A suitcase and a story

Vancouver-based portrait photographer, Kayla Isomura grew up with a passion for 

Between working three different jobs, Isomura made a name for herself in photography and now has her own gallery exhibit about Japanese internment in Canada during World War II. The Suitcase Project opens June 16 and runs till September 2 at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby.

A whole life in one suitcase

Kayla Isomura, self portrait with bags for The Suitcase Project. | Photo by Kayla Isomura

Growing up a fourth generation Japanese Canadian, Isomura felt a void. She didn’t know many other Japanese Canadians or that her own grandparents and great grandparents had been interned during World War II. Having not learned about the Japanese internment in Canada in school, and desiring more impactful work, Isomura set out to educate herself.

Inspired by a recent backpacking trip to New Zealand, Isomura kept thinking about how her grandparents would’ve lost everything they couldn’t carry. If she was forced to leave her home and never return, what would she take? She wanted to create a discussion about interment, so she pitched the idea to Director/Curator Sherri Kajiwara at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby and created a job for herself. Kaijiwara was not only supportive of Isomura’s idea, but insisted that she show the project at the museum.

While working as an intern curator, Isomura was able to create The Suitcase Project, a multi-media exhibit asking yonsei and gosei (4th and 5th generation Japanese Canadians and Americans) what they would pack if uprooted from their homes at a moment’s notice similar to their ancestors during World War II.

With portrait photography and interviews with the subjects, the exhibit is meant to be an interactive experience for all who attend. Isomura’s exhibit forces its attendees to ask themselves these difficult questions: what do I really need? Practical vs. sentimental? What is truly important?

“The project expanded outside of the question of ‘packing’ and became a larger conversation about our generation and what it looks like to be a Japanese Canadian,” Isomura says.

The project came together rather quickly when gallery space unexpectedly opened up at the museum this summer. Isomura started photographing subjects in January and is now in the final stages of preparation. She originally expected to just be showing photographs, but her background in journalism encouraged her to incorporate film and interviews with the exhibit.

There will be over 40 photos displayed, with some subjects getting a secondary photograph to show what they would’ve packed if forcibly removed from their homes. There will also be a film with 20 different vignettes showing interviews and the photography process.

Displacement impact still felt

Isomura still feels the impact of the Japanese internment decades later. She believes it played a huge role in who she is. Relatives were spread out across Canada and many were not allowed to return to the West Coast after the war. Language, identity and culture were lost. Isomura hopes to give a voice to those who were silenced for many years as well as educate those in her generation who, like her, feel that they’re missing a large part of their heritage.

“Our current generation, in our particular group of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans, are not facing the same form of discrimination as our ancestors. I was curious what people in my generation’s mindset would be if in the same situation,” she says.

Isomura plans to expand the exhibit once officially wrapped in September. She wants to create an online version, which will include podcast files of extended interviews with her subjects. With the expansion, Isomura hopes to reach a broader audience and allow those subjects who aren’t from Vancouver the ability to access the gallery after its run. As for her own goals, she hopes the exhibit will lead to more projects, especially those that leave a greater impact on the audience.

“No matter what generation you’re in, whether or not you have a connection to Japanese internment, or if you’re even in the Japanese community, I think there’s a lot to learn from hearing people share their stories,” she says.

For more information, visit www.centre.nikkeiplace.org