On display at the UICA in Grand Rapids, MI until January 25, 2019.
From 2012-2014 I lived as an English teacher in Amakusa, Japan. A beautiful cluster of islands with a rich and unique history, it has nevertheless been undergoing population decline for several decades. One way this change is represented is in the towns' closed schools and storefronts. As a teacher, I would wander through these areas, curious about the histories behind them. In particular, my favorite place to explore was the fishing town of Ushibuka.
In November of 2017 I returned to Ushibuka eager to use art to address the urban change it had experienced. I did this via the Furusato Vision Project, an initiative of the JET Program, through which I had taught. In Ushibuka, I met with locals and asked them to write down a cherished memory they had of something that no longer existed. With their words, and the photographs I took of them and their chosen locations, I hoped to cast a positive light on places that might otherwise go ignored.
Overall many of the stories shared a common theme: human relationships. People mentioned a family farewell, playing with childhood friends, taking walks with one's son, surviving a crisis with one's neighbors, etc. It was people's humanity and their care for each other that made the various locations special.
I repeated this process back in my adopted city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A booming city, the strongest in its state, it is currently facing rising income inequality, the third highest in the US in 2017. This is evident in neighborhoods like Burton Heights, where residents have not seen the economic growth enjoyed by many of the city’s other neighborhoods. In asking current and former residents to share stories with me of Burton Heights’ past, once again stories arose with a common theme of humanity. Residents mentioned spending time with new colleagues, birthday memories with their mother, lifelong friendships, and so on.
As communities change, I believe it's those kinds of values that are important for people to uphold. I hope that if people in Ushibuka and other changing communities hold onto their kindness, concern for each other, and continue to take joy in one another, then life will be brighter for future generations.