Chapter 1 / Sharing Stories
Incredible Humans: The Asian experience through the lens of Michelle Mishina
Words and interview: Talya Wong
Photos: Michelle Mishina / Portrait by: IJfke Ridgely
With the horrific and exponential rise of active violence towards the Asian diaspora and the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on people of colour and on women, we wanted to find time this month to use our platform to celebrate the stories of Asian individuals bringing awareness to both the Asian and the female experience through their openness and their work.
We are grateful and honoured for the words and stories of some incredible Asian women in our community that are sharing the diversity and power of the Asian experience through their lens.
Next up in our six-part series, we feature the voice of Michelle Mishina, a dear friend of ours who is an incredible photographer, creative, and a beautiful Half-Japanese soul that inspires us from the islands of Hawai 'i.
*Above images: Ephemeral moments, or "the beautiful ordinary" as captured by Michelle Mishina
OCIN: Can you share with us a little about your heritage? What was it like growing up for you?
Michelle Mishina: My mom is 4th generation Hawaii Japanese and my dad is caucasian. It was important to them that my sisters and I had a connection to our Japanese heritage, so they signed us up for things like judo and tea ceremony and Japanese school, which I did throughout elementary and middle school. Despite all this, I’ve never been to Japan. My mom hasn’t, either. (We were supposed to go last April to learn more about our ancestry, but our plans were canceled when COVID surged.) So the Japanese culture that I know was learned in more formal settings, and feels distant in some ways. It’s not something that I live and think about on a daily basis. It’s definitely had an impact on me though, especially aesthetically and how I carry myself in the world.
The things I struggled with growing up were things that I think most people confront at one time or another— “Who am I in relation to my friends, family, community? Am I enough? Am I ok?” I realize now that it’s probably less about being Japanese or White or mixed race, and instead a more universal search for one's own identity and place in the world.
OCIN: What is something (an essence, an energy, a contrast…) you look for when capturing a photograph?
MM: I’m really into symbolism and contrasts in images. I’m drawn to unexpected moments of beauty in otherwise ordinary settings. I love gesture and light and all these fleeting things that photography is uniquely able to capture— tiny details that give you a sense of a place or a person in a microsecond. I suppose it’s a very wabi-sabi approach— the gift of impermanence, and the beauty in simplicity and imperfection.
OCIN: When do you feel most proud of your work?
MM: When I’ve tried something new or something unexpected happens in a photo, I get excited and there's a sense of wonder. But that’s more technical, and it’s hard for me to feel proud of something that’s an accident or experiment. The photos I value most over time are those where the image is a reminder of some connection— either with another person, with the environment, or with myself. The best part about photography is that it’s a passport to other worlds. By being curious and interested in people, I’m allowed into their experience of life. My goal is for people to see themselves and each other as I see them: beautiful, complex, and interesting. It doesn’t always happen, but if I can achieve that, I feel very satisfied with the work.
OCIN: How has being Asian impacted your experience as a photographer on O'ahu, Hawaii?
MM: In Hawaii, all of our cultures are very intertwined. Being mixed race is often like being a mirror; people see in me what they want to see. Depending where I am and who I’m with, I’ve been mistaken for Latina, Filipina, Hawaiian, White. As a photographer, both in Hawaii and elsewhere, having an ambiguous appearance is helpful. People are curious about me, or feel like we might share a cultural heritage. My ultimate goal with photography is connection, so if something about my appearance or background builds a bridge or starts a conversation, I’m grateful for it.
OCIN: What empowers you about being Japanese? About being a woman?
MM: Being seen as nonthreatening is quite useful to a photographer. It allows a certain freedom and access to people and places. It feels subversive, which I like. Not to mention, there’s so much power in being quiet and gentle and having space to observe. That being said, I have some very empowering role models. The women in my family are fiercely intelligent, resourceful, and strong both physically and spiritually. Knowing that I come from them gives me the confidence to take on any challenges that come my way.
OCIN: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is to choose to challenge, to change. As a female leader in the Asian community, what are you choosing to challenge?
MM: I’m challenging myself to be more inquisitive than judgmental. Asking questions like, “Why do I think that?” and “What’s another way to look at this?” There’s a lot you can learn about yourself from these answers and I’m barely scratching the surface. But without asking those questions, it’s easy to be fearful and judgmental of others, especially those who seem different from you.
"My ultimate goal with photography is connection, so if something about my appearance or background builds a bridge or starts a conversation, I’m grateful for it."
Stay tuned for the rest of our six-part series, featuring Natasha Jung, Patricia Lagmay, Stella Kim, Sophia Li, and the team behind Chinatown Today. In support of Yarrow Society. Head to our IG for more.