I would not say I am a traveler. I never experienced that desire to explore new places and I’ve never listed traveling the world as a life goal. In childhood, family trips were few in number and were filled with conflict and turmoil amongst my parents and I. Perhaps this is why extended travel is a source of anxiety. Years before I began my graduate studies, I was carefree in my desire to visit Japan. It felt like something that couldn’t actually happen. As I started taking courses on Japanese art history and researching kawaii (cute) culture, both my desire to travel to Japan and to address my anxiety and mental health increased. Only recently have I been able to work through my fears surrounding travel.

The upheaval brought about by the pandemic necessitated a shift in my research and allowed me to work through my anxieties. I wondered how I could “find Japan” in localized travel for my research. Aesthetically, many of my interests were born in Japan. The kitschy and cheap objects from thrift stores and discount shops were frequently made in Japan. Big-eyed cute characters dominated the cultural landscape of my childhood. When I thought of San Francisco, I thought of how this place was a literal entry point to the States for these commodities.

In many ways San Francisco, with its ranging neighborhoods, simulates foreign travel. Each area of the city overlaps and meshes while retaining personality and creates the impression of a city of many cities. When planning my first visit, I knew I wanted to visit Japantown and Golden Gate’s tea garden, as in my eyes this was as close as I could get to Japan. I was unsure of where this research would take me and what my thesis exhibition might look like. The unknown is easily tied to anxiety. Almost immediately upon my arrival in the city, I felt a connection. This connection enabled me to suspend my anxiety about the unknown.

Within a day I had fallen in love. I’ve never had such a viscerally positive reaction to a place. I wandered aimlessly for hours and made hundreds of photographs. While I did photograph some icons, I found myself more drawn to details and the everyday. Photographs allow me to collect the uncollectable. Any images photographers make are about themselves (some more so than others). The decisions of composition and design and not to mention what they choose to examine closely all tell something of the photographer’s character, their desires, and their hopes. In my obsessive post-trip research, I grasped threads to tie me back to those places. I was like an adolescent with a crush striving to know everything about the object of my affections. I began collecting mid-century souvenirs that fed my love of kitsch. With my dozens of postcards, maps, assorted ephemera, souvenirs, and my photo proofs I began to earnestly plan my return. I wondered if my love was fleeting and that no more images would beckon me to be made. My doubts were quickly dispelled; if anything, my love and interest grew and continues to grow.

I Left My Heart…
Kayla Bauer, 2022