I am a New York based Japanese documentary photographer, have focused on human conditions and socio-economic issues nearly for 30 years, often those in war/ conflict zones. In such coverage, my aim is not only portraying what is really happening, but also exploring identity, citizenship and sense of belonging. By doing so, I would like to further explore what humans are and where humans are heading in the future. I have been fortunate that my photographs have appeared in books and magazines worldwide, have been the subject of solo shows, and have been recognised with a number of international awards, including the World Press Photo award (2007) and two Overseas Press Club prizes (2010 & 2007.) I have published five books, including WAR DNA, covering seven deadly conflicts and Tompkins Square Park, depicting New York’s socio-economical, anti-gentrification movement. I hold a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University. I am also an educator. Every summer, for more than 8 years, I teach photo-documentary at the workshop at Tokyo Photo Museum. I’m co-founder of the Instagram gallery Hikari Creative. I’m represented by Redux Picture.
My philosophy towards work is: to listen to the locals and share their human conditions as much as possible.
What or who first attracted you to covering conflict? Tell us how you got started.
There might be two big factors — one: my father, the other: Japan’s society itself. My father was a banker. He could be an icon for Japan’s typical businessmen or workers during the rapid economic growing time — the 1960s and 1970s. He was a smart, diligent, hard working person, and in general extremely kind and generous to others. However, when it came to talking about war, he often became irrational and emotional. Or conversely he blinded himself, especially for Japan’s involved war legacy, such as its occupation of Korea and much of China, often despising those of Japan’s neighbours without any reason. I understand him. He lost his childhood due to WWII. During that time what he learned most might have been just conformity. Being against the government or society was then regarded as crime. However, such a conformity-orientated nature or tendency continuously exists as Japan’s real war legacy, among my generation, even further in the younger one, (though nobody thinks that speaking out a different view is a crime now). This is why I would like to explore war. By doing so, I would like to see somehow what human nature is.
It was Haiti in 1992 when I went to the so-called conflict or crisis area for the first time. I went there because I wanted to cover the oversea issues, and one of my friends, a radio reporter in New York, was also interested in Haiti. So, we just decided to go. In the slums of capital Port au Prince extreme poverty and violence were rampant due to the political oppression. Yet the international community blinded the military regime’s violent acts and consequently, sometimes intentionally, it helped the regime keep its power. Since then, I have been more exploring such nature of human beings by often covering war/conflict zones.
What is the item you can’t survive without in the field?
Besides from physically very important items, such as money and water, it is the spirit of ‘never give up.’ If you don’t have it, you may have more chances to reach no return —death.
What makes your approach different to getting attention from editors?
I nearly always try to tell something beyond the story with my possible signature on my work — often very dark, but also trying poetic and aesthetic. Combining those conflicting elements together could be a metaphor of the story, since the reality of what is happening is often very complicated. By doing so, I would like to bring editors and any person to the real life beyond the photography.
Describe that item you carry around with you all the time and never use.
Rain sleeves (Plastic sleeves for camera protection from rain). Instead of them, I often find myself using a rain parka.
What media/news/feeds do you follow and why?
BBC and the New York Times. These have less bias and give me a broader view even in the underreported news events, compared to other international media. At the same time, I, as much as possible, check the voices of local journalists and/ or NGOs because of their deeper knowledge.
How do you measure risk and how do you protect yourself?
My instinct and local people’s advice and then my own analysis. And to hang out with trusted locals — in other words, not by alone, though that’s sometimes impossible. Plus, to keep the spirit of ‘never give up,’ as mentioned at the above.
Describe your most rewarding career moment.
Probably a moment when my presence was very welcomed and I was treated like a family member, or often more than that, by local people, despite the fact that their living situations were extremely miserable and desperate, or even that it was just after some of their family members were killed or their houses were destroyed. Of course, many do so because they want help. But in many cases, they give strangers incredible hospitality, because by doing so, they could share a sense of being alive, and because through such a sense they can feel hope. Having such a moment is really priceless. It happened many times in many parts of deadly conflict zones, like Afghanistan, Kosovo, Palestine, etc.
Tell us about your most recent assignment or work.
Gaza: Living in Ruins — It is a night portrait series of people in Gaza who lived in their destroyed homes after they were damaged during the 2014 summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas (and Islamic Jihad). Many of them remained in their houses in the ruins and in extremely dangerous conditions. It was because there was no space for them to move to or it’s too expensive to rent after the war. Virtually no one came to help them. That was why so many people were continuously living in the damaged houses or tents or shacks in the ruins at the same places as before the war. I photographed these images at night intentionally to highlight the situation, since the act of sleep indicates that the person still lives there.
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