The project began as a photographic experiment. It should be seen as an on-going visual/historical/cultural document, with the emphasis on the visual part. I am not a historian or social anthropologist; I'm a photographer with a story to tell.
In 2008 I was researching possible locations to photograph in Hells Canyon, a deep river gorge on the Oregon-Idaho border, when I came across a reference to an oddly-named place called "Chinese Massacre Cove." I'd never heard of it before, and the name certainly intrigued me. It wasn't long before I learned that this was the site of one of the most notorious incidents in U.S. history, part of a little-known series of events that have collectively come to be known as the Chinese Expulsion. The more I looked into this topic, the more fascinated I became.
First, I was appalled that I knew almost nothing about this extremely sad but important period in American history. Secondly, as I read about these events I couldn't help but notice parallels between what happened then and what is taking place in our country right now. Both periods are marked by a widespread lack of understanding of other cultures; both featured organized agitators who spewed out bigotry and hatred; and in both greedy business owners tried to profit by hiring immigrant workers at low wages. It is as though we are living out George Santayana's words, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I also began to think about what it means to photograph something in which the context of the image is not just visual but also historical and cultural. This represented an unusual challenge for me as a photographer, since we're accustomed to looking at photographs as visual documents that engage us because we are either able to or encouraged to interpret what we see.
With this project many of the photographs initially may be seen as somewhat benign landscapes, neither particularly appealing nor worthy of study. It's only after reading about what took place on these sites that a viewer may begin to appreciate the images for what they represent rather than what they "are".
After I had a basic understanding of the issues, I began to explore how I would go about photographing some of these places. I discovered that, unlike many historical sites, there was almost no recognition of the specific locations where these events took place. For most sites there are no plaques or markers, no guidebook references – nothing at all to indicate what happened. They have simply been transformed by time and neglect, easier to be forgotten than considered for what happened there.
To make these photographs I've spent hundreds of hours reading new and old books, journals, magazines and newspapers; pouring over old records and maps; and meeting with local historians and residents in order to come up with as accurate information as possible about the specific sites where these events took place. Each image has come as the result of solving a puzzle, usually starting with deciphering old descriptions of locations, then tracking changes in street and place names, and finally trying to match the written information with the physical location.
This has been an arduous process, and I'm greatly indebted to many people who have assisted me in my research. Without their help I would not have been able to identify many of these locations.
I hope this project will do two things: help bring attention to this unfortunate time in our past when bigotry and hatred ruled part of our society; and help us learn to think carefully about what we think we are seeing. The power of photography to shape our understanding of the world is limited only by our own understanding of the forces that influence our behaviors.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that my calling attention to these incidents in various cities is in no way a reflection on the people or officials of those cities today. In every city I've visited I've found diverse and robust communities that are both regretful of this part of the past and encouraging of a future that embraces many cultures and viewpoints.
I would like to emphasize that my calling attention to these incidents in various cities is in no way a reflection on the people or officials of those cities today. In every city I've visited I've found diverse and robust communities that are both regretful of this part of the past and encouraging of a future that embraces many cultures and viewpoints.
Above: Two historical documents from the Chinese expulsion era.