When stories go untold, they are lost forever. Using his camera, photographer Steve Ozone is doing his best to collect stories, so they won’t be lost to future generations. Between 2019 and 2021, Ozone’s photographs were translated onto three-story panels and installed on the East face of the Silver Ramp, visible from the skyway between C and G Concourses at Terminal 1.
Each photo is created with holes punched into metal sheets using a technique much like newspaper print. When the project was first brought to his attention, Ozone’s initial plan was to use photos of flowers from one of his photo art studies. When Arts@MSP Director Ben Owen asked to see his other work, however, he was given carte blanche to consider new subjects and he looked to his immigrant portrait series inspired by his own family’s experience.
“I never got the chance to talk to my grandfather about his immigration story, but fortunately for our family he wrote a book about his experiences.” Ozone says. “He came to the United States in 1906 from Japan. After working in China, he wrote a letter to his boss and said, ‘I’m sorry I have to leave my job. For me to become a proper gentleman, I feel I need to move to the United States.’ He was a dreamer, and he was single. He wanted to come here because everybody thought the roads are paved with gold. I don’t think he necessarily thought he was going to get rich, but he was thinking of it as a new land and a new adventure.”
In 1906, his grandfather ended up going to Alaska, before Alaska was even a state. When he finally came to San Francisco, he had to stay on the boat in the bay for two days because there wasn’t room enough to dock. “He’s sitting on the boat looking out at the city that he’d traveled so far to get to, and he couldn’t step foot in the city. When they finally docked, he looked around and saw the city was in rubble, because it was a month after the San Francisco earthquake.”
Ozone has only recently understood other family stories in greater depth, like his father’s internment during World War II and the “Paper Sons” legacy of his Chinese mother’s family — and this hints at what was missing in Ozone’s grandfather’s writings. They recount adventures but tell little of what it was like for his grandfather to become a citizen. Ozone wanted to enter the minds of others, like his grandfather, that left their homes behind to find a new life. He began talking to people he knew, who are immigrants. He collected their tales, made their portraits, and by rendering them in a new medium, he hopes their stories would continue.
Each story in the resulting Interrupted Landscapes of the Incomer series is compelling. Ozone has been photographing people his whole artistic career, evolving in his work and techniques. He uses a blank, white backdrop to capture his subjects, so their stories extend to any geography. He draws on the traditional rules of portraiture, but he’s gravitated towards natural light, having his subjects stand naturally, and he uses non-studio settings. Although photography has been his primary medium, he’s also evolved in the use of narratives. “I used to think that my photographs should stand on their own — that you shouldn’t have to explain art.”
Yet when he began working with his cousin, Bill Kubota, on a documentary he came full circle with storytelling. Their collaboration, a film called The Registry, tells some of the stories of 7,000 Japanese language students stationed at Fort Snelling during World War II. They served all over the Pacific, but little was known about the role Japanese Americans played in the Military Intelligence Service. These young men were recruited from internment camps to help in the war effort while their families, who had lost everything through this imprisonment, were being treated like war criminals simply because they were of Japanese descent. While doing sound and some camera work, Ozone found himself asking questions of his subjects to tell their largely unknown story.
Now Ozone says he feels the compulsion to continue to tell people’s stories. “You can look at things every day — just walk by — but if you know the story behind it, that thing becomes much more interesting. This is especially true with people. People ask me about the people that I photograph. They are the people we pass every day. They are in the background, but if we stopped to ask, we’d find they have a story to tell.”
Ozone is thrilled to finally share his work with guests that pass through MSP Airport. It’s taken a long time to come to fruition and when asked if he maintains the same energy for the project, he shares a quote from the photographer and educator, Paul Shambroom. Someone once asked Shambroom how he knows when he’s done with a project and he replied, “I work on a project ‘till I’m sick of it, and then I work on it for five more years.” Ozone remembers this when he’s deep into a series in his work and thinks, “There are many more interesting stories to tell, so I will be working on this series for quite a while.”