In the October issue of Rangefinder magazine, we ran the below image by Ko Sasaki in our “Editor’s Pick.” I chose this image after seeing it on NYTimes.com and being struck by Sasaki’s ability to portray the wise face of Casio chief executive Kazuo Kashio in such a dynamic way.
When I reached out to the Japanese photographer, who was featured on The NewYork Times Lens blog for the images he shot in the aftermath of Fukushima, I found his disposition about photography and his reluctance to take pride in this image surprising. Further, his answers are indicative of his opinion on the deeper cultural relationship that Japan has to photography:
Lindsay Comstock: You say that you don’t think the photo above is good. Why is that?
Ko Sasaki: I often find it is hard to take photographs in Japan, especially taking portraits of the Japanese [people]. The reason I thought the picture wasn’t good is because I couldn’t make any personal connection with the subject shown in the picture. I believe shooting a portrait is just another form of communication between the subject and me, and people who see the pictures communicate or interact with the subject in the picture through my eyes and the lens. Therefore, if I am not connected and not focused, the picture will never be strong.
LC: And what do you think accounted for the lack of connection?
KS: I think 20 years of recession made Japanese people lose self-confidence, which makes Japanese feel soft or in another words, weak. I found this out when I photographed a Chinese man here in Japan. I aimed my lens at him, same as I would for a male Japanese subject, but something was different: Through the viewfinder, I felt like I was facing a human. It reminded me of the Japanese people in photographs from post-war through the 1980s, when the majority of the culture was young and there was so much energy in the society.
Now, Japan is becoming one of the super aging countries in the world and those who are still in power, very often, are older males. So, on many occasions I am assigned to shoot older males, those of which have never seen any good photographs of themselves in the newspaper or in magazines… The result is that [photographers] are not given good access or time to shoot, and therefore the subject doesn’t enjoy being photographed so it’s difficult to come up with something good.
LC: And how does this translate to the image?
KS: I believe if the photograph is good, the readers, the subject, the corporation, the photographer and even society might benefit from seeing joy for life through non-verbal communication, such as in photographs. Unfortunately, that is not how it works here. I am usually good with people and communication during a shoot but in Kashio’s case, I couldn’t find a word to communicate … and failed in a way.
LC: Do you think this is a widespread issue?
KS: I often hear photo editors in the West say they have difficulty finding (good) photographs from Japan. Here people are so jumpy and so nervous to be photographed. Part of the reason for this is because people are afraid to fail and are fearful of not being able fulfill expectations. This same principle applies to corporate PR assignments for well-known large corporations.
I have seen great photos in Fortune magazine by Gregg Segal for Honda and Minoru Mori a few years ago. It is really hard for me to imagine how they made that arrangement—breaking through the Japanese corporate wall of defense.