Interview: Greg Masuda
Born in Edmonton and raised in a suburb called Sherwood Park, filmmaker and photographer Greg Masuda had what he calls a very ‘Canadian’ prairie upbringing. “We’d do Canadian things like play hockey and baseball, eat Canadian things like Kraft Dinner, perogies, and steaks. But occasionally some sukiyaki would find its way to the table or my Dad would say something in Japanese that none of us understood, and I’ve known how to use chopsticks since I can remember. A couple times a year we would make it down to where my Dad was raised, near Lethbridge, and it was then, when we visited my family there, that a little more of our Japanese roots came out.”
By the time Greg was thirty he was living the Canadian dream—Vice President of a company that was one of the stock market darlings during the late 90s, a very good salary, plenty of stock options, a wife, a house in the suburbs, two nice cars in the garage, a dog and cat. As he says, “Every measure of success I had grown up with had been exceeded and my future was looking bright.”
At the end of 2005 though, within a matter of months, Greg’s world collapsed around him, the life he had carefully constructed in tatters. After the dust had cleared he was left feeling unfulfilled, somewhat taken advantage of, and depressed.
He began to question what he calls his neo-liberal values, eventually rejecting the corporate mindset where “good people can be made to say and do awful things in the interests of the shareholders.” As he concedes, “I’m not proud of that phase of my life. But I needed that wake up call to begin being true to myself. It’s the genesis of the work that I’m doing today in photography and film.”
That work is what brought him into the Kizuna exhibit, where his large-scale work Dispossession takes up much of one wall in the gallery. Now living in Vancouver, he was invited to take part in the project and he jumped at the chance to dig deeper into his roots in the community and to explore how the Japanese Canadian experience fits into the broader picture of what it means to be Canadian and displaced.
Interview: Greg Masuda
Your life took a ninety-degree turn from the one you lived up until you were thirty. What was it like to experience such a dramatic shift, not only in lifestyle, but approach to life itself?
At the beginning of 2009 I was set to carry on with that career. I was determined to get my CA to complement my executive experience and I was two months into articling at a big accounting firm in downtown Vancouver when a friend of mine planted this seed about film school. I had never considered making movies before but it sure sounded like a lot more fun than doing taxes and audits. Practically speaking, it was financial suicide, but in my heart it just felt right. I’m not a complete idiot though—I was in a good position to do it—my expenses were low, I had no dependents, I had some money in the bank and I figured I was still pretty employable if it didn’t work out. Still it was extremely scary, especially the money part, because I’ve never had to worry about money before, but also I suffer from some serious imposter syndrome . . . I had been a photographer on the side for a number of years but I just didn’t think I was good enough to actually make it in the arts. But then I imagined myself on my death bed reflecting on my life and wishing I had gone to film school when I had a chance—and that’s what pushed me over the edge. I think I’m doing pretty well for being only 18 months all-in, but I still get scared if I think about money for very long.
As part of the project, you went into the archives looking for inspiration. What did you find there?
The first photograph I saw during my research was the one that inspired the aesthetic for Dispossession. It’s a photo of an RCMP officer leading a long line of Japanese families outside of the immigration building in Vancouver, circa 1945. That photo represents the eastward displacement of Japanese Canadians during the internment, including my own family’s relocation from Shawnigan Lake to the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta.
I also spent a lot of time looking at the New Canadian from January 1942 onwards, especially during the first few months of 1942, before anyone knew their lives and their community were going to be confiscated by Canada. The gravity of my family’s loss really hit home for me. It made me angry with Canada actually, something I’ve never felt before.
Your contribution to this project is a single photograph, or at least that’s what it appears to be on the surface. In reality, the piece you have created is made up of many works that you have stitched together with Photoshop. What made you decide to work on such a large scale?
In November 2009 I began to work as a camera assistant on a CTV documentary about Vancouver’s world famous photo conceptualist artists including Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and Rodney Graham. Their work was very new to me. They work in a large scale format which sometimes takes years of planning and production to create. Witnessing these masters at work completely changed my approach to photography, and I owe them credit for inspiring this new approach. I tried to mimic some of their methods and the scale of their work in this piece, and, for the most part, it seems to have worked. But it’s not my first piece either. I did a ‘practice’ piece for another small show in June, a photograph I call Repulsion.
Can you talk about the thought process behind creating this piece?
Beth Carter asked me to participate in Kizuna a whole year ago but it wasn’t until August that I actually decided what the photograph would be. After a conversation with Lily Shinde about the internment, the photo began as an idea for a documentary film seeded by my brother, about the dispossession of populations in Vancouver starting with colonization of First Nations, then the Japanese Canadian internment, and finally the gentrification of today’s Downtown Eastside community. Whatever form discrimination takes, be it racial or socio-economic, it’s the same thing repeating itself over and over again over the past 150 years. It’s shocking what was acceptable to society and endorsed by our government in the past, i.e. the genocide of First Nations and the racial hatred of the Japanese, and I hope that people will realize what’s taking place right now on the Downtown Eastside and to see that it’s equally unacceptable. I hope that this piece will add to the voices of the community that have been trying to get that point across all this time. It’s sad but I think the majority of Vancouverites, and Canadians for that matter, would just as soon see the whole neighbourhood gentrified with condos and coffee shops. There’s just so much ignorance out there.
It’s quite a remarkable work—what should people look for when they see it?
The exhibition photograph is 9.5 feet wide by over 2 feet tall, that is, it’s pretty big but there is a lot of detail to look at as well. It’s meant to be scrutinized, from a very micro view of the details of East Hastings, to the much larger picture that you can only appreciate if you stand back ten feet. I hope the viewers take the time to really look at this photo from all perspectives you need to really appreciate it.
Also, everything is in there for a reason. The location was very carefully scouted. Notice that they’re walking away from the Woodwards building for example—there’s a reason for that. The people in the photo are there on purpose, their gender, race, age are all intentional. Some are ghosts and some are not. The trees are black and white while Hastings Street is in colour . . . The direction the people are walking and even the directions they are looking are intentional. The little girl is looking right at you. Some viewers have even pointed out details that I hadn’t intended to put in but speak to them—like the graffiti you can see through the RCMP officer and the fact that it sits right where his heart is. What that means to her might not mean anything to someone else, or it might mean something completely different. There is a ton of intention and information put into this piece but it really depends what the viewers see for themselves and what messages they take away from it. I hope they get my message, but maybe take something else away that’s unique to their experience too.
You’ve moved from the outer reaches of the Japanese Canadian diaspora to the community’s historic home, the downtown eastside. You’re still young, but you have lived those two realities. Have you learned anything about what it means to be Japanese Canadian, or being a hapa?
I don’t actually live in the Downtown Eastside but I spend time working and volunteering there. I was on the board of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House for a bit and I’m also on the Advocacy Committee of the Powell Street Festival. My experience working in the neighbourhood has kept me grounded, especially when I was working for that big accounting firm. You can get so caught up in work and business and nearly everyone around you is chasing material wealth and bigger and better things. I actually depended on my work in the Downtown Eastside to save me from buying back into those ideas.
What I’ve also learned, from my research and my time in the Japanese Canadian community, is that the internment was very real, and very devastating. I myself am a product of the internment if it weren’t for my father’s relocation to Southern Alberta, he would have never met my mother and I would not exist today. But, since I do, I have taken every opportunity to learn about this side of my family. The more time I spend in the archives, the more I feel that I am part of the Japanese Canadian community.
Was this your first time delving into the archives? What do you bring away from this project?
Yes, it was my first time, but I attended a genealogy workshop last fall that was very inspiring. I looked into what it meant for my family. I also found fear mongering ads in the New Canadian from Vancouver businesses trying to capitalize on the Japanese Canadian question and that’s what really makes me sad. We think that the internment was racially motivated, and it was, but there is also a pattern of financial motivation in all instances of Vancouver’s dispossessed. Greed isn’t unique to Vancouver of course, but it’s been ground zero for a lot of battles over property and land—real estate—for as long as Vancouver has existed. It’s shocking—and the saddest part is that it’s happening again right now. This is what I’ll take away the most, as my brother and I continue this research for a documentary film.
You’re heavily involved in film, what projects are upcoming for you?
I am pitching a new film project about hereditary cancer to a theatre of international commissioning editors and industry professionals at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 28. I also have some photographic projects in mind that will pick up where Repulsion left off. I start a three month internship at the National Film Board on October 4. My brother and I are also working on a documentary film in the same spirit as the Dispossession photograph.