Tell me about yourself, where you’re from, where you live, what do you do?
My name is Manufanua Thomas. I’m from Malaeloa, American Samoa. When I’m not here, I live in Pullman, Washington where I go to school at Washington State University. I am a landscape architect major, and I kind of want to double major or minor in something… I’m not sure. Maybe comparative ethnic studies, or something more in my main field of architecture – which would probably be floriculture. My hobbies include drawing and painting mainstream type of art. I like to take pictures in my down time, mostly of scenic landscapes or people, when I get inspired. I like to swim a lot when I get the chance, which is hard because I live on the border of Washington.
So you like photography! What was your first camera, and why did you get into photography?
I got my first camera in seventh grade. It was a really faint pink metallic one that my auntie had passed down to me. And my first “real” camera was a Canon T6i. I got it on October 2015. I was always trying to save up for a camera and every time I had even a little bit of savings, it ended up getting spent. So as soon as I got my financial aid, I bought my first camera.
I know you named it…
Dillard! I sort of came up with that name years ago when I was first starting to think about buying a professional camera. But yeah, Dillard’s it’s name… Her name.
What inspires you?
A lot of random stuff sort of inspires me. Like if I’m walking down the street, and I see something that looks really cool, I’ll stop and keep a picture of it in my mind. Ooh, I really love sunsets and sunrises. I take it for granted – the sunrises and sunsets here. When I’m in Washington, that’s sort of the closest thing that brings me back home. It’s not really lush green mountains in Washington, it’s more brown hills and that always reminds me of back home. People think I’m really weird for it because every time I see a pretty sunrise, I’ll stop and take 10 pictures.
What are you passionate about?
Art. I think that a lot of people don’t appreciate what I see or consider art. Like all forms of art. Another thing I’m passionate about is equal rights for men and woman, and all the genders in between. Especially here [in American Samoa], I feel like religion plays a huge role in gender equality, and it’s not really talked about I guess.
Interesting! So even though, for example, the fa’afafine is very much accepted in the Samoan culture… would you accept that as welcoming of other genders?
I just feel like the LGBTQ spectrum should be wider than it is now. I feel like people try to fit into a label but there’s more than that. For some people who identify as gay, I feel like some of them are forced to become a mala when they could be anywhere else in between. And I feel like there’s not much support for it.
How did you get so passionate about these things?
So when I was a senior, I started to think more about this type of stuff. My group of friends sort of shifted, and that’s the kind of thing we would talk about. And my friends Marcie and Allie–they’re majoring in women’s gender studies–and I became so interested in how society thinks about it and how it differs between countries and stuff like that. I guess that’s what sort of inspired me to take on comparative ethnic studies because we talk a lot about like gender and culture and race, ethnicity, sexuality, and stuff like that.
So tell me about your style. Because I’ve known you as like always wearing basketball shorts and t-shirts. So your style now is pretty obvious, like I can look at Instagram and be like that’s Manu’s style.
Haha um I get a lot of my style inspiration from YouTubers like Connor Franta, That’s So Jack, Lauren Elizabeth. I’d say my style is sometimes minimalistic, sometimes unique and complicated. A lot of people think I shop at Levi’s or Gap but I literally buy my clothes at Goodwill. Except for shoes. That’s the only thing that I’m like – I need to buy a new pair of shoes. I bought these ones online from the Nike store. I also really like Kanye West. And Vetements. They make regular clothing but it’s luxury. And they collaborate with a bunch of brands. I like how they make simple clothing really unique.
Tell me about Humans of American Samoa. What’s the background story?
So last summer I wanted to start a photography page or something different from other Facebook pages on island. And my friends Marcie and Allie, they were really into Humans of New York, and they wanted to start something here on island too, so we collaborated on it. I took the pictures while they did the interviews. We wanted to get different stories and backgrounds of different people on island. And we wanted to see how people would react to it. We’ve gotten a little hate, but more love about it. Some people are really opinionated and will get offended. But I think it’s good for the island, so you can see what really goes on and how people really feel. And actually, a lot of people have asked us to take things down, they say it’s too offensive. But this is not us. This is the people of American Samoa, you know. We’re not bending the truth or anything. This is it.
Favorite travel destination and why?
My favorite place to travel to was Savai’i. When I left I took for granted the simple things that we have here, like being able to swim anytime of the day and seeing all these lush green mountains. Being surrounded by a unique culture, that’s one thing. And going to Savai’i was really fun because we didn’t stay in a fancy hotel, we stayed at Tanu’s beach fales and lived outside on the beach and got bitten by mosquitoes. But it was so worth it because you wake up in the morning and there’s a Samoan breakfast, you can see the sunset, and you can buy niu almost everywhere. Yeah it was a real eye opener.
What’s the next place you want to visit?
I’m really trying to go for a study abroad trip and a lot of people are telling me to go to New Zealand. I kind of want to go out of the islands. Right now the top of my list is Greece or Paris. I might actually go to Paris next summer for a study tour. It’s great because when I was at ASCC I majored in visual arts and I got to learn a lot about our history and a lot of Renaissance art which can be found at the Louvre in Paris. And this study tour is for design students like myself but it’s more geared towards art which would still benefit me in terms of credits but will be more beneficial towards like my hobbies. Because we would be doing stuff like sketching the Eiffel Tower and visiting museums.
Favorite app for editing photos?
VSCOcam preset C1 and A5. Or I’ll edit in the Photos app on my iPhone, and change highlights and brilliance.
Goals for the next year?
I want to become an RA. And to become part of an honor society or fraternity—be more involved.
Advice for people from the island who have difficulty finding their identity when they go to college?
Don’t be intimidated. Be yourself and everything will fall into place and will get better over time. Get out of your comfort zone every once in a while, and do what makes you happy!