I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows

Article main image

One of the defining properties of our current era is the fact that the most pressing problems we’re facing are either being ignored by our elected leaders, or they’re merely used as political pawns in their electoral schemes: climate change, the pandemic, the vast inequalities that exist both within our societies and between them, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have become migrants (or refugees) looking for a modicum of safety and comfort elsewhere.

Matters are being made worse by the fact that these crises are not independent from each other. In a nutshell,  migration is caused as a direct or indirect consequence of the actions of those countries that now are their target, whether it’s people escaping from war (initiated or supported, however indirectly, by target countries) or the consequences of global warming (ditto), or whether people simply want a better life than the one available back home.

A number of photographers have picked up the larger topic of migration to make work around it. All of the examples I can think of right now are photographers from any one of the target countries. In principle, there isn’t anything wrong with this approach. These photographers typically have the resources to do the work, but they also have the necessary access to disseminate it. It’s an entirely different matter for those stuck in refugee camps, let alone on their treks across borders, to also document their plight. One example I can think of is provided by the Now You See Me Moria Instagram feed.

Thana Faroq was born and raised in Yemen, a country that has been engulfed in a civil war since 2014 (at some stage Saudi Arabia became involved, largely propped up by US support, which the Biden administration finally withdrew). As a consequence of the war, Faroq was forced into exile in the Netherlands: an incredibly gifted photographic storyteller became part of a larger story. With I Don’t Recognize Me in The Shadows, the photographer now tells that story. There’s a book that you can order here.

One of the reasons why I like photobooks so much is because of all visual media they come closest to being in the presence of another person telling a story. I will watch the occasional documentary film, and there are many good ones. However, they almost inevitably make me feel manipulated: I have no control over how things unfold (it feels weird to pause and rewind), and more often than not the music used is too blatantly emotionally manipulative.

A photobook removes those two aspects. Instead of being a passive recipient, I have to do work: I have to turn pages, I have to decide where to look and whether or not I will read whatever is being made available. And it’s quiet when I look. If I don’t want the quiet, I can pick the sounds that go along the book. In other words, it’s a contemplative experience, in which the thinking about what one is looking at comes along with the looking — instead of only afterwards.

Looking through Shadows, I thought it was one of the books that stressed the points I just made incredibly well. With all of its photographs presented full bleed, it immediately is completely immersive. Events are made to unfold in a number of very smart ways. For example, there are different sections that are visually separate in a simple manner. Both the types of images and whether they’re colour or black and white change.

At some stage, the photographer’s own voice enters directly through the reproduction of handwritten texts on small pieces of paper: journal entries. In these texts, Faroq reflects on a number of things, some mundane, others carrying immense weight. As you go through the book as a viewer/reader, there is a build up of intensity, which finally culminates in portraits of other migrants who were photographed through a glass screen that has water drops on them. Next to these portraits, there also are pieces of paper with handwritten texts. Unlike in the case of the journal entries, these pieces of paper were physically tipped in. Underneath, the name of the person is given.

As in the journal entries, the messages can be mundane or profound — or both. “I am a human being,” one of them says (see picture just below; my own translation from the Dutch original — there is Arab text above that I am unable to read). In many ways, this is the core message of the book, a message that all-too-often is forgotten or ignored when dealing with migrants (just look at the conditions in the Moria camp): we’re dealing with human beings, human beings that have the same hopes, dreams, ideas, aspirations that we all do.

One of the most incredible pieces of writing in the book is presented at the end of the book. Entitled Two Years Later, it’s a reflection by Faroq of what happened, of being stuck in the system in place that “processes” (terrible word, I know) people who are coming from other countries looking for a safe new home.

Produced in the Netherlands, I Don’t Recognize Me in The Shadows uses all the many devices available to good photobook making without going overboard. It’s elegant and engaging but not overdesigned, and it doesn’t scream “I’m an art book”. It’s just perfect.

Very highly recommended — a real landmark publication.

I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows; photographs and texts by Thana Faroq; short texts by a number of migrants; 168 pages; Lecturis; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.7

Bad Ass and Beauty

Article main image

Okinawa and Hawaii have a lot in common. They’re both mostly known as sunny vacation spots with gorgeous beaches, and they each played a pivotal role during World War 2. But they’re also both latecomers to the countries they now are part of: previously independent kingdoms with their own rich culture, both archipelagos were annexed in the late 19th Century. Their original culture and language were originally largely dismissed (where not outright banned), and they were forced to adapt to being a very small part of a larger culture they originally didn’t have all that much in common with.

Okinawa has been suffering from occupation ever since the late 19th Century. After Japan lost World War 2, vast military bases were constructed by the United States’ military. It is from these bases that bombing runs were conducted during the Vietnam War, and it is these bases that have been responsible for a very large number of sexual-assault cases (there’s a book about the larger topic).

Many Okinawans have long wanted an end to these bases. There have been demonstrations against them for decades. In fact, a large number of (mainland) Japanese photographers have been flocking to Okinawa to make work around this very topic, famously Shōmei Tōmatsu (at this stage, Chewing Gum and Chocolate is the only book still easily available), but also many others. Especially early on, the vast majority of these photographers were male.

Mao Ishikawa is an Okinawan photographer who is known the aficionados of Japanese photography through Red Flower, the Women of Okinawa. It’s visually compelling work that now has taken on some patina, given the time it was photographed. For the work, Ishikawa became a part of the very scene she photographed: bars frequented by US soldiers.

The reality is that there is a lot more to this series of photographs — and, by extension, to the rest of Ishikawa’s work — than you might imagine if you just were to look at the photographs (in particular if you are a Westerner who is not familiar with the larger back story). A newly published exhibition catalogue entitled Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love (T&M Projects) makes this very clear (it was produced at the occasion of a career retrospective at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum and has English translations for all Japanese texts).

The catalogue starts out with the photographer’s words. Ishikawa was interviewed by curators Fumiaki Kamegai, Sun Hye Cho, and Fumiko Nakamura. Her answers were then transcribed into a long-form text whose sections address biographical details, general events, and details of the various bodies of work.

Of late, there have been discussions in photoland about who should tell whose story. While there is much to be said for an outsider telling someone else’s story, there is just as much — maybe even more — to be said for a member of a community telling the community’s story. The catalogue provides a very compelling example of why that is the case.

As someone from the Okinawan community (speaking the language, which is distinct from Okinawan Japanese), Ishikawa grew up in the shadows of the US military bases. There were frequent interactions with US soldiers: “When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my aunt got engaged to an Italian American guy.” (p.13) A little later, she says: “When I was living with a Black GI, we watched a popular TV drama series called ‘Roots’ […] The drama showed the history of the United States’ mistreatment of Black people […] I was appalled but felt that there was some similarity between Okinawan history and that of Black Americans, comparing the dehumanization of Okinawans by the mainlanders to that of Black people by white Americans.” (p.15)

By chance, the photographer was taken to a bar for Black GIs when she wanted to take photos of US soldiers. Ishikawa connected immediately. “I enjoyed myself a hell of a lot,” she says, “which is why I ended up getting great photos. It’s my life. What’s wrong with the storyteller becoming part of the story?” She would use this approach for many of her series, whether when she visited the family of a man she knew from Okinawa in Philadelphia or photographed the families of former dancers in the Philippines.

There obviously is nothing wrong with the storyteller becoming part of the story — if, as in Ishikawa’s case, it’s done from a position of equals and without the power (or privilege) differential that is present in so many other cases we know from the history of photography. In fact, it is this very idea — a storyteller from a community not only has unique insight but there is actually something at stake for her — that is the driving factor behind the discussions I mentioned earlier.

The fact that Akabanaa (Red Flower) occupies only 15 pages out of a total of almost 400 says a lot about how little this photographer and her work are known in the West (and, possibly, in Japan as well, even though I can’t speak to that). A large variety of material emerges, covering traditional Okinawan theater, a portrait of Okinawan fisherman, the aforementioned Life in Philly and Philippine Dancers, a portrait of survivors of the battle over Okinawa (which includes photographs of former so-called comfort women, for which Ishikawa traveled to South Korea), Okinawa and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and a lot more.

As should be clear by now, Ishikawa’s fearless gutsiness extends beyond her photography: time and again, she tackled difficult topics that for sure must have made her enemies in mainland Japan. I don’t know how Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me was received in mainland Japan. I’m pretty certain that were an American artist to do something similar, conservatives and far-right proponents would be apoplectic over the imagery — imagine Piss Christ on steroids, albeit with a clear political stance.

The Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll might be the highlight of the catalogue (Okinawa is located on the Ryukyu islands). In it, Ishikawa re-narrates the history of her homeland, with regular people acting out a large number of historical events. Each photograph comes with its own extended caption (the English translations at times are a bit wonky, which, however, only adds to the sheer playfulness of it all). There’s so much material that there are three photographs per page. I wish these pictures were larger, even though this would have vastly inflated the book (which already has 408 pages). The image on the cover — a portrait of a family right after the mother gave birth — is just incredible.

As far as I am concerned, Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love is an absolute must-read for anyone seriously interested in contemporary photography. It expands the canon of photographers from Japan with a voice from its Okinawa prefecture, and it shows an artist boldly tackling a large number of important topics in a playful, yet completely serious manner.

“I really don’t care if photography is considered a fine art or not.” Mao Ishikawa says, “For me, photography is just photography.” (p.20) I feel that that’s an approach that we can learn something from: photography not as a craft, but simply as a tool to get at larger messages — without worrying too much about what the collectors or curators might think.

Very highly recommended.

Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love; photographs and texts by Mao Ishikawa; essays by Fumiaki Kamegai, Fumiko Nakamura, SunHye Cho, Isao Nakazato, Greg Dvorak; 408 pages; T&M Projects; 2021