Childhood Pictures: The Friendly Neighbourhood Photographer

In the mid 1970s, my family immigrated to Vancouver Canada from Okinawa Japan. We settled into East Vancouver, a working class community made up mostly of Hong Kong Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Indian immigrants. It was a time when you could spend all day playing with the other kids on the block and parents didn’t have to constantly monitor your whereabouts. Good times. I remember playing along the front of our house with my siblings with our bikes and scooters, creating a sort of social magnetic field, unwittingly pulling in the other kids from the neighbourhood. We would spend all afternoon doing absolutely nothing, but having a great time doing it. These definitely were my wonder years.

There was one Hong Kong Chinese family who lived across the street with kids that were older than us, but would still allow us to hang around. They were the cool kids. The oldest had the latest and greatest Datsun 260Z sports car. We would watch him wash it all the time, and he would let us sit in the driver’s seat once in a while. The other brother had a super sweet 3-speed shifter banana seat bicycle and would give us a double, allowing us to shift the gears while he peddled. Then there was Chu. She was a photographer. Like Peter Parker, she seemed to always have a camera around her neck, and she was constantly taking pictures of us. Being Japanese, we were use to having our pictures taken, as my dad too was constantly taking snap shots of us all the time with his Minolta XG-1. However, Chu’s pictures were different. She rarely posed us, and she pretty much let us make any type of face we wanted. Chu was also one of the older cooler kids, but she would spend time with us. Looking back, we were too young to really appreciate it.

We never asked her what the pictures were for or why she was taking them, I guess it was for a school project or something. Sometimes we would sit at her front steps after school and wait around for her, wondering if she still needed models to pose for her camera. We would always tease her because in Japanese (at least with Okinawan-Japanese slang) ‘chu’ meant like a short, sweet kiss. My mom would give us a ‘chu’ before we went to bed. So whenever we called out her name, it was like we were yelling KISS every time. It was good fun and she seemed to like us teasing her.

Let’s fast forward many many years (over 20 years). I graduated high school, I graduated university, I had to choose between moving on to graduate school in English Literature or pursue my latest fascination, photography. The decision didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, but I was convinced photography was going to be my future. I started doing freelance work, weddings, portraiture, sports, whatever job I could get. I was also looking for an industry job, but not in the retail sector. I landed an entry level job at a company called Phototrader Inc. who distributed many products, but specifically had an exclusive deal with Kodak Canada to distribute pro film, paper and chemistry. The only position available was order desk/warehouse, so I happily put away my university books and picked up a broom and clipboard and started my career in the photo industry.

After 5 years I eventually became branch manager, and I had a decent photography business on the side as well. 60-70 hour weeks were no problem for me. I was young, ambitious, passionate and a little crazy. One day a brand new photo lab was opening up in town. They were a break away from an already established pro lab, and many of the local dealers wouldn’t sell to them, worried that it would affect their relationship with the established brand. I didn’t care. We signed them up and we had a really good relationship. One of the employees I spoke with there was in charge of making weekly orders, and we got along really well, even though we never met in person before. Her name was Chu. One day I asked her if she knew what her name meant in Japanese, and she started to laugh. She said: ‘You know there were these little Japanese kids that grew up across the street from me who told me it means kiss and would always laugh…’. I almost fell out of my chair. ‘I was one of those kids!!” I exclaimed. We had such a good laugh and I was so happy photography was still a huge part of her life.

We’re still good friends (I call her my big sister) and we try and meet for coffee when we can. Over the years she’s made prints of those pictures she took of us, now over 35 years ago. Recently we met for dinner in Chinatown and Chu said she had a present for me. What’s the most precious gift a film photographer can give you? Yes, she gave me all the original negatives from all the times she took pictures of us as kids. It was pretty cool looking at these old negatives, imagining little teenage Chu loading Tri-X in her dad’s Canon FTB and 50mm lens and chasing after us immigrant kids from across the street. Imagine she didn’t take these pictures? Maybe we would have never teased her about her name and I would have never asked her what her name meant in Japanese 20 years later and we may have never known we were neighbours. Yes, through photography, Chu and I are life long friends.

Today when people ask me why I gave up academia to pursue photography, I sometimes tell them this story. Photography is a very giving hobby, but often its more than that. When someone asks me if I enjoy taking pictures, the most straight forward answer is no. It’s not just a hobby, or a thing I like doing on weekends. It’s part of me. It’s like asking someone if they enjoy breathing. It’s what we do to stay alive, it’s not a matter of enjoyment or not. My photography is who I am. It’s what I do. I am a photographer, just like my cool big sister from across the street.

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