March 15: Devotion

Date #15March 15: Does an immersive, embedded approach produce better photojournalism and documentary photography?

Opening tonight at FkWBH Friends of Willy Brandt House, Friends Willy-Brandt-Haus eV, Stresemannstraße 28, Berlin at 7:30PM is Lost in Berlin and Bucharest:Photographs of Fara Phoebe Zetzsche and Massimo Brancacurated by Gisela Kayser. They inherit the concerned photography of Fukushima Kikujiro who was born on this date in 1921.

Is it a first world problem that more and more young people flee from problems with their parents into a life on the street, seeking happiness in the anonymity of the big city?

Approximately 2000 of them live on the streets of Berlin, more still in Bucharest, exposed to drug addiction, anxiously in constant search for food and a place to sleep, often embroiled in insincere or destructive friendships, excluded from society, regarded as criminals and in frequent contact with the police.

How do young people end up on the street? What is their story and how they survive in such a harsh environment? To seek answers the two photographers in this exhibition separately accompanied homeless children and young people in Berlin and Bucharest.

We are used to the term ’embedding’ in relation to war photography, in which the photographer lives side-by-side with the troops that they wish to photograph. In the 1950s, when one of the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) asked Fukushima Kikujiro “Please take revenge for me so I can die in peace,” he was given to understand that he was being asked to record the everyday agony of radiation poisoning so that the world would know. Is it correct to use the militaristic term ’embedded’ in considering projects like Fara Phoebe Zetzsche’s and Massimo Branca’s whose motivations are the same as Kikujiro’s that share his compassion?

Homeless people in front of the A-Bomb Dome in the late 1940s
Fukushima Kikujiro (late 1940s) Homeless people in front of the A-Bomb Dome.

War veteran Kikujiro, having returned to his watchmaking business immediately postwar, volunteered to help care for some of the hundreds of thousands of orphans because of his personal experience of losing his father in early childhood. He combined volunteer work with his new hobby of photography with the idea of holding photo exhibitions of war orphans to raise money for the Kibo no Ie (House of Hope) orphanage. In the autumn of 1947 he had success with a traveling exhibition that brought some money to the orphanage. When some of his photos of fatherless families were exhibited in the Nikon Photo Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo, they were praised as profoundly humanistic work by top contemporary photographers such as Domon Ken.

Fukushima Kikujiro (1952) Sugimatsu fishing.

Kikujiro felt a sense of survivor’s guilt common to many of the returned soldiers, the remaining two-thirds of young Japanese men who were born between 1920 and 1922 who had not been killed in the conflict. Living not far from Hiroshima and visiting it often for spare watch parts, he attended the first memorial service for A-Bomb victims, the hibakusha, on August 6, 1952. He was struck by how narrowly he had escaped being posted in Hiroshima when the American atom bomb destroyed it, killing others in his battalion. Seeing the horrible injuries and disfiguring keloid scars of the hibakusha he resolved to help them. Introduced to fisherman Nakamura Sugimatsu, he visited him in late August and found a man and family reduced to extreme poverty, living on welfare that provided only half of the minimum required for survival in the high-inflation period of the fifties.

Fukushima Kikujiro (1952-1960) Sugimatsu in despair
Sugimatsu in distress

Kikujiro took literally thousands of photos of Sugimatsu and his family over eight years between 1953 and 1960. He followed Sugimatsu everywhere he went including his many futile visits to hospitals, recording his every movement and his excruciatingly painful fits and cramps.

Having neglected his watchmaking business to undertake this long term project, and after suffering a nervous breakdown, Kikujiro decided to devote himself to photojournalism full-time and moved to Tokyo with his children.

There in 1960 he held a successful exhibition Pika Don: The Record of An A-bomb Survivor (pika don meaning ‘flash-bang’; a euphemism for the bomb) on Hiroshima Day 1960 at the Fuji Photo Gallery in Ginza, and launched a book of the show. Returning to Hiroshima frequently he documented the slums in which the homeless hibakusha lived, a phenomenon of national shame and neglect.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement
Sanrizuka Narita Airport protest movement

Until 1982, Kikujiro survived though his contribution of articles to magazines, and publication of ten other books, on other issues of conscience such as student protesters, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Self Defense Forces and Japan’s military industry, pollution and environmental issues, Emperor Hirohito, and social welfare. Eventually, disillusioned with Japan’s materialist culture, he retreated to live alone with his wife on an island.

As in the case of Sugimatsu, Kikujiro felt compelled to secure complete trust if he was to be allowed to intrude into the privacy of his subjects. While his raw, matter-of-fact images do not have the aesthetic refinement of a Domon Ken or Tomatsu Teruaki, who also photographed hibakusha in the late 1950s and early 1960s, his long-term commitment to his subjects, his sense of responsibility to them, raises his work well above run-of-the-mill photojournalism.

Kikujiro’s is a legendary example that has directly or indirectly been inherited by the much younger photographers in this exhibition. Does it account for why an educated and clearly intelligent twenty-eight year old man would follow homeless outsiders into their underworld?

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Massimo Branca (2013-2015) from Inside Outside Under Bucharest

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Massimo Branca (2013-2015) from Inside Outside Under Bucharest

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Massimo Branca (2013-2015) from Inside Outside Under Bucharest

Italian photographer Massimo Branca (*1985) has a degree in Anthropology with a dissertation on the application of photography in social sciences and cultural investigation. In 2009 he co-founded Collettivo Fotosocial, an Italian association that uses visual storytelling to spread awareness of human condition and produce positive social change and since 2011 he has collaborated with IRFOSS (Institute of Research in Social Sciences) as teacher and photographer. He speaks Italian, English, Spanish and Romanian and is learning Romani (Gypsy).

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These attributes qualify him better than most for this daunting task; living for two years on the streets of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, in order to document the life of the homeless living in the tunnels of the Bucharest Central Station, a surreal environment in which he has been observing, experiencing and documenting the effects of social exclusion. For this project Inside Outside Under Bucharest he received the 2016 Lumix Festival Hanover People’s Choice Award.

Amidst the apparent camaraderie and communal relations of these troglodytes Branca experiences and documents the widespread drug use that is a problem more serious than the illegal occupation of this unusual living space.

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It is his persistence and honesty that has gained him the confidence of his subjects that enable him to expose the rawest aspects of these marginal lives. His website demonstrates his approach; he freely hands around his photographic gear, engages in a ‘reality TV’ style of interaction with his subjects that they can relate to, whilst photographing. It’s a saturation, a process of normalising the presence of cameras, which makes of the act of being photographed an entertainment, but also an empowerment rather than a subjugation; and are we not far more fascinated by the lives of the humble individual, those who struggle like we do, than in the celebrity who has it all? These are images that prompt us to ask what would we do if our lives, or those of our children, came to this?

It is a gauge of Branca’s success in communicating feeling that through a series of still images he is able to touch us with the tragedy of a young life lost; the lively girl (above) who dies at eighteen during his documentation.

The jury of the 2014 Lammerhuber Photography Award selected Fara Phoebe Zetzsches for her documentary Stray Kids for the way it shows that “you find touching, social issues not only in the Third World, but also at your own front door. ”

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Fara Phoebe Zetzsche (2013) from Stray Kids
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Fara Phoebe (2013) Zetzsche from Stray Kids

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STRAY KIDS
Fara Phoebe Zetzsche from Stray Kids

Born in Germany in 1984, and after being a photo assistant in Germany and Peru, in 2007 Zetzsches began her studies in photojournalism and documentary photography at the Hochschule Hannover, Germany.

Her approach is less interactive than Branca’s; she prefers to be an objective, fly-on-the-wall presence. Her black and white is gritty and usually made at a range so close that it is clear the subject have become unconscious of her presence.

In parallel with Branca’s and Zetzsche’s exhibition is a show of portraits and cityscapes Berlin’s homeless youth, the result of their being given a digital camera document their environment and lives. It represents a new empowerment through increasingly accessible photographic technologies that will further advance this idea of embracing the subject.

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