28F Shinjuku L Tower Building, Nishi-Shinjuku 1-6-1, Tokyo (Subway exit A17) Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (last day until 4 p.m.). Phone (03) 3344-0565; fax (03) 3344-0566 Web page: www.nikon-image.com/eng/activity/salon/index.htm

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