For nearly 50 years, Kenji Cavanaugh photographed Navajo codes of World War II in southwestern America.

“It’s become a matter of my life,” Cavanaugh said.

This is a lifelong project that began with a trip from a stranger while hitchhiking in Navajo.

“I think it was the summer of 1974 when I was hitchhiking and one car stopped to pick me up,” Cavanaugh said. “The Navajo guy said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, “Japan.” Then he said, “Oh, you’re Japanese. Do you know about Navajo code speakers?”

Cavanaugh knew nothing about the Navajo code speakers. As a young photographer, he only recently came to the United States and tried to photograph the daily life of a Navajo.

“So he explained to me,‘ You know World War II? About 400 young Navajo went to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, ”Cavanaugh continued. “He told me, ‘We use our language as a weapon, and we speak Navajo, so we are Navajo code speakers for the US Marines.’

Cavanaugh says the man was none other than Carl Gorman, who was one of the original 29 Navajo code speakers who helped create the code used by the U.S. military.

“I hitchhiked to discover those who speak by codes,” Cavanaugh said.

Although he did not know English or Navajo, Cavanaugh says he slowly began to meet other code speakers. In 1986, he began photographing them for his book Warriors. Some didn’t dare talk to him, at least at first.

“They say,‘ Yes, you can take a picture of me and [I’ll] give you my name, but that’s all. I don’t want to say anything more because you are a former enemy, ”Cavanaugh said.

Listening to their military stories, he says he kept his role as a photographer in focus.

“My father was in the Japanese Navy during World War II,” Cavanaugh said. “I try to think,‘ Kenji, you’re a photographer. Don’t think about your nationality. ” I am a photographer, I like to photograph them. “

And he says the mentality has led to some incredible conversations.

“One of the code speakers said,‘ Candy, war is bad. I went to war with the Japanese. I do not hate or oppose the Japanese. The war is between governments. I’m not angry with you. ” And I had a good relationship with a lot of code speakers, ”Cavanaugh said.

So much so, he became an honorary member of the Navajo Code Speakers Association.

“It’s one of my treasures,” Cavanaugh said, pointing to the plaque.

He found a new place for the Navajo nation, eventually married and started a family there.

For years, Cavanaugh has said he spent countless hours on the road looking for Navajo code Navajo callers. He jokes that he spent more time on this task than on actual photo shoots.

“I met about 120,” he said. “Some of the code speakers I couldn’t [photograph] because I promise[d], ‘I’m coming to you.’ But I took it [such a] for a long time when I went there, they were not there. “

With less than a few people alive who speak by code, Cavanaugh says he loves it when families turn to him about photos.

“They say,‘ Oh, when I miss my father or my grandfather, I take your book and open it. Here is my father or grandfather, ”he said.

Some of his photos are on display Navajo National Museum in Window Rock, Arizona.

“As for relatives, you know obviously that it will have a profound effect on them if they find out that their father, their grandfather or great-grandfather is revered by Candy Cavanaugh,” said Benjamin Gilbert Sarrell III, an employee of the Navajo Museum. Register. “And his lifelong passion for building relationships with code speakers and capturing them not only as Marines but also as humans and as Navajo.”

“I’m happy to be here and I’m still photographing the Navajo reservation,” Cavanaugh said.

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