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Who is creating powerful imagery for BIPOC creatives? Aiko Tanaka

Aiko Tanaka is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker creating powerful imagery for BIPOC creatives through her docuseries I Don’t Camouflage. She’s originally from Tokyo, Japan. Tanaka spent her time between Toronto, Canada, and Tokyo which informed her about cultural awareness of the world around her.

Her college years were spent at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, and Rutgers University in New Jersey. There she majored in Social Sciences mainly studying media literacy and race in film. She moved to New York in 2005 where she earned her Masters in Arts and Cultural Management at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  

In 2011, Tanaka went on to found the community-based documentary series I Don’t Camouflage. The series highlights the migration and patterns of creatives who dare to stand up.

Watch the full series here

Tanaka currently features Japanese creatives who migrated to New York, to find themselves and comfort in their identity expression. In terms of creatives making space, Tanaka is a champion of building community through the arts.

In terms of BIPOC creatives making space Tanaka is a champion of building community through her powerful imagery and filmmaking. She began an educational program for a non-profit, where she facilitated workshops with international recording artists on issues of immigration and identity.

Tanaka has done amazing work thus far and is so inspirational, to say the least. I found myself enveloped in the diverse experiences of the individuals she highlights through her docuseries.

We should all take a page from Tanaka’s book and uplift the BIPOC voices of those in and outside our communities to create awareness and promote our differences to find community and understanding through powerful imagery.  

Powerful BIPOC imagery
Aiko Tanaka

Feeling like an outsider and how to cope

Jade Rogers: I was watching some of your videos. I really loved the way you are giving BIPOC creatives a stage to talk about their experiences leaving their place of origin and coming to the states through powerful imagery.

I was watching the one about Sophie the makeup artist, and how her experience was vastly different. As a multiracial artists and the experiences she faced before moving to New York. Could you talk about getting started in videography and what that journey has been like?

Aiko Tanaka: Thank you for watching.  I had a wonderful experience getting to know Sophie and filming her and her aunt, April Walker. She is a strong, passionate, and powerful woman and I was very inspired by her. I couldn’t believe that she was only 17 years old, she is so mature for her age.

When I started videography I wanted to create content for I Don’t Camouflage (IDC). Using video was the most powerful tool to tell stories. I was able to tell stories of people from marginalized communities who were embracing their individualities.

I couldn’t afford a crew for every shoot so I had to figure out how to do it myself.

– Aiko Tanaka

When I was in  Japan, I felt like an outsider in Canada and an outsider when I came to New York. I didn’t fit in. It led me to struggle with my identity. I am what is called a “Returnee”, which refers to Japanese kids who returned to Japan after having lived abroad for several years. I lived in Canada from 5 to 10-years-old.

My parents used to recommend that I not talk about my life in Canada, because I could be bullied. I began to forget English and it felt like a part of me was disappearing.

Until college, where I met a lot of people who were more open and accepting of me. I started watching foreign films and listening to foreign music so as not to forget my English and learn about other cultures and society.

Aiko Tanaka uses her craft as a space for Healing and telling the stories of BIPOC creatives through powerful imagery

JR: Did you feel as though building that community was a healing process for you? 

Yes, because when you connect authentically, it heals you. 

– Aiko Tanaka

AT: IDC helped me heal myself. It became my healing journey. I connect with the subject because I can relate with them and sometimes, they might express their feelings and that translates my own feelings  in a way I did not know how to. Which oftentimes brings me to tears. I hope it heals others too.

JR: That is an incredible feeling of understanding and healing through your craft. I would love to go into depth about your process of creating powerful imagery for BIPOC creatives. As well as some more background on how you got to this point in your creative practice.  

AT: In terms of process, I film, direct and edit myself. Since it is just me, I am always thinking about  traveling light, so I fit all my equipment in my suitcase. Having a crew would be nice, but just having myself on set also creates a very intimate dynamic and I think that is special. 

How I got to this point goes back to the day I was working in the music industry as a marketing person. I wore many hats, meeting/networking with artists and industry professionals every day and night. I became good friends with some of  them.  When I first got here to New York, I can admit, I  was a weirdo, as I tried to figure out my identity.

I also faced stereotypes that I didn’t really experience when I was a kid. All the friends around me accepted me for who I was. They treated me like  family.

– Aiko Tanaka

I didn’t have family in New York, but they were my family. I wanted to show people the personal side of these artists, that a lot of people didn’t know about. That’s when I started to record and interview them. 

I did not go to film school and I had to teach myself how to film and edit, but fortunately, I met great people who helped me with my career along the way and IDC led me to different opportunities in the film, TV, and media industry.

Be Bold… Don’t Blend In

JR: Dope. I love that you used the connections you made to kick start your docuseries. Thinking about your choice of titling for the project, “Camouflage”, it really made me think about visibility, powerful imagery around BIPOC creatives, and that you’re emphasizing this idea of being seen. Can you speak to the decision behind that? 

AT: I Don’t Camouflage means not to blend in, and be who you are. Don’t disguise yourself wherever you go and be vivid. It was important to find a name that is visual, like the camouflage patterns, and something that has layers of meaning to it. So that’s why I chose I Don’t Camouflage.  

JR: Yes. That does have a very visual aspect to it. I enjoy the meaning behind I Don’t Camouflage. It fits the theme of the work you’re making. Also, I noticed that we’re both Pratt Cats, I love hearing about Pratt alumni in the art world and what they are up to. Especially since you got your master’s at Pratt. What was your experience like going to all these different institutions?  

AT: The Arts and Cultural Management program that I was enrolled in at Pratt was only on the weekends. I had the whole weekday to myself and most of my classmates were already working.

So, I built more with the people I met through the non-profit organization I was at during the week. The organization used international hip-hop as a tool for social change. We organized International Hip-Hop festivals and I began an education program for international students. This program had a similar dialogue to IDC. BIPOCs talked about blending in through this educational workshop.

What does the future look like for I Don’t Camouflage and creating powerful imagery for BIPOC creatives?

JR: Incredible. You were able to accomplish so much during that time. What other events were you able to work on? Also, what’s something you might plan to do beyond videography with this work? 

AT:  I threw an “I Don’t Camouflage” event back in August 2013, sponsored by Mocada Museum. It was hosted by M1 of Dead Prez and it was a music showcase where some of the artists I featured in the interview / docuseries  performed live on stage.

The place was packed. The audience was wearing  patterned outfits, enjoying the performances, doing step and repeat. It was beautiful. I would love to do more interactive events where people can feel unity and celebrate themselves.

I enjoyed the creation of more engaging spaces where people could have an open dialogue about identity issues in the future.

– Aiko Tanaka

JR: Absolutely, I think that’s a crucial factor for sure. You want to be able to reach people on a more personal level that goes beyond surface level interactions.

Building these bonds and creating powerful imagery to foster stronger communities of BIPOC creatives or any type of community really. In terms of, when you worked within the music industry did that in any way inform your practice?  

AT:  I worked in the music industry, as a marketing person after graduating Pratt. Record labels would hire my boss to produce “The Best of” mixtapes for their artists, as a way to promote their official album. The mixtapes were more like an audio documentary  with lots of great sound bites, and I believe it influenced me, come to think of it.

As I was more involved in the business side in music, I wanted to be more hands on in the creative process of the storytelling. That is also another reason why  I started I Don’t Camouflage. 

When you have the tools to do what you love…

JR: Did you ever use the events you attended to practice your videography work? During that time was your camera always in hand? 

 AT: No, I didn’t have a camera on me. Well, sometimes I would take pictures of the behind the scenes of the events. That wasn’t my role per se. I was always serious about film and media. While I was in college I enrolled in the social sciences but I focused on media literacy.

Which is about race, and more specifically how the Japanese race and culture were depicted in film throughout history and how certain races are depicted in film in general. I was always curious about it, but I didn’t get a chance to learn.

When a camera became more accessible to me, I decided to use that as a tool. 

– Aiko Tanaka

JR: It comes through in your work, the embracing of culture. I am incredibly connected to your work because of that. As a Black woman and thinking about what goes on in my community, I feel a kinship to your films.

In thinking about community and understanding those who have shared experiences with you. Your medium is film and mine, photography. Though I have these deep feelings and, in a way, see myself in the people you interview. Which I think again is why I love the way you’ve just opened this space for conversation. 

AT: I feel like you know, you’re a photographer and I’m a filmmaker, and we both work behind the scenes.

We all have different perspectives and it is important to share our visions through our lens to the world, now, more than ever.

– Aiko Tanaka

I am happy to hear that you feel kinship to my films. Also, I find that when I feature female and non binary artists, there is a very different energy than when I work with male artists. I feel more empowered. 

JR: Absolutely. Also, just the pure Girl Boss energy that’s circulating right now. It’s always beautiful to see more women in the film industry. I don’t personally know a lot of women filmmakers, but I just love when I find out about them. It’s such a badass job and I really do appreciate you speaking with me about it. You create such beautiful work and powerful imagery around BIPOC creatives. 

AT: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I appreciate you too. Please keep me posted with your work.

JR: The same to you. I’m looking forward to seeing more from you. 

Watch the full series here