To many residents of Lihue, Hawaii, located on the island of Kauai, Dennis Fujimoto is somewhat of a local celebrity. The longtime photojournalist for the Garden Island newspaper has a unique aesthetic — a signature tan vest with big pockets and a usually airy and patterned shirt. And we can’t forget the hat. In 2012, the mayor of Kauai even named a day after Fujimoto.
Fujimoto is behind the newspaper’s beloved Happy Camper column, which features his photos of community events and people throughout the island. Happy Camper is a visual snapshot of island life.
Fujimoto, who is in his mid-70s, said he doesn’t remember the exact year when he began working at the Garden Island full-time. But photojournalism appeared very early on in his life. When he was in fifth grade, a local sports contributor for the newspaper asked Fujimoto’s parents if he could cover Pop Warner football. He bought his first camera with allowance money.
We spoke with Fujimoto about his photojournalism career, famous column and what it’s like to capture island life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you get into photojournalism?
I was in fifth grade. Because they couldn’t find enough officials and support people, Pop Warner football started playing on Sunday. The Garden Island newspaper was published once a week (at the time) and the people there were really good people but they didn’t want to work on Sunday. They had people but, if you don’t work on Sundays and all of a sudden you got to work on Sundays, it becomes a chore.
One of the sports contributors lived right across the valley from where we lived. My family had a pineapple farm. And so he asked my parents, “How about I pay your son to go cover Pop Warner football?” And so that’s how I started.
Wow. So you were like nine or 10 years old?
Somewhere around there.
So that was your first official job?
Yeah, if you want to call it that. In those days, everybody wanted their people to do work. The kids had to work and so parents had to find jobs for kids to do. That’s how it started. One led to the next, and one led to the next; from Pop Warner it was baseball, and then KIF sports.
Do you remember how much you were paid in that first gig?
No, because my mom got the money. We got allowances. I remember going to Honolulu on my very first trip and they gave me $5 to spend. I spent $3 of that $5 for a camera at Longs Drugs — which is now CVS Pharmacy.
What is your earliest memory with photography?
That camera that I spent more than half of my Honolulu allowance on. I started out doing some of my Pop Warner football. What appealed to me was how to load the film in the camera. You go out and you take pictures so you can load more film. In those days, it was all film. There’s a mechanical process for loading that camera.
If you weren’t a photojournalist, what would you be doing right now?
Probably a farmer. I grew up on a farm. My dad was a pineapple farmer.
Did you help him on the farm?
We had no choice. From as young as you can remember, they had jobs for you to do.
It’s clear to me that you’re a fixture of your community. You’re known for your Happy Camper column. How did this column come about?
One of my editors gave me that title because I used to come back from assignments and we’d always talk about the happy campers. They developed that column because they had space to fill and she said, “We’re going to call this the Happy Camper.” It would be a collection of things that happen while I’m out there or what I observe. It’s not the hard news stuff, it’s about the support staff. Like what do the janitors do when we have a big event at the mall? That type of thing.
And who is the “happy camper?”
So when she said, “Let’s call it the ‘Happy Camper,’ she was referring to you.
Yeah, because I use that term a lot.
What do you use that term for?
For people that I cover. If I was covering an event and there’s a bunch of people, when I come back I’m telling the boss, “There’s a lot of happy campers out there.”
Why is your Happy Camper column important to your community?
I was over at a night market that goes once a month, on Saturday. A lot of people’s feeling is that this is where you get the real news. That’s basically what it gets down to because we just write about the everyday – what happens and who’s doing what, and who’s got a birthday, and who’s retiring and who got a new baby [laughs]. We do a lot of that. I try to do it because it’s positive. We also do a little bit of hard news. We’ll talk about a business opening or a business closing.
I do a lot of the farmer’s market coverage. You get to see all these things that people go through in the market. Before this COVID thing, I’d be at the market and I’d get tourists coming up to me from Germany or Australia or wherever they come from. I’ve met so many people that say, “We knew we’d found you here.”
Walk me through your typical workday.
I get up, drink my coffee and try to figure out, “What am I doing today?” And so, here I am, watching whales and talking to you. We’re in whale season.
That’s amazing. So you’re starting your day with coffee and whales.
And I already wrote two articles.
Can you describe what island life is like?
It’s like the Happy Camper [laughs]. I don’t know how else to describe it. Every day is brand new. You do what you want to do. Be happy.
And what is it like capturing island life with your photography?
It’s good and it’s bad. I became trained as a photojournalist and so everything that you do is news. It’s not just beauty. It’s not just art. I guess it becomes contemporary art because what you’re doing is you’re capturing what’s there.
It’s really hard. When we had that big Superferry fiasco, I could not believe that I was there. When they tried to put the Superferry back in, there was a lot of opposition.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Listening to people. I cover events and people are like, “Yeah, I remember when you were covering me when I was in high school.” People remember.
What would you say is the most difficult part of your job?
The difficult part of the job is trying to cover these confrontational events, like the anti-vaccine people, the Superferry. When you got to go out there and it becomes something where there’s a lot of emotion involved. People become passionate about what they are crusading for or advocating and, sometimes in that process of advocation, they lose their logic. It’s really difficult because then you get to see a different side of people that you’ve never seen before.
That’s really tough.
It’s really hard. And you have to be sensitive. With COVID, I was covering the food distributions when people needed food. The most important thing over there is, you need to preserve the integrity of the people who are getting the help. It’s really hard.
When you’re dealing with something sensitive, how do you preserve the integrity of people that you cover?
In the case of medical, or these food distributions or challenged youth, you try to keep them so that they’re there but they’re anonymous. I think people recognize that because, when you first have to cover that, they don’t trust you.
Now if I go to a food distribution, it’s like going to any other event. Nobody says, “How come you’re here? I don’t want my picture taken.” If they tell me that, I don’t take the picture. It’s that simple.
I notice that, in all the photos I’ve seen of you, you always wear this khaki-colored vest. Is that uniform? What do you store in those big pockets?
Right now I have extra lenses. I have extra media (SD) cards. I carry my notebook. It has to fit that notebook [laughs]. And then, of course, other odds and ends of whatever people give away. If they’re giving away paraphernalia that I think is relevant, I put them in there and bring it home.
In the old days, we used to have flashes. Nowadays the technology is such that you don’t need the flash, but it’s still good to have those extra pockets because you can carry that extra lens that would otherwise stay in the car.
You mentioned “it has to fit the notebook.” You mean, the notebook has to fit in the pocket?
Yeah. Otherwise what good is that? The notebook is your right-hand man. I met this lady at the farmer’s market once who works for Mac. She could not believe that I don’t use an iMac or iPad. I was writing things down and she couldn’t believe it. She said, “I’m going to send you an iPad.” She had it engraved and everything so that I wouldn’t give it away.
Do you still use your notebook more?
I don’t even use the iPad because it is so clunky and it’s hard to work.
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned notebook.
Even notebooks have evolved. At one time it was free. If you work for the paper, the paper could get them and they could get them for free and they’d give it out to the reporters. It was that long column-type notebook with the super wide lines. I don’t know why the lines are so wide [laughs].
If you go to the stores, they don’t have those long notebooks. They’re designed so that you could stuff it in your back pocket. I went to Walmart and I found a single-subject notebook. It works perfectly because I can use that notebook and it’ll last for months.
And it fits in your vest pocket?
Now the vests have to fit that notebook.
I read that a decade ago, a mayor had proclaimed July 27 to be Dennis Fujimoto Day. What did you make of that — a day named after a photojournalist like yours?
I don’t know [laughs]. That is ridiculous. I don’t know what to make of that. I’ve gotten a lot of awards — “Living Treasure,” for photojournalism. And it’s like, no, I’m just doing my job.
I don’t need to be awarded. And then what about the other guys that I got to work with? How come they don’t get awards? I’m just doing what I get paid to do.
And what you love to do?
Well, it’s one and the same. Going back to your question of a typical day — this is life. You live it. Some days are good. Some days are not so good.
What’s your advice for aspiring photojournalists who want to make this their life’s work?
They cannot be afraid. Kids today are afraid of a lot of different things: “What am I going to do after I get out of high school? What if I do this and my friends do this and that?” You cannot be afraid. You gotta have faith in yourself and you gotta go do it. Good, bad or otherwise — if you don’t make mistakes, you never learn.
The idea is, you gotta be confident in yourself. You’ve got to not be afraid to do something. If your bones tell you, “I got to do this,” do it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a journalist, or a scientist, or an engineer or even a mathematician. You cannot be afraid.
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