(HONOLULU)--Have you ever looked in the mirror and wondered, “What will I do next?” Well, I have. I was 39 years old, a single parent, with a daughter in college, and a son graduating from high school. I took a good hard look at myself in the mirror and saw year 40 looking back at me; it was an uncertain future. Up until that point, I lived my life for my children, but what now? They were beginning their own journey in life, so what do I do?
For my 39th birthday, my mother bought me my very first Canon camera. My grandmother decided to take me on an Alaskan cruise that same year, so I was able to experiment with my new toy. During my cruise, I was able to engage with strangers on the cruise and learned about cultural differences through my lens. The Alaskan mountains were beautiful with snow topped trees and chilled, icy water lipping upon the shores. The native people were warm and welcoming, and I thought, “Wow! They kind of look like us Hawaiians!” I truly enjoyed the new experience, but my picture taking skills met that of an amateur photographer.
On my Alaska trip, I experienced a personal awakening; a connection with God, peace, and serenity. I slowly improved on my nature photos and found that family and friends enjoyed seeing my pictures on Facebook. Soon, I met Tanielu Sataraka. We shared the same interest in photography. Tanielu contacted me one day and invited me to Ke’ehi Lagoon Park to photograph a touch-rugby tournament he was heading. I’d never heard of rugby at the time, but I was curious to check it out.
I arrived at the rugby pitch and was in awe of all the athletes on the field. Polynesians! There were Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, Tahitians, Fijians, Maori even Micronesians, and they all played this game called rugby! New to the scene, I was shy and uncertain about what I was supposed to do, so Tanielu coached me on how to take sports photos. Hesitant, I walked onto the sidelines and began to take pictures of these amazingly fit, surprisingly swift athletes. The men were in such great physical form. Ripped muscles glistened under drops of sweat, faces chiseled like gods, and they were very easy on the eyes. To my surprise, women and children also played this sport. Each one of them, man, woman and child were like warriors – blazing with strength and agility on the pitch – standing tall, strong, and aggressive against their opponents. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot on my first day out. This was going to be an amazing experience!
It took about six weeks for me to get sucked into the rugby scene. My picture taking skills improved immensely and the players were comfortable around me enough to say, “Hey! Picture Lady! Can you take my picture?!” Who were they kidding? More pictures of sexy, half-dressed Polynesian men in ie lava lava (sarong)? The answer was definitely, “Yes!” This is where I got my name: The Picture Lady.
Through my associations in rugby, I met a lot of people in the Samoan community. My rugby work led me to two very important and dearest people to my heart, Nelta Vaovasa-Ala and Ini Scanlan. They are the two lovely ladies who welcomed me to the rugby scene. Like me, they also volunteer for rugby tournaments. Soon after meeting, we became a trio that volunteered our time and talents as organizers and photographers at rugby tournaments, fundraisers, and other community events. Over time, we forged a strong sisterhood. More and more people in the Polynesian communities would request for our services or invite us as supporters for their rugby and church events. We were always more than happy to show our support.
In my 41st year, I was invited by my sister Nelta, to travel to Samoa with her and her family. I was more than ecstatic to receive such an invitation. I saved my money like a miser, skipping out on morning coffee and late night ice cream runs. I was determined to go to Samoa. When the date arrived, I traveled with Nelta and immersed myself into the Samoan cultural experience. I found that the Samoan culture was very much like my own Hawaiian culture, except, the people of Samoa are living their culture every day, unlike myself.
As a Hawaiian, I grew up in an era where speaking my native language was kapu (forbidden). In my family, a lot of cultural practices were lost due to living the mainstream Western lifestyle. My grandfather was a construction worker, who would later own his own company called V&C Drywall. My grandmother worked in the cafeteria at Wai’anae Elementary School, but her career ended when an auto accident crippled her. Unable to perform her duties, my grandmother became a stay-at-home Tutu (grandmother). The men in my family followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and became construction workers, while the women became nurses and teachers.
Nothing was wrong with my lifestyle, but the lifestyle of Samoa was a welcome back to my roots. Food was harvested daily, cooked in an umu (above ground oven covered in heated rocks and leaves), which was similar to the Hawaiian imu (below ground oven covered in heated rocks and leaves). Men’s work include gardening, hunting, outdoor cooking and heavy laboring. The women are tasked with indoor cooking, childrearing, housework, and gardening. Everyone labors, including the elders and children. This showed me that it takes a family effort to be successful.
Samoan clothing is also appealing. The women dress conservatively in long, bright colored puletasi and wear their hair up in a bun. The men wear ‘safari suits’ or tropical themed shirt, ofu tino, much like an Aloha shirt, and an ie faitaga. I thought: “How wonderful it is to experience this way of life.” It was hard work each day, but it was also satisfying at the end of the day to say everything was done. I hold Samoa close to my heart – is my home away from home and I am forever grateful to Nelta and her family, also Ini and her family (they were in Samoa at the same time) who gave me one of the best gifts in life – another family.
During my time in Samoa, I was gifted a sacred cultural honor of a malu (traditional Samoan women’s tattoo). This was a huge surprise for me, because this type of tattoo is sacred to the Samoan culture. I was in awe of the gift and I did not take the responsibility lightly. I learned that it was a great honor to have one, and it came with great responsibility. It is not simply a tattoo, it is an honor, a sacrifice, it is culture, pride, humility, and most of all – love for Samoa and everything Samoan. After four months, back home in Hawai’i, I struggled with the idea of a malu – should I get it or not? I finally decided, “If this gift is really meant for me, I will be blessed by everything falling into place.” Well, not a dime to my name, I received a call from my Filipino aunty.
My aunty said, “Do you want this tattoo?”
I replied, “Only if it’s meant for me to have. I don’t have the money to get it, the tufuga (traditional Samoan tattooist) is in Samoa, and I don’t want to offend anyone for having it when I am not Samoan.”
So my aunty asked, “Is it important to you?”
My answer was, “Yes. It was a gift, and I think that is more important than what others might say or think about me. I give a lot of myself and my services to the community because I feel that God wants me to do it. When I serve the community, I serve God, and that makes me feel good.”
Finally, she says, “I will gift it to you financially, if you are still able to get it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Here I was, a simple servant, gifted twice! Once with a sacred tattoo, and second, with the means to pay for it. I couldn’t believe the call I received next. The tufuga, Sulu’ape Tau Ah Keni was in town and agreed to do my tattoo. God works in mysterious ways, and He answers prayers. Whether people have agreed to see me with my malu or not, I know that I was blessed to have it. I am proud to have it, and if I’m seen showing it in public, it’s because I am serving God, my family, and my community.
In my 42nd year, the reputation of the Picture Lady had spread across the state of Hawai’i. No, I am not the best photographer, in fact, I had never taken a class, but I was a servant to many communities. I’ve photographed many music concerts, including Riddim House’s Nesian Fest. I was also designated Hawaii Rugby Photographer after a tournament between Toa Samoa and USA Tomahawks. I’ve photographed rugby, football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, paddling, SUP and cricket. I’ve served churches across O’ahu, shot weddings, birthday celebrations, community events and funerals. I’ve volunteered my services to Cancer cases, Autism, the homeless, the military, as well as launching Hands-Only CPR at Waianae Intermediate School. My list of services and contributions is endless. I’ve also become known as the Memory Keeper. For some families, I have been able to provide photos of life events, of their loved ones that were used for funeral collages and videos. In fact, one of my favorite photos of a Kalihi Raiders rugby player named Jordan Kakiva, was used on his headstone.
My most memorable funeral was that of a young Tongan boy named Filimone Asi. He was a big-eyed, bright, smiley-faced two-year-old whose life was taken too soon in an accident. I did not have memory photos of him, instead, I was asked to photograph his service. I’d been to many funerals and was able to keep my emotions intact, but this funeral was different; this was a child. As loved ones approached his casket to bid farewell, I was able to focus on capturing the tender kisses they showered upon his tiny head. His schoolmates and his cousins had me tearing up. I tried to hide my tears but one little boy tip-toed to the edge of Filimone’s casket, barely able to see over the edge and with a big happy face, he said, “Hi Filimone! I miss you. I love you.” I broke down. Unable to keep my composure, I stepped behind the open, white-laced casket, decorated with his favorite toys and photos, and gathered myself. I will never forget the little faces that came to say their good-byes, or the little angelic face that laid peaceful in his white satin bed. The services I performed at funerals brought closure and serenity to many families. It also brings me a sense of pride knowing that I am doing God’s work.
Another one of my interests is learning the Samoan language. Why Samoan? Well, this is my reasoning and it doesn’t have to make sense to you because it does to me. The Hawaiian and Samoan languages have many similarities. I figured, if I learn Samoan, a language spoken daily by many, then I can decipher Hawaiian, learned and spoken by a much smaller population, so I joined Le Fetuao Samoan Language Center. Le Fetuao is a free, community-based school for the public and serves children and adults. Not only do they teach language, they teach dance and culture too. At Le Fetuao, I have learned the proper way to greet people, cultural practices, songs, Samoan recipes and much more. This school is truly a gift to the Samoan community as well as non-Samoans who want to learn the Samoan Language. As a malu, it is important to be fluent in the language. Though I wish I could learn faster, I’m quite observant and have adopted many of the cultural habits. It has definitely improved on my relations with the Samoan community.
Now, in my 44th year with 45 approaching in a month, I am gearing up for a big change in my life. I will be moving from my beloved Hawai’i to Las Vegas, Nevada next month. My daughter and two-year-old granddaughter have carved a life out there for themselves, so my son and I will be joining them. I plan on being a stay-at-home Tutu and freelance photographer. I will be looking for local Las Vegas contacts related to Polynesian sporting activities, events, and committees. I would like to continue serving my Polynesian communities as well as create work for myself in Vegas.
I say A Hui Hou (until we meet again) to my family and friends, I will carry the Aloha Spirit with me wherever I go. I will miss Aloha Fridays, the feel of sand between my toes, the smell of fragrant, tropical flowers, the sound of waves crashing on the shores, and the sun-kissed faces of Polynesia. My only hope is that I have left Hawai’i and the people I love dearly, with a positive impression of who I am. I am an independent woman, a single parent, a photographer, a volunteer, a community servant, a woman of God, a malu, and a very proud Hawaiian.
Miulan “Lani” Nihipali a.k.a The Picture Lady a.k.a. The Memory Keeper