“In the morgue this guy tapped on my shoulder and asked if I could take a picture of his son. He led me inside to where his son was lying dead on the table. Family members were surrounding this child’s body… He asked me to take a picture to remember his boy.” There’s a tremor in Shiho Fukada’s voice as she recalls "the most emotionally disturbing assignment” she’s worked on in twenty years as a visual storyteller.
It was May 2008 and Fukada was on assignment for the New York Times in Sichuan, China, covering the aftermath of the devastating earthquake there. Tens of thousands were killed including more than 5,000 school children, many crushed as their classrooms were reduced to twisted metal and concrete rubble.
After a School Collapsed. Mother holds a picture of her son during the memorial service for children who were killed by the building collapse at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan county, Sichuan province in China, May 27, 2008.
That day at the morgue, as she witnessed the anguish of parents farewelling their children, Fukada says, “I felt so intrusive… I knew I had to take pictures, to capture the death of these children, but these were very private moments… I felt very awkward with my camera.”
It was the humble request of the grieving father that reminded her why she was a photojournalist. In framing the picture of the man’s son, she says, “I realised it is important to do what I do and sometimes I need to put my emotions aside and remember there is a purpose in doing this type of work… so, it was a teaching moment.”
After a School Collapsed. Mother holds a hand of her dead daughter who was killed by collapse of Juyuan Middle School caused by earthquake in Juyuan City, Dujiangyan county, Sichuan province in China, May 14, 2008.
Fukada’s relationship with photography began in earnest on September 11, 2001. She was working for an advertising firm in New York and unsure what she wanted to do with her life. As news of the terrorist attacks broke, her first instinct was to pick up a camera.
“I don’t know why, but I just needed to record what was happening. I ran downtown and started taking pictures. That experience really changed my life. First of all, I thought, you never know when you are going to die so you really need to get on this journey. And two, I really liked the feeling I had when I was taking pictures.”
After enrolling in a photography class, she began freelancing, picking up work with the New York Daily. “I was covering spot news. I also had a police scanner… I can proudly say I shot everything, from people, food and sport, to red carpet events. Everything that moved and didn’t move,” she laughs. “It was great training.”
Later, Fukada freelanced for Associated Press and the New York Times. “It was a really good time to be a freelancer in New York. I was on contract five days a week and always busy.”
But she longed to tell more complex narratives. “You know with the news, you go, you shoot, and you leave those people behind. I began wondering what happened to those people after the TV crews leave, after the camera flashes are gone.”
One of her earliest personal projects was Stray Bullet, about an 11-year-old girl, Tayloni Mazyck, who'd been rendered a quadriplegic by a stray bullet in New York, an innocent caught in the crossfire of gang warfare. “I wanted to know what was happening to her and her family, about her life after the shooting.” Stray Bullet was published as a New York Times Op-Doc.
Stray Bullet. This short documentary follows a mother’s devotion after her 11-year-old daughter Tayloni Mazyck is struck by a stray bullet in New York City. October 7, 2015
Fukada’s passion for stories that give voice to those often forgotten, stories not always easy to tell, is clear in Japan’s Disposable Workers. This three-part documentary series began with a story about Japan’s aging male day labourers who’ve fallen through the cracks of a decaying system.
Many of them are destitute, suspicious of strangers. It took months before Fukada found any willing to tell their stories. “I just kept showing up,” she says. Most times she was told to “go away.” Finally, her tenacity paid off. One person said yes, then others followed.
Japan’s Disposable Workers. Syunsuke Fujii, 64, an unemployed carpenter, in Osaka, Japan.
Once a thriving day labourer’s town in Osaka, Kamagasaki today is home to about 25,000 mainly elderly day labourers, with an estimated 1,300 who are homeless. It used to be called a “labourers town” but now it’s called a “welfare town”, a dumping ground of old men. Alcoholism, poverty, street death, suicide, TB and most of all loneliness prevail here. They don’t have family ties and live and die alone as social outcasts from the mainstream “salaryman” culture. Labour towns, like Kamagasaki, are on the verge of extinction in Japan. According to the most recent government report, its economy, the world’s second-largest, is deteriorating at its worst pace since the oil crisis of the 1970s, setting off more unemployment among young and educated and lay-offs among big corporations. It is even more hopeless for greying men of the construction industry here to get work. April 9, 2015
As she listened to their stories, she began to consider whether taking pictures was enough. “You spend so much time just sitting and talking with people before you take a picture. I’d hear these amazing stories, their words, their voices... I wanted people to tell their own stories in their own voice and words.”
In the first instalment, Dumping Ground, she experimented with still images overlaid with audio recordings. Incorporating moving images was a natural next step for the following two instalments: Net Café Refugees, and Overwork to Suicide. In 2015, Fukada was nominated for an Emmy and won a World Press Photo Multimedia Award for the series.
Overwork to Suicide. Emiko Teranishi, 61, lost her husband, Akira, to suicide 14 years ago. He was a manager of the restaurant chain but excessive overwork and stress brought depression on him. He ended his life by jumping from a building. She is currently the president of an advocacy group that is made of family members who lost their loved ones from "karoshi." April 9, 2015
Since then, she’s produced numerous stories, using both photography and video, including 2018’s Nowhere but Here. This project is a tale of elderly Japanese women in their eighties who, lacking any means to care for themselves, shoplift - knowing they’ll be caught and go to prison, where they’ll be cared for by the state.
Nowhere but Here. N (79) stands in the factory at Fukushima Prison for women in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, November 10, 2017. She is serving her third prison sentence for stealing a paper fan at a shopping mall. 2018
After spending the best part of two decades living in the US and China, Fukada is back in Tokyo working with her husband Keith Bedford, an African American photo editor and filmmaker. “We moved to Japan from the US because I wanted my son to get to know my culture," Fukada explains, “but Keith was starting to miss home. As we were discussing moving back, George Floyd was killed, and that really gave me pause. Is this really a right decision for my son, who is black? Where would he be better off, here or in America?”
Fukada and Bedford reached out to other African American families “who may be going through a similar conundrum.” The result, released in September 2021, was a short documentary film, Living While Black in Japan, which shows that while being a foreigner in Japan is not without its difficulties, the ingrained racist tropes ever-present in the US, the fear, violence and marginalisation, are absent in Japan’s homogenic society.
Living While Black in Japan. FOR NPR - In this documentary, several African-Americans living in Japan discuss how their encounters with police and racism in the U.S. played into their decision to live abroad and how leaving the U.S. changed their perceptions of who they are and their connections to the country of their birth, Japan, September 13, 2021
Regardless of whether she’s working with stills or video, documentary or narrative, Fukada says, “to me, it’s all the same, it is about finding the best way to tell a story that lets us hear from people we don’t usually hear from.”
About the Author
Alison Stieven-Taylor is an international commentator, journalist and scholar specialising in photography and specifically social documentary. Alison publishes Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up. The blog was started in 2012 as a means of exploring the changing face of global photojournalism in the wake of the impact of digital technologies. Subscribe to receive the weekly post by email or follow on Facebook.