Welcome to KQED Arts’ Redefining Pride: The East Bay’s Queer Artists, a series highlighting the work of queer-identified artists in Oakland and Berkeley. Through printmaking, photography, filmmaking and interdisciplinary work, these visual artists celebrate people, histories and causes often sidelined within mainstream presentations of the queer community.
If photographer Mia Nakano struggled before 2010 to find publicly accessible resources about queer and trans Asian American history, her work since then has ensured that others will not have the same difficulties today.
Nakano’s portrait and oral storytelling endeavor, the Visibility Project, is the fruit of a decade of her creative labor to document the lived experiences of queer and trans Asian Americans across the United States. In the photographs, each interviewee sits in front of a simple gray, black or white background; though the setting is formulaic, the subjects are far from it. It’s not only that they each pose uniquely, or that their facial expressions range from grinning mid-laugh to defiant, confident stares. The over 200 people featured in the series reflect the wide spectrum of Asian American queer women and trans community members—and generates a dynamic, multifaceted and much-needed form of visibility.
For a photographer so well-versed in portraiture, Nakano once avoided—even disliked—the photographing people. Before beginning the series, Nakano was on a 2007 photojournalism fellowship dedicated to environmental photography in Nepal. Although social justice-oriented in mission, her photos then depicted the impact of humans on natural and urban landscapes, such as trash piled in the street—pointedly non-figurative art.
“I was so uncomfortable communicating with and taking pictures of people, that was actually the thing I hated the most,” Nakano remembers.
But when she began socially connecting with the LGBTQ community in Nepal, she found herself being asked for portraits—with a lot of enthusiasm from the subjects. “It broke me out of my shell,” she says. “I think that not actually speaking the language kind of helped and taking photos of people who really wanted to preen and be in front of the camera helped.”
This experience of working directly with portraiture collided with another concern of Nakano’s. Having founded the photography section at Hyphen magazine, which publishes writing on Asian American news and culture, Nakano was highly aware of the lack of non-stereotypical imagery and nuanced narratives about queer Asian Americans. Working as a media producer invested in LGBTQ stories, she was frustrated with the limited search results, both online and through other sources, that she found in 2010.
“I was really struggling to find history of the community, stories that I could connect with or identify with,” Nakano says. “Or, if I talked to people [as the press], they wouldn’t want to share their stories on the record; they wouldn’t want to be shown.” Representing queer and trans narratives through the media—a powerful and potentially empowering platform—requires a conscientious attention to the realities of risk for these communities; for many, being “out” can still be a danger to personal safety.
The desire to find that history kickstarted a now-decade-long portraiture and storytelling series, which includes a book published in 2017. Although Nakano considers the Visibility Project to be a lifelong endeavor, she's currently pausing to explore other methods of queer Asian American storytelling.
As the founder and co-director of the Resilience Archives, Nakano collaborates with co-director Kat Evasco and others in this multimedia organization that foregrounds the lived experiences of individuals within the community through means of a digital history tour, storytelling and performance workshops (led by Evasco), and other interactive elements.
For Nakano, the digital history tour offers an innovative and more broadly accessible way to discover queer Asian American history. Originally conceived as a walking tour, the team instead sought a format that could be regionally specific without being locked into a physical space folks must visit or traverse themselves (difficult for non-locals and people with mobility concerns). The resulting interactive digital map provides a participatory platform filled with ephemera uploaded from individuals' personal collections and like-minded local organizations, including photos, podcast clips, newsletters, fliers and “whatever we can get permission to publish from the content originator,” Nakano says.
Nakano believes not only in storytelling’s power to inform others, but also in its necessity to build new archives to fill with people's own lived experiences.
“The Visibility Project and the Resilience Archives are essentially containers for other people to put their stories in, if they want to. We make it really easy for people to do that. Not just by providing the container, but by educating people on all these different layers: ethical, moral, digital... it’s including the storytelling workshops that Kat teaches. You get a safe space.” Importantly, these community-generated collections are made publicly available for others to find.
The organization was founded as a true collaboration, and thus doesn’t rely so heavily on Nakano’s singular time and energy. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to work with another collaborator in a real way,” she says. “Now we’re being recognized as industry experts, I would say, and getting tapped into different communities. I think there’s a way in which the Resilience Archives can shape and really shift the landscape of how queer Asian American history can been seen.”
Having worked so closely and intentionally on queer Asian American representation, Nakano considers herself fortunate to have found her own social networks in the Bay Area, where she has lived since 2001, and the East Bay—mostly Oakland—for 15 of those years. “I have a really strong community, and a social, cultural base in the Bay Area that has given me a lot of strength and awareness and understanding,” she says.
“I also recognize that when I travel to different places, I am going into other communities,” Nakano observes. “I'm constantly learning about how to work with and engage with different communities. Folks who are undocumented, Native Hawaiian, Samoan and Muslim and queer—it's a constant learning process for me. It really shapes how I look at the world; how I look at how people are treated, how I look at I'm treated.”
In addition to expanding the Resilience Archives' mapping services to include more regions, Nakano is also developing a series of short films commissioned by the Smithsonian. The films will feature four queer Asian Pacific people, each in different cities, and will include both youth and elders. “The queer Asian American movement is young, and the people who started it, which really came out of the late 1970s, those elders are in their 60s and 70s now,” Nakano says. “They can pass down information and wisdom to the [new] movement leaders who are really struggling in similar ways.”
It is rare that a creative artistic practice serves as conduit for the fortifying exchanges between people across generations, the spread of a country, or even the space between a gray backdrop and a camera's lens. But that is exactly the case for Nakano's output as she adapts and evolves the work over time.
When asked if Nakano ever imagined the Visibility Project or the Resilience Archives becoming what they now are, her answer is a flat no. “I had no idea. [The Visibility Project] still impacts people, because I get emails from young people in the Midwest saying, ‘I found this site and I’ve been feeling so alone, I’ve been struggling to find community out here.’ Now I can reach out to someone in that region and ask if they have time to talk to this person,” Nakano says. Most leaders and activists readily agree to help, understanding the importance of reducing alienation for queer and trans youth.
“That is when I see the work that I’m doing being the most successful. It’s not when it’s in an exhibition. It’s in those moments when I’ve built those relationships and they need support, because we all know how meaningful one person listening can be to somebody like that."