News Column

Renowned photojournalist's work now on display

August 31, 2014

Keiji Hirano

Nearly 300 pictures taken by renowned Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura are now on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, chronicling a career that initially drew international attention for his coverage of the Vietnam War half a century ago.

Okamura, a former medical student, started his career as a photo journalist in Thailand in 1962 at the age of 33, after drifting from job to job, including a clerical staff at a monastery and a human rights activist for people in Japan's socially disadvantaged "buraku" districts.

In June 1964, a U.S. magazine, "Life," carried his photos on the Vietnam War as a 9-page feature, bringing him international fame.

Afterward he continued traveling around the world, covering the Northern Ireland conflict and the Biafra Civil War.

An interest in bioethics later in life led him to promote the hospice movement before dying of blood poisoning in 1985 at 56.

The museum studied some 50,000 photos left by Okamura to mount the exhibition entitled "All about Life and Death."

"We worked to identify when and where these photos were shot and who appears in them by crosschecking with his chronology and other related documents," said Masako Toda, a photo history researcher involved in the project.

Based on the research, the museum picked the displayed photos, of which more than 80 percent are unpublished works, according to Toda, who is also a lecturer at Musashino Art University in Tokyo.

Of the 282 photos on display, 182 are color pictures and the other 100 are monochromes.

The exhibition is divided into seven sections in accordance with transitions in the focus of Okamura's attention.

The first part, "On the Street at War," shows chaotic scenes in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called, in the early 1960s, including demonstrations against the pro-U.S. government.

The second section, "Into the Battlefield," is a record of Okamura's activities as an embedded reporter with the South Vietnamese government forces, covering harsh battles against the National Liberal Front for South Vietnam.

Okamura also successfully interviewed the second highest NLF official in 1965, for which he was banned from entering South Vietnam for five years.

Other parts show how he explored the background of wars in areas with a colonial history such as South Korea and Okinawa, and how he viewed people in conflict-affected regions such as Northern Ireland and Dominica.

While covering the Biafra Civil War, he shot a photo of a Biafran soldier collapsing after being hit in the left side of the chest by Nigerian machine gun fire. He noted later, "This photo certainly chronicles a real segment of the war in Biafra, but I felt depressed as I thought I was profiting from this man's death."

"We expect particularly young people to be aware through his photos how Okamura viewed wars, at a time when we face various conflicts around the world," Toda said.

Okamura's focus was also on the roots of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the descendant of Irish immigrants who, as president, escalated the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Okamura himself eventually settled near Dublin with his family as a base for his international activities.

Referring to his later involvement with hospice, Toda said, "It was because he settled in Ireland, the birthplace of hospice, and also because he was a medical student as well as war correspondent who kept thinking about the meaning of death. I think various factors were behind his interest in hospice."

The museum displays Okamura's photos on the 1966 crash of an All Nippon Airways plane off Tokyo'sHaneda airport, including one that shows a stack of coffins for the victims, as well as his equipment, such as cameras and press armbands.

The exhibition goes through Sept. 23. For further information, call the museum at 03-3280-0099.

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Source: Japan Economic Newswire

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