Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
For decades, Dennis Fujimoto has been capturing life on Kaua’i. The Garden Island newspaper photojournalist with the signature tan cargo vest, hat and warm smile has become an integral part of the Kaua‘i landscape as he’s spent the majority of his career snapping pictures and interviewing people across the island. The photographs Fujimoto shares tell stories from simple joys to aloha spirit to complex dynamics — giggling children waving koi flags at passing motorists on Children’s Day, helping hands during the COVID-19 pandemic, protestors opposing the Superferry. He is also the man behind the newspaper’s popular Happy Camper column, where he posts daily snapshots and commentary showcasing the happiness of Kaua‘i life in the form of smiling faces of retirees, new babies, award recipients, event organizers and high school graduates. Fujimoto’s photos are more than a record of everyday life, his work demonstrates what it’s like to be an active part of the community.
Before Fujimoto was a recognizable icon, he was a farmer in Läwa‘i, Kaua‘i, a lush agricultural town between Köloa and Kaläheo on the island’s south shore; an ahupua‘a filled with a rich history, containing a pair of railroad tunnels, a forbidden heiau, a hidden water system and royal residence. In the late 1950s, Fujimoto was working on his family’s pineapple farm when opportunity knocked in the form of a sports contributor from across the valley with an unusual proposal for his parents — would their fifth-grade son be interested in covering Pop Warner football for The Garden Island on Sundays? Due to park availability, a shortage in officials and a full sports schedule, Sunday was the only day the youth football league could play.
“Back then, The Garden Island was only printing once a week, and no one wanted to work on Sunday,” recalled Fujimoto. “So the guy came to see my parents and said ‘I’ll pay your son, go cover the games.’ And that’s how I started. It just kind of happened.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but the casual request from the sports contributor across the valley changed the trajectory of Fujimoto’s life. After receiving permission from his parents – with the promise to his mother to learn to type – Fujimoto discovered he enjoyed covering events and earning a little money rather than working in the pineapple fields. Not long after he took over Pop Warner football coverage, Fujimoto flew to Honolulu with his grandmother and used more than half of his spending money to purchase a $3 camera with film from Long’s Drugs.
“Taking pictures, it’s like being a farmer; you have to know how to do everything,” said Fujimoto, who taught himself on the job, learning basics like shutter speed, aperture, depth of field.
At Kaua‘i High School, he honed his photography skill with a few correspondence classes, but credits his freshman English teacher, Ellen Sakamoto, as one of his strongest influences in his life, a teacher who made English appealing to learn. “We had good teachers,” said Fujimoto. “Ag teachers were good; shop teachers were good, but my English teacher was a turning point.” Sakamoto taught Fujimoto and his classmates to draw word trees, a visual representation about how words are interrelated, a skill he continues to use today.
As a high school student, Fujimoto was still working at The Garden Island, when his co-workers were discussing college. “I didn’t have anything to go to college for, so I figured, okay, I know how to use cameras. I might as well learn how to do the journalism part – and that’s how I ended up being a journalism major through the [University of Hawai‘i] at Mänoa.”
Fujimoto supported himself during college doing what he does best – writing and taking photos for a community newspaper. While his peers snagged jobs bagging groceries at Star Market to earn extra cash, Fujimoto would sell pictures to National Geographic, where one photo sale would cover the tuition for a whole semester.
After college, Fujimoto said, one thing led to another and he found jobs with TV Guide and Woman’s Day magazine, which allowed him to travel. However, one day, he decided that while he enjoyed that life, it was time to come home.
Back in Kaua‘i, he resumed his post with The Garden Island newspaper. No stranger to working weekends, Fujimoto spent long hours traveling across the island, showing up for community events, rain or shine, capturing everything from historical events to birthday parties.
It wasn’t long before the community and nation took notice.
In 2003, Fujimoto was honored with the Outstanding Media Advocate award by the Department of Human Services’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind Division, for his annual photographs of rehabilitants and employers, giving the public a positive image of people with disabilities.
The same year Fujimoto photographed Bethany Hamiltion, the then-13-year-old surfer who infamously lost her left arm in a shark attack and returned to professional surfing. One of his photos of Hamilton appeared in a special year-end photo essay in Sports Illustrated, which included Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds.
The Kaua‘i Community Council surprised Fujimoto with a certificate of recognition in 2007, presented by councilmembers Tim Bynum and Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho for his coverage of community events and critical issues and coverage of sporting events at Kaua‘i schools.
In 2009, his career came full circle when Kaua‘i Pop Warner Football League, the league coverage that kick started his career nearly 50 years prior, dedicated their day’s events to Fujimoto in 2009 for his constant coverage of games and cheer program. Each year the league dedicated their annual jamboree to a person directly involved with the league, typically officials or referees. Fujimoto’s honor was likely to be the first time a member of the media was recognized.
In 2010, Fujimoto was one of three recipients nationwide to receive the Lee Spirit Award from Lee Enterprises, The Garden Island’s parent company. The award recognized outstanding personal commitment to the company and the people they serve.
In 2012, to honor Fujimoto’s impact on the community, former Mayor Bernard Carvalho declared July 27 as Dennis Fujimoto Day. The County of Kaua‘i proclamation stated: “Whereas some of Dennis’s attributes includes his compassion and resourcefulness as a member of the community and how he portrays and touches the community in such a ‘pono’ was through his professional role in the newspaper.”
“Dedicated, community minded, big smile and totally connected in all parts of our community, that’s Dennis Fujimoto,” said Mayor Carvalho in a 2018 CKTV Media Production video. “He’s very involved in all kinds of projects, whether they be sporting events, community events, controversial events, he always has a presence of connecting with people.”
Beyond the awards, Fujimoto is known for his Happy Camper column, which has garnered international attention. The column came about almost organically. Fujimoto would be out on assignment and he’d come back to the office talking about all the “happy campers” he saw in the field and his editor decided it would be a great idea for a column. Fujimoto would snap a photo and do a quick write-up and post the story online. The now decades-old column is a collection of moments Fujimoto encounters daily and resonates far beyond Kaua‘i’s shores, perhaps for its positivity in a time where good news is sorely needed and his ability to find stories behind the story.
“The readership on that is just amazing,” said Fujimoto of the success of his Happy Camper column. “I’ve met people from Europe; I’ve met people from Australia, people all over the world come by and they will say, ‘Yeah, we know who you are. We read this stuff.’”
In conjunction with his good news column, Fujimoto also writes hard news, covering controversial issues with opposing sides like the vaccine protests and the Roe v. Wade reversal. “It’s hard because you have to go out there and be able to separate what is fact and what is emotion. You have to think about what you’re writing.”
Fujimoto has had a storied career, filled with awards and accolades, too many to list in entirety here, and is humbled by it all. “I just go out and have fun,” he says. “It’s just, you know, part of life.”
The 74-year-old veteran photojournalist still works 18-hour days and weekends, with no signs of slowing down. “I’m way past retirement age,” laughed Fujimoto. “You know, my personal thing is I want to do this until I can’t anymore.”
Kaua‘i and the world, if we’re lucky, will hold on to Fujimoto for many more years to come. He is there for the people of Kaua‘i by showing up at community events and sharing Kaua‘i’s joys and strengths, demonstrating the importance of being recognized and seen.
When asked what Fujimoto loves most about Kaua‘i, he laughed and said, “You know, I was born here. I grew up here. What am I going to do? Kaua‘i is home.”