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The Limits of Geolocating the Photographer
Post-War Pre-Base Okinawan Landscapes
As with Gail's other photos, those included here depict an Okinawa that is not under intense American militarization. The years of the Korean War (1950-1953) saw a massive buildup of U.S. military forces. After the war, the military went about expanding and building new bases throughout the Okinawan archipelago. Still, in the early 1950s, it appears that Gail purposely left the militarization of Okinawa out of his photos, or perhaps simply discarded such photos, which may have seemed banal compared to the people and places he encountered outside of the barbed-wire fences.
The limitations of a flat map are certainly expressed in the case of Gail and his photographs. The Okinawa Memories Initiative (OMI) is still in the process of determining the locations of many of the photographs in the collection. In fact, as I write this during the summer of 2018, our team is preparing to embark on another trip to Okinawa, with one of the central goals of identifying and re-photographing some areas.
Because of the limitations imposed by the lack of actual geolocation data for the photos, we might consider how the images help us to understand Okinawan spaces at a very particular moment in time: the transition from wartime battlefield to a U.S. garrison island. This transition did not occur overnight and was in fact highly contested. Gail’s photos capture this moment of transition, from a primarily agrarian economy to one that was increasingly pointed towards the US military and its attendant economies.
Why is this important? Okinawa today is still burdened with a heavy military presence (seventy percent of all Americans stationed in Japan are in Okinawa). Indeed, the U.S. has had a heavy military presence on the islands for nearly eight decades. But it was not always so. As Lefebvre argued, “it would be utterly inadequate from the standpoint of understanding space merely to describe first rural landscapes, then industrial landscapes, and finally urban spaciality, for this would simply leave all transitions out of the picture.” It is in documenting those transitions that I believe the photos find their greatest utility, precisely because these moments of transition in modern Okinawan history are often shunted aside by a metanarrative dominated by war, recovery, and a landscape dominated by American military bases.
These moments of transition are more than simply stopgaps in historical metanarratives. Based on archival documents found by OMI undergraduate researchers, for example, we know that a 1949 directive from the U.S. authorities in Okinawa set out to effectively ban civilian photography on the islands. The directive was sent from the office of a Major Commander Eagles and addressed to the “Chiji of Okinawa Gunto” (the governor of Okinawa) and essentially declared that all Okinawans must register their cameras and photography equipment with the local police stations. Eventually rescinded in 1954, the directive was ostensibly a measure to monitor Okinawans who may be spying on the U.S. military. The existence of this directive, which Alan Christy wrote about in 2016, also suggest a possible reason why there appear to be so few civilian photographs from the years before 1954. We don’t know the extent to which the directive was followed, nor do we know if cameras were actually registered or even confiscated, but we do know that the U.S. military was deeply afraid of Okinawans with cameras, which undoubtedly contributed to the dearth of photos during this time.