Armed only with a camera, Tamio Wakayama dodged police dogs and truncheons to document the nascent civil rights movement in the American South.
In the bravery of ordinary African-Americans who confronted the cruel vagaries of segregation and Jim Crow laws at the risk of violent reprisal, Mr. Wakayama found a template to address the wrongs done to him and his family as Japanese-Canadians. Mr. Wakayama, who has died at 76, became a key figure in the movement to demand redress for wartime dispossession and internment.
By chronicling the American civil rights movement and the day-to-day life of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, he learned how to challenge the unfair label attached to him early in life as an “enemy alien” in the land of his birth.
“You’ve got to be able to say, I refuse. I am not what they are saying,” he said. “I am a human being.”
Mr. Wakayama was born in New Westminster, near Vancouver, on April 3, 1941. He spent his earliest birthdays in detention, as his immigrant parents, Kinu (née Abe) and Kokichi Wakayama, were ordered into internment following the outbreak of war in the Pacific.
The family was separated and forced from their home in the Fraser Valley community of Port Hammond, now part of Maple Ridge. His father, who came to Canada in 1917 to work as a labourer on the railroad, had saved enough money from logging to buy a two-storey building with a grocery in the front, vats for making tofu in the rear, and living quarters upstairs. All was lost when the government seized and later sold the building and the family’s prized Ford truck.
His mother was ordered to take the infant to quarters in a cattle stall in a livestock building on the grounds of Hastings Park in Vancouver. The Wakayamas were later reunited at Tashme, an internment camp established on a cattle ranch about 175 kilometres east of Vancouver, where families shared tar paper shacks and internees endured a bitter cold unfamiliar to those from the coast. The Wakayamas lived in a room in a converted barn with electricity, a rare luxury in the camps.
After the war ended in 1945, internees were barred from returning to their former coastal homes, a restriction not lifted for another four years. The Wakayama family moved to New Denver, B.C., then for a summer to a fruit farm on the shores of Lake Erie before settling in Chatham, Ont., a farming and manufacturing city that had served in the 19th century as a haven for fugitive slaves who had followed the Underground Railroad. His father found work at a tannery and rendering plant and young Tamio, who went by the anglicized name Tom, grew up in a poor part of the city.
As a university student studying English and philosophy at what is now Western University in London, Ont., Mr. Wakayama was inspired by news reports of lunch-counter protests by young African-Americans, who endured taunts, punches and the indignity of having condiments poured on them by mobs of angry whites.
In 1963, after completing his third year of studies, Mr. Wakayama got an $850 loan from his mother to purchase a Volkswagen Beetle with which he got a cushy summer job driving crop samples around the region. At the end of the summer, he took a motoring holiday to the United States and was in Memphis when he heard radio reports that a bombing of a Baptist church had killed four young girls in Birmingham, Ala.
He immediately drove to the city, where he found a tense atmosphere and mostly vacated streets. The one restaurant he found open was a barbecue joint with wary African-American patrons who did not seem welcoming to a stranger. When he noticed the cook eying his red package of Du Maurier cigarettes, he offered one, explaining they were, like him, Canadian. Once the ice was broken, he was directed to the hotel that served as a gathering place for the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC, pronounced snick), where he volunteered his services.
One of his first assignments was to drive executive secretary James Forman, communications director Julian Bond and photographer Danny Lyon to SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters. On the way, the overloaded Beetle struggled to pass a farm vehicle on the highway just as a freight truck bore down in the opposite direction. Years later, Mr. Wakayama recalled the moment in an interview: “Wiping out the leadership of a major civil rights organization would not have been a good way to begin my career as a freedom fighter,” he said.
Once in Atlanta, he volunteered for janitorial duties and as a driver. After his savings were exhausted, he subsisted on a $25 weekly stipend. Mr. Lyon loaned him his backup Nikon and the novice photographer began taking mugshots of activists, a utilitarian assignment but one with an ominous purpose. It was uncertain whether these activists would survive at a time when the police and the Ku Klux Klan violated the law seemingly at will.
He spent a sweltering summer developing photographs in a converted bathroom while also contributing to the committee’s weekly newspaper. In Atlanta, SNCC was campaigning to integrate restaurants and his contribution was a poster featuring a Klansman in regalia scowling from the windows of a whites-only establishment under the words, “The Face of Atlanta – Help Change It.”
Mr. Wakayama returned briefly to Canada in the fall to promote SNCC on campus. When a SNCC photographer retreated to California after being beaten and robbed of his equipment by a mob of enraged whites, Mr. Wakayama was sent into the field to capture images of the Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign in 1964. His first assignment was in Mississippi’s Neshoba County not long after three civil rights activists – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner – were murdered by Klansmen with the assistance of a county deputy sheriff.
In Mississippi, the photographer became enraptured by people who to him “seemed to have grown from the soil”: an aged woman scything weeds, a man hugging a dead hog strung up to be cleaned, a boy flexing biceps like a pint-sized Superman. He found them to be the kindest, bravest people he had ever met.
“They fed us, they housed us, they protected us,” he told the interviewer Patricia Wakida in 2011. “They went to vote. All these simple acts would have cost them their jobs, their livelihood, their land, their families, and their own lives.”
Two years spent in the South led to a lifetime exploration of people on the margins, as he documented with his camera the lives of the poor of Toronto’s Cabbagetown, Doukhobors in British Columbia’s Kootenays, and First Nation peoples on reserves in Saskatchewan, as well as the diaspora of Japanese-Canadians.
After spending a year in Japan exploring his family’s roots, Mr. Wakayama settled in Vancouver, returning to the coast from which he and his family had been evicted three decades earlier. He became curator and director of the Japanese Canadian Centennial Project, which assembled a collection of photographs to recapture memories of the Japanese-Canadian community in the Vancouver neighbourhood once known as Little Tokyo. The exhibit, titled Dream of Riches: The Japanese-Canadians 1877-1977, toured 40 cities in Canada, Japan and the United States, serving as an opening drumbeat in the successful campaign for redress.
He chronicled the annual Powell Street Festival, which celebrated Japanese-Canadian life, and the images were included in the popular 1992 book, Kikyo: Coming Home to Powell Street. He had several other books to his credit, while his images of the South have been regarded as ever more important historical documents in the passing years.
Mr. Wakayama died of a pulmonary embolism at home in Vancouver on March 23. He leaves Mayumi Takasaki, his partner of 40 years, as well as a brother and a sister. He was predeceased by a brother and two sisters.
The death was announced online by the SNCC Legacy Project, but otherwise his passing went unreported by news outlets.
Mr. Wakayama grew up conflicted about his identity, resenting daily school roll calls with his exotic family name and enduring cries of “Jap go home!” from classmates. A lingering memory involved a matinee screening of a war movie starring John Wayne war movie, the “ultimate, immutable icon of noble manhood” repelling wave after wave of barbarous Japanese. The boy wanted to reject his ethnic heritage, a futile exercise, he later acknowledged, “because it’s not John Wayne when you look in the mirror.”
In covering the great struggle for dignity and basic human rights in the United States, he found a path to resolve his own feelings of exile and alienation. Once he had done so, he said, he felt liberated.