A Pacific Islander's API Month In Photography

Documentary photographer Jean Melesaine explains a Pacific Islander's month in photography as May is Asian Pacific Islander month.

Yesterday one of my younger cousins who I consider like my baby sister told me while intoxicated leaving for a funeral, "Jean you have to put your necklace in my coffin when I die because it always reminds me of you." My necklace was given to me by my aunt Norma in New Zealand a "Manaia"   made of bone blessed by the Maori chiefs to guide and protect me because she said I would travel a lot in this life. She also said I am never allowed to take it off once its put on, but I reconsidered when my cousin Sana said that.

This month was Asian Pacific Islander month, and I'm not sure what that means for me. As a Pacific Islander it doesn't mean much considering what is happening in the Pacific Islander community. There's a saying we use as our motto at DeBug, "experience is the ultimate authority" it would be similar to "you can't get wet talking about water". I always wondered though, if experience is the ultimate authority and you've been getting wet all your life, how do you talk about water when you're close to drowning? For me, I'm lucky. I have time and space to think about things. I have a camera, I can write sometimes. Sana doesn't, she tries but I figure it hurts to be real about life.

The first day of this month a funeral service was held for a kid who was stabbed in Newark and a couple days later Junior Seau committed suicide -- both were Pacific Islander. And in Seau's case, although there were claims that injuries from football could of caused his tragic decision, I think depression in the Pacific Islander community needs to be explored as well. I was in the airport in Texas looking at the first time I've ever seen a Samoan on the front page of the U.S.A Today. It was Seau, who made the front page after his death. When I returned I went to visit my baby brothers child for the first time. These are the things I think about when I want to congratulate him, worry on my head for my new niece and her young parents. Living with his best friend/brother in law, also a teen father they both struggle to raise themselves.

One of my best friend's is Native American, and is the social worker of all social work. She tries to breakdown every program they have out there, always trying to explain to me how data and research is so important. She gives me links to programs for my younger brother. She sends me all the new data they have on Pacific Islander communities, we compare our issues in our communities, the data, the trauma, and everything else -- mostly in peril. She sends me new data released for Alameda county, Pacific Islanders just surpassed the Native community in the highest rates of poverty.

Joyce my cousins sister in law, a hard working single mother has a heart attack. Her son, Ola is 16 years old. They are like the "closest brothers and sister you can meet" my cousin says at her funeral. He has to go to prom. I sit in a conversation with some of her friends who keep talking about how excited she was for his prom. Her funeral was held on Mother's Day weekend. A couple days later another funeral. A younger cousin was shot in Sunnydale projects. I hang out with Sana and other younger cousins because I usually don't have time, but its sad that it takes death to hang out with family. I have to leave again to Alabama. One of our youth we're working with Tearra lives in Forest Hill Projects, its deep in the country from what it seems but only 11 minutes away from downtown in the forests of Birmingham. The birthplace of the civil rights. We drop her off at home to meet her mom. On our way there she tells me, " I don't like when it gets violent". It's sad but this makes me feel at home slightly, she almost reminds me of my younger cousins.

When I get home from Birmingham, I go to a Pacific Islander Town Hall Meeting. Congresswoman Jackie Spiers is attending for a moment to listen to Pacific Islander concerns. Health issues, violence, resources, jobs, education, and disaggregating the PI from API are folks' concerns.

On the weekend I celebrate my Chamorro sister's birthday. She teaches fiercely in East Palo Alto to  a lot of Polynesian kids. There I meet a lot of City College of San Francisco students, it makes me smile that a lot of them are Pacific Islander too. My nephew Muzik graduated from kindergarten yesterday. There are good things happening in our community, slowly. There are people doing things to change this.

I can't speak or hold responsibility for all Pacific Islanders but I can tell you what this month has been for me, a lot of traveling in different places and time.  This is me documenting my month in photos. I don't like to be called a photographer even though everyone calls me one anyway, but I will say the community that saved my life were photographers, artists and people. And the work I do is only love to honor them, folks like Joyce, Ola, Muzik, Sana, Brandon,  their families and other folks that can talk about water because they're still deep in it.

About Jean Melesaine

Jean Melesaine is a queer Samoan community activist, documentary photographer and editor with Silicon Valley De-Bug. 

This article is part of the categories: Arts & Culture  / Community  / Education  / Health  / Multimedia  / Photo 
This article is part of the tags: API  / Bay Area  / Chammoro  / Daly City  / Jean Melesaine  / LGBT  / Micronesian  / Oakland  / Pacific Islander  / Photography  / Samoan  / San Francisco  / Tongan 


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