Captain Charles Eugene Gail was an Army dentist stationed in Yomitan, Okinawa from 1952 to 1953. An amateur photographer who had previously trained under Ansel Adams, Gail spent much of his leisure time walking the dirt roads of the main island, turning his lens on the landscape and everyday lives of the Okinawans he encountered. Many of the photographs are centered on the people he encountered in public spaces. These images include children, storekeepers, fishermen and fisherwomen, and farmers.
Okinawa’s landscapes were a favorite subject for Gail’s photography. Farmland and seascapes are among the most common images, along with the people engaged in the labor undertaken these spaces. From his photos, it’s clear that farming and aquaculture remained important industries in Okinawa in the 1950s. While we know that Gail worked in Yomitan, We do not know the exact location of many of the photos. Some, like the images of Nakagusuku Castle or Futenma Shrine, are fairly obvious enough, many locations are difficult to identify with any precision. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that Okinawa’s landscape has changed irrevocably in the interceding decades, much of it paved over by an American military with a voracious appetite for land.
The photos in this collection capture a moment of powerful and often destructive transition in Okinawan history. The Battle of Okinawa killed one-third of the civilian population, meaning that most, if not all, of the people in the photos experienced some sense of loss and trauma.
Overall, the photos in the collection also indicate that Gail was keen to capture parts of the island that did not appear to have yet been militarized or otherwise industrialized. Given the immense U.S. military presence in Okinawa throughout the Korean War (to the present), this is a noteworthy omission on the part of the photographer. Gail seems to have made a conscious attempt to avoid documenting the American militarism that determined his being in Okinawa in the first place (or at least these are the only photos that have survived from his collection). What are we to make this? Spending most of his days on a military base, perhaps he had no interest in photographing the banality of his own workplace.
With the Gail photo collection, we have only the photographs themselves, the negatives having long since disappeared. Gail also passed away before the photos were gifted to UCSC, so we cannot ask about his actual artistic or editorial process. However, in addition to the images themselves, we have the captions and comments that Gail wrote on the back of the developed photos, which offer important, if limited, windows into how he understood the places and people of Okinawa.
What can we learn from Gail’s photos? Certainly, they present an Okinawa that has irrevocably changed since the early 1950s, offering a window into the daily lives of people living under occupation. The photos also give a glimpse into how the photographer, a captain in the U.S. Army, understood his place in Okinawa. He could easily, it seems, transition into the role of tourist (or even a lay ethnographer), capable of performing the most colonial of activities, categorizing and labeling those under colonial rule. There is an overriding sense from his photos and comments of a romanticizing of Okinawa’s pristine natural landscapes, along with a general curiosity towards the “uncivilized” practices of some of the people (hand tattoos [hajichi], night soil fertilization, unattended barefoot children).
The Okinawa Memories Initiative
Geri Gail, the photographer’s daughter, donated the collection to the Special Collections and Archives at UC Santa Cruz. Along with project director, Alan Christy of the Department of History, other team members include Shelby Graham of the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery and Tosh Tanaka, our media director. As a project built on faculty-student collaboration, most of the team members are UCSC students who embody a wide range of majors and interests.
From the very beginning, UCSC undergraduates have been core members of the project. Students bring to the project their own interests and skills; only a small minority join with a deep knowledge or interest in Okinawa. Some students have conducted research trips to the National Archives to gather documents from the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyus (USCAR), which ruled occupied Okinawa from the end of the war until 1972. With these documents, This is part of the project of allowing student researcher the opportunity to interrogate the context in which Gail took his photos.
The Okinawa Memories Initiative website allows for users to input their own reflections on the photos. From anywhere in the world, visitors can click on a photo and record their message, which is then uploaded to our database (a copy of file is also downloaded onto the visitor’s own device).
In addition to the website, our team is organizing a global exhibition tour of the photos. In the coming years, the photos will be exhibited in Okinawa, Hawai’i, and hopefully Brazil (in 2016, Tosh Tanaka completed an exploratory research trip to Brazil to visit with local Okinawan community centers). The first exhibition was held in the fall of 2017. Under the curatorship of Shelby Graham at UCSC’s Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery, project members held a series of Okinawa-related events during over the course of the exhibition. Okinawans living in the Bay Area visited and shared their memories, and student members cooked taco rice, the ubiquitous Okinawan base town staple. (You can listen to a KQED report on the exhibition here.)
In the following pages I have grouped the photos into themes similar to those created by the Okinawa Memories Initiative team for our website: Daily Life and Work, Heritage, People, and Landscapes. Within each of these themes I have also grouped the photos into more specific categories and with each photo I have included Gail’s own commentary, which he penciled on the back of the developed image.