Love behind the lens
Yap’s parents and children focus of former punk rock photographer
Colonia, Yap-- Child care is widely shared among parents, siblings and other relatives on the island of Yap. This collective sharing is said to give the children a sense of unlimited kinship support while giving parents a network of support and assistance of their own. Older children take on responsibility for the younger children with each one caring for the next child in line. Adoption is widespread but the adoptive parents are usually an additional set of parents, not a replacement as they are in Western Europe and the U.S. For example, in one case, a man’s brother and his wife were unable to have any children so they adopted one of the man’s children. The girl grew up knowing and interacting with both sets of parents since the families live near each other. However, if the child had grown up on another island like Guam, or even another country, she might meet her birth parents and siblings infrequently.
It is this complex parent-child relationship and bond that the husband and wife team of Bruce and Yoshiko Osborn (www.bruceosborn.com) came to Yap to explore photographically. Based in Japan for more than 30 years, Bruce is famous for his series of photographs of parents and their children. So famous in fact that in 2003 they created nationally-celebrated Oyako Day, which translates to “parent and child.” The concept has evolved into a popular social action campaign supported by sponsoring companies and gaining recognition outside Japan through exhibitions. Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of July, Oyako Day joins several books, professional awards, a documentary film and gallery shows that have inspired many other photographers to create their own parent-child portraits.
It all started in 1982, Bruce explains, when he was photographing punk rock musicians in his native southern California. He and Yoshiko were soon to become parents for the first time. As he was photographing the rockers, he decided to shoot them with their parents to show the differences in fashion and lifestyle. The images were surprising, he adds, in the way they revealed the depth of the parent-child relation.
Using black and white photography against a plain white back-drop “eliminates what is not important and focuses on the relationship,” Bruce says. It seems curious, then, that he chose the colorful environment of Yap Day for his next project in the series.
“I first heard about Yap probably 25 years ago,” he notes. “An adventurous woman I met through my work was bringing high school or college students to Yap to introduce them to the environment and culture. When my cousin and his wife moved to Yap recently, I immediately thought it was the perfect opportunity for us to visit.” During their stay in Yap, the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. “We’re here on vacation but we’re also working,” said Bruce. “Our work and personal lives are blended.”
With Oyako well established in Japan, the couple is now looking for opportunities to visit other countries to extend their work by photographing parents and their children of different cultures. This interest was stimulated when they staged an exhibition in Singapore sponsored by the Japanese Embassy and, after setting up a temporary studio in the gallery to shoot parents and their children, saw the diverse number of people who live there.
During the three-day celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Yap Day, the Osborns walked among the locals at the event sites, stopping now and then to ask if they could photograph a parent-child duo or family group, or photographing the traditional dances, games and other activities. Most of the Yapese wore traditional thu’us, grass skirts and lava lavas, adding to the colorful, festive nature as they sat together with family members watching and cheering their friends and relatives who were participating in the annual event.
“The parent-child relationship is the first step in the relationship and from there the importance of family and community grows,” said Bruce. “The community in Yap is very strong,” he added, “from the hierarchy of the chief on down. The parents are the link to the culture for the child and they learn from their parents.” The dedication to learning the dances was of special interest to Bruce who noted the synchronization of the movements. Yoshiko commented on the warm, emotional feeling she experienced while watching the mothers applying coconut oil to their children’s arms and legs as they got ready for a traditional dance performance.
Although they came to Yap expecting to produce portraits like those they have created for their Oyako series, the couple realized they had to be flexible going into an environment that was very different from what they have shot in before. They spent some time meeting with and photographing families in villages during pre-arranged sessions, but they were also invited to watch the final rehearsal of one of the dances that was performed during Yap Day, and then attended the “hang up” dance the day after the performance. When a dance is not going to be performed again for some time, the dancers perform it once more for the community.
The Japanese are more reserved while the Yapese are warm and open, they observed. “There’s a natural friendliness here. Several people came up to me and asked to speak Japanese!” said Yoshiko.
During the Yap Day festivities, the couple worked closely together identifying possible subjects, approaching them to ask permission to photograph them and explaining what they were doing. With Bruce behind the camera, Yoshiko arranged each parent and child side-by-side, obtained signatures on photo releases, and captured names and addresses and other information in order to send copies of the photos when they are edited. Yoshiko then took her position beside Bruce as he started shooting, waving her arms to get the subjects’ attention and encouraging them to smile and look at Bruce or at each other. They acknowledge that the parent and child are not always in a good mood and there may be tension between them, especially when the child is a teenager or an older adult, but Bruce wants it to be a happy moment in time. “Love and hate are two emotions that are very strong and not very different,” he said, but he strives to achieve an image that shows a moment in time that both can remember with happiness. He works quickly and often takes only two or three minutes before ending the session.
When asked for advice that he would give to those who want to become professional photographers, Bruce strongly recommended having a message to sell. “You can dazzle with technique” but the message you’re trying to convey is the most important aspect for photography, he advised. “You have to find your passion,” he added. Having done commercial work for everything from album covers to advertising, street photography, magazine assignments, as well as inviting 100 parent-child couples to have their photos taken by him on Oyako Day every year, Bruce found his message of the parent-child bond after several years of shooting musicians. Unlike many photographers, he doesn’t always carry his camera with him, often sketching instead.
His final word of advice for aspiring photographers is to have a plan in mind when you’re working on an assignment, whether personal or for a client, but to always “stay open to the circumstances.” When planning their visit to Yap, Bruce said, “We knew we had to leave ourselves open to whatever happened.” They are not yet certain what the final outcome of the project will be, whether it will be turned into black-and-white like their prior Oyako work, or will be shown in color, but they are anxious to share the moments in time they captured on this far-off island where the culture is preserved, valued and passed on from adult to child no matter the child’s age.