Had a nice little shoot on Friday last with the Japan Times.
Well I say “nice little” job but actually the logistics were quite difficult and not a little intimidating.
I had to shoot a portrait of rape survivor and activist, Catherine “Jane” Fisher as she handed a copy of her book to staff at the American Embassy.
The rub of course is photography at the American Embassy is not allowed. Also as the book details her 12 year fight for justice and a grudging, official acceptance of the truth in the case of for her rape by a US sailor in 2002, the embassy staff were not likely to be that accommodating to me recording what to them was not a newsworthy event. At least not news that they wanted to be too widely distributed. Indeed the American military and other government authorities have acted throughout her struggle with a degree of obstruction that is mind-boggling:
For example the US military police quickly handed over the investigation of the crime to the local, Kanagawa police, as the assault had happened off-base. This may sound like a good idea but anyone who knows the Japanese police service will know that this would leave Catherine in the hands, and at the mercy of, the seriously inept. So it proved when she quickly understood that the idiot officers around her, at best, didn’t know what they were doing in such a situation and wasted time measuring the location of the crime or insensitively asked her to re-enact the harrowing events with a sniggering policeman. All while important physical evidence was allowed to be lost. At worst they didn’t believe her and actively accused her of lying.
Of course, due to agreements the US government makes with many countries where its armed forces are stationed, this pantomime of truth-seeking was also totally toothless because the Japanese police have no jurisdiction over US military personnel. When US servicemen commit crimes overseas they are routinely tried in US courts and sentenced much more leniently: that is if they are tried at all. The man who raped Catherine was quickly posted back to the US where he was given an honourable discharge which absolved the military authorities of any responsibilities to pursue the case.
That Catherine had gone up against such odds made her someone that I really wanted to meet. On the phone the night before, as we discussed how to get the photos the paper wanted, I had promised to “do her justice” and she had laughed at the unintended pun.
With the editor`s warning ringing in my ears about not getting arrested, I met Catherine near the embassy and tried to work out our battle plans
Some sort of guerrilla shoot had been suggested to get around the photographic restriction of the place and the sensitive subject matter but as we talked and walked close to where the shots would need to be taken it became apparent that the suggested locations were going to provide none of the imagery I, and more importantly the paper, wanted. It was clear I needed to get closer, which is my usual working style anyway.
How to do this without getting stopped was something I wasn’t quite on yet though. Was I was going to ask permission or shoot and hope I get away with it? I hadn’t yet decided. To a degree it depended on the friendliness of the embassy staff members that had arranged to accept the book at 10:30am. If they looked nice I might be able to negotiate a quick shot. If they didn’t I had two further options: shoot under my arm, silent mode, sneaking a photo that might or might not work; or shoot until stopped and apologise hoping that they didn’t ask me to delete the photos. It is after all always easier to apologise than ask permission. But at the embassy I wasn’t sure that particular photographic truism would hold.
The sidewalk next to the embassy wall is closed and you are only allowed through on embassy business. After explaining we had a meeting Catherine and I walked up to the gate and waited in front of a policeman who was checking each person in and out.
We were a bit early but I had my camera out in my hand. I wanted the policemen to see it, to understand it was part of me and both it and I had a purpose there. In preperation I had a wide angle lens on and had set the iso a little higher than the sunny weather needed, so that I could close down the f-stop and get more depth of focus, and I had put the motor drive on high speed so that I could get a lot of shots in the short time I was expecting to be allowed. I didn’t take any photos while we waited of course: I didn’t want any rules explicitly voiced that I was intending to soon disobey. From where I stood I also couldn’t see any signs saying photography wasn’t allowed though I knew they were around somewhere. Most importantly I made a point of standing outside the line of the embassy grounds and on Japanese soil where photography, technically, is still allowed.
At ten-thirty two women came through the security building and down to meet Catherine. They looked quite young and open as they approached but they didn’t smile at all as we greeted each other. Catherine handed over the book and as she explaining the message written inside I shot 4 or 5 images. The embassy woman, who was holding the other end of the book, quickly asked why I was taking photos and Catherine, bless her, just carried on explaining the meaning of her message to the ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, as I shot some more. Eventually the embassy woman looked quite angry and asked me to stop, I tried to explain that we wanted a record of this event but she said the embassy didn’t as it was not an official embassy action.
That was the end of my hand over images. Which the paper probably wouldn’t be allowed to use anyway.
A curt goodbye and the embassy staff were gone. But I still needed a portrait of Catherine holding her book “as close to the embassy as possible”. As the police had said and done nothing during my earlier shooting I decided to risk a few more shot right here on the embassy’s doorstep. I got Catherine to hold-up another copy of her book and started to shoot a few quick portraits. This time to policeman intervened and said it wasn’t allowed but I mangled some Japanese back at him about a portrait being okay and carried on shooting. Japanese police generally get confused easily by people arguing back and my unclearness had the desired effect. I shot 5 or 6 more images with the US embassy and the police in the background and then we quickly got out of there.
I was actually quite nervous and even shaking a bit: you don’t fuck with he US embassy lightly, but thankfully the shaking didn’t affect the photos. I was also carrying Catherine`s quite heavy handbag, so that she looked less encumbered in the shots, which made my arms heavy and sway a bit as I moved around. All in all it was a bit of an effort actually but I got an okay shot (top photo) and the Japan Times used it on Tuesday in two articles about Catherine and her book. (Though look at the photos in the photo viewer, not at the top of the page which is looks rather green and flat for some reason)
But is was also fun. I like a challenge as a photographer. The portraits I took of Catherine later were technically better because they were less rushed and better lit: the sun was high and strong as we stood outside the embassy but using flash, to even out the skin tones, would have been pushing my luck a bit especially when even using a camera was a risk I wasn’t sure I was going to get away with.
A good day in all photographically and personally as I got to meet and spend time with a very strong and interesting woman.
Busy talk soon.