Thursday, May 19, 2011

Special Essay on Leibovitz and Nachtwey

     The photos of Leibovitz and Nachtwey go beyond the standard, merely-practical reasons that photos are used for, that is, as simple reminders or recollections of past events, records or personal mementos. They are at once both art and instruments for change. The photos visually represent the multi-faceted shades of culture, societies, life's struggles, people's light and dark sides, their ideals and personalities.

     Perhaps the most important advice I have garnered from Leibovitz and Nachtwey's photography to becoming a better visual anthropologist is to get closer to my subjects, not merely literally but emotionally and psychologically. One has to become a part of what is going on. To become actively involved in participant observation enables one to connect more deeply into the lives, views, struggles, and personalities of those being represented. Leibovitz places a great deal of importance on listening to and paying attention to the need of her subjects and experiencing their lives firsthand despite the very real dangers and hardships involved (as in her tour with the Rolling Stones in a documentary of Annie's life entitled 'Life Through A Lens'). Nachtwey has a similar philosophy and places a great deal of importance on being respectful and tactful. The subjects are letting you into a very personal moment of their lives, sometimes sharing their grief or sorrow (see the movie War Photographer). The area in which I live in Japan is far from a war zone setting, but some of the same rules still hold true. One has to be mindful of respecting a subject’s privacy, and not crossing the line in order to get an interesting shot. Getting the subject’s permission to use his or her photo can often lead to immensely rewarding conversations and insights into the topic at hand. It takes courage to walk up to strangers and try to start a conversation or merely ask for permission, especially in a foreign language in an unknown place. It is even more important to be respectful since whether one likes it or not, as a foreigner in Japan one becomes an informal representative of his or her country and school. Changing the stereotypical image of the loud, boisterous American is not such a simple exercise. 

Giving a voice to those who cannot speak out...
"Bosnia, 1993 - Mourning a soldier killed in the civil war."
© James Nachtwey (taken from
            Along with getting closer to one’s subjects, it is equally as important to give the subjects a voice and represent them in fair light. But one must not force their impressions and biases on the picture and subject. It is best if you can let the people in your photos “speak”. Just simply talking with your subjects offers a world of insight. But one also has to do some research and preparations. Being knowledgeable about the subject beforehand gives one a lot more leverage into discovering new information (though sometimes feigning ignorance gives an opportunity to hear more from the subject and learn a great deal). Like Bestor and his participant or inquisitive observation in a few neighborhoods and the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, networking and building rapport with the people, businesses, and community is essential to getting a better picture of what defines (even just small parts of) Japanese society and culture. Going out of one’s way to help others and get involved can open many doors into the less visible aspects of the communities around you. Getting back to the task of giving a voice to one’s subjects, I have learned the importance of incorporating something about the person into the photo. In this case I do not merely mean a prop or a favorite clothing accessory. One must try to capture what defines them, whether it be an attitude or what they cherish. It could be the subject’s family, community, work or career, favorite hobby or pet. Capturing the subject’s personality through the lens is extremely challenging. The camera only captures a single brief moment in time, or as Sontag eloquently states, “Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt" (394). The photograph presents an opportunity to step back a little from the fast pace of life to appreciate and understand the world and people around us.

Patti Smith with Her Children, Jackson and Jesse, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, 1996. Photograph © Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990 Courtesy of Vanity Fair

            Perhaps the most literal way to improve my representation of Japanese society and culture is through the improvement in my photography techniques. I have learned from Leibovitz and Nachtwey to playing with lighting, to expose the details in the frames, things often hidden from the normal eye. It is important to observe the tiniest ticks in the atmosphere around you. It is the small things, what happens between the main moments, that give a glimpse into what the main moment itself represents. Furthermore, playing with the shadows, darkness and contrast of a picture enables one to focus more on the meaning of the photo, and also on the depth and multiple layers of the scene.
In my blog I want to portray a Japan that is not stereotypical, or catering to the views of Orientalism or nihon-jinron. I want to show a Japan that readers will find familiar but also different in important ways. As in the film “The Japanese Version”, I wish to uncover an under-layer of Japan that helps one discover more about their own culture and themselves. To show what defines Japanese culture and its people, to give more unbiased insight to others around the world is my goal. Accurate information and knowledge helps connect us together and see how similar we all really are at the core.

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