Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Hundreds of Wahiawä residents gathered under the stars at the Wahiawä Hongwanji Mission on a cool, crisp Dec. 10 evening for a reception celebrating the debut of a photography exhibit highlighting the former pineapple plantation town’s rich history and its beloved küpuna (elders) and students. The exhibit, titled “Crossing Bridges,” featured stories and photographs of 24 Wahiawä küpuna who were interviewed and photographed by students from Island Pacific Academy, Wahiawä Middle School, Leilehua High School and a college student with Wahiawä roots. The event was hosted by ProjectFocus Hawaii and the Wahiawä Community Based Development Organization.
“Wahiawä has such a rich and bountiful history,” said ProjectFocus Hawaii co-founder and executive director Laura Callies. “We wanted to bring küpuna and students together so that this younger generation of the Wahiawä community could sit down with their elders and listen to their stories of growing up. The title, ‘Crossing Bridges,’ is very apt, as the only way to enter or exit Wahiawä is by one of two bridges. The title also connotes building bridges between the küpuna and students, separated by at least two generations.”
ProjectFocus Hawaii president and co-founder Lisa Uesugi is from Wahiawä, as is her husband Darin Uesugi, who is president of the Wahiawä Community Based Development Organization. WCBDO and PFH partnered in making the intergenerational vision a reality. Darin Uesugi said the project supports the WCBDO’s mission.
“WCBDO is an economic development group which works on projects that improve Wahiawä,” he said. “We want to remember Wahiawä’s rich history, of plantation days and the heyday of the military. We build upon the work of the Wahiawä Historical Society and pass that on to younger generations. We also use that history to boost economic development.”
Displayed in the Hongwanji social hall were 48 beautiful banners, one for each of the 24 küpuna interviewed and one for each of the 24 student interviewers/photographers. Each banner featured a black-and-white photograph of the küpuna or student, their personal story of growing up in Wahiawä and what they love about being from Wahiawä. The photographs of the küpuna were taken by the student with whom they were paired, while the photographs of the students were taken by either Callies or Lisa Uesugi. They used film, not digital, cameras, believing film renders a higher quality image.
As the students interviewed the elders, they discovered some connections through the kupunä’s personal stories. For example, 76-year-old Edwina Wong, who was born and raised in Wahiawä, told Makana Gabrielle Baker, a Wahiawä Middle School student, that May Day was a very important day when she was growing up. As a result, Wong initiated a May Day program at ‘Iliahi Elementary School in Wahiawä, where she was the librarian until she retired in 1995. It is a tradition that continues to this day, with the entire school dancing hula to the song “Pua ‘Iliahi.” Baker, who spent her elementary school years at ‘Iliahi, cherishes her May Day experiences, which she only recently learned that Wong had established. At the reception, they laughed and hugged each other as they shared fond remembrances of this ‘Iliahi tradition.
It is these kinds of stories that the nonprofit PFH hopes to engender through its work. PFH was founded in 2005 as a means of giving children and the senior population a healing voice through the medium of photography. Callies and Uesugi are both professional photographers who strive to enhance self-esteem, self-awareness and self-reflection through an annual summer internship program. All of their work is pro bono. Over 12 weeks, and sometimes for even six to eight months, they train students, many of whom are at-risk, in the use of medium format Holga film cameras.
“Photography can provide a safety net between children and the other side,” said Callies. “The children can capture what they’re feeling about their subject without having to say a word. We often ask them to photograph a person who has been important to them and to write why that person has been important. Through this work, families have been brought together and all kinds of great things have happened.”
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