The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

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Doing Her Justice

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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.

More images of Catherine “Jane” Fisher at my archive here.

Busy talk soon.

Damon

Summer Colour

Ginza in Tokyo, Japan

Ginza in Tokyo, Japan

A good day shooting on Friday. More about that later.

After the shoot I walked around a bit to grab some street shots in the unexpectedly good weather.

Luckily Typhoon Neoguri missed Tokyo and I could enjoy the sunshine and colours of Ginza in the image above.

Very Busy.

More soon

Damon

Almost Human

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Been shooting a few robots of late.

Such is the nature of the job of a freelance editorial photographer in Tokyo, where robotic technology is often considered to be leading the world.

Most recently I was the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Odaiba, Tokyo photographing the new life -like robots that are on display there.

The Otonaroid (top photo) and Kodomoroid (bottom photo) are two new androids designed to look as human as possible.

Designed and built by Osaka University professor and robotics expert, Hiroshi Ishiguro they were quite impressive for pretend humans. Indeed some have called them creepily realistic. As autonomous robot entities though I must admit I found them curiously lacking: more like super expensive telephones that are remotely controlled and change personality depending on who is operating them. Though that maybe the point of augmented-reality it seemed a bit unnecessary to go to su much trouble on something that can do so very little without direct human input, especially when realism in other animatronics is already more or less achievable.

I certainly felt that the Pepper Robot I wrote about before was a deal more impressive in its ability to interact with people from a purely artificial intelligence base and certainly, for me at least, was like communicating with something definitely not human but with which it was possible to find a connection and some recognisable character.

But as with all robotics, the technology is endlessly developing, before our eyes in many way, and these robots are for now understandably a work in progress. When devices like these can look more human and the social recognition technology in something like the Pepper Robot or the mobility of the Asimo robot can be combined with the life-like qualities of the Otonaroid we might find it more possible to cross that “uncanny valley” and, sooner than we can perhaps imagine right now, we will have proper humanoid robots “living” with us and perhaps being treated as part of the ecosystem.

I interviewed Professor Adrian Cheok when he was in Tokyo a while ago about this technology and how he sees the future developing. Professor  Cheok is a leading expert in haptics and robotics and I wrote about his ideas in an article that you can read on my blog here 

One interesting thing Professor Cheok mentioned during that interview (though it didn’t fit in the article) is how this technology is already having effects on our lives. He gave me an example of the way that we will have to deal with new perceptions of reality when these sorts of machines become more common and usual. Professor Ishiguro has been famous for making lifelike robot for a number of years. His most famous creation, previously, was a robot head that was modelled on himself.  Of course unlike people robots do not age and Professor Cheok found it interesting for the future of robot-human relationships, and the way we deal with this unknowable new reality, that Professor Ishiguro, as he ages, is now taking measures to look more like his artificial doppelgänger. Even going as far as having plastic surgery.

We are going to have some interesting times ahead I think.

More images of robotics in Japan available at my archive site here

Later

Damon

 

Last Chance

Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo

Last night over 10,000 people, young and old, protested outside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence is a last ditch effort to halt the government’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution.  Article Nine is the heart of Japan’s “Peace Constitution” and forever removes the right to wage war from the nation. The law does, of course, allow for military action as self-defence and having failed to get support to remove the article itself Abe is now attempting a legal redefinition that will allow Japanese military forces to take part in Collective Self Defence. What this means basically is that Japan can join its allies in their wars even if the Japanese islands are not themselves in danger,

For many people in Japan, who are very proud of this pacifist law, this reinterpretation will mean that Japanese soldiers can once again be sent to fight wars and Article 9 effectively no longer exists.

Over half the country actively do not support this reinterpretation and around 76% believe the change has been rushed through the democratic processes (it is expected to be passed on July 1st) and more debate is needed.

Passions are running high on this subject. On Sunday, the day before the protests, a man set fire to himself on a bridge in Shinjuku after haranguing passing shoppers and tourists for an hour about his opposition to Abe’s plans.

The protests on Monday started at about 6pm and were meant to run until 8pm. As the finish time approached however the crowd of protesters were angrily pushing at the police barriers and challenging them They never quite got to the point of occupying the road in front the Prime Minister’s house though and dutifully allowed themselves to be pushed out of the way to allow cars and taxis in and out of the government buildings that line the road.

After the self-immolation in Shinjuku I had expected slightly more anger and urgency, a degree more intractableness, something in fact that would suggest they really wanted to cause Abe some discomfort and demand he change his mind and engage in the democratic process. But rather like the anti-nuclear protests there seemed to be a feeling that they had already lost. The younger people were angrier and carried on the protests late into the night but by 11pm most of the older people, that had swollen the ranks of  protesters earlier, had already gone home.

We will see what happens today.

I am writing this on the hop between jobs so will try and edit in more details later.

More images of the Article 9 protest in Tokyo at my archive site here:

Damon

You Looking At Me?

Softbank's pepper Robot in Omotesando, Tokyo, Japan

Softbank’s pepper Robot in Omotesando, Tokyo, Japan

Or Visa Versa?

A quick zip around, between meetings, to the Softbank store in Omotesando on Friday to photograph the latest robot Japan’s cutting robotics labs have produced.

Called Pepper it is billed as an emotional robot that can recognise faces and have “real” conversations with people.

Quite impressive but not really sure what is does other than provide limited friendships for the lonely.

It’s current usefulness is not the point though. This technology is still developing and all these quite amazing creations so far are just the evolutionary links on the way to a robot that is able to perform in a capacity, and with an identity,  that may allow us to interact with it in a human way.

Even in my lifetime the steps towards that goal have been monumental. Who can really predict where the next forty years will take us.

Well Professor Adrian Cheok has a go in this interview I did a few years ago.

More images of Japan’s robotics at my archive here:

later

Damon

Schools Swinging, Sights, Sodas, Sunsets and Satellite Dishes

Japanese School Sports Day Japanese School Sports Day

Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014A good day out on Friday, just wandering aimlessly around taking pictures of whatever I came across. Just like I used to do back when I shot photos while travelling. Indeed it did feel a bit like travelling again as, though I ended up in some familiar places like Azubu, Shibuya, Ebisu and Roppongi, I hadn’t been to some of them for quite a long time and it was good to see them fresh again. Istarted the day off with a visit to my sons’ school to watch them practising for their sportsday. You can see my Sola on the far left of the top picture.

It was a hot day and the Friday night ciders with good friends went down very well after a good day out.

Nothing much else to write, busy as always just wanted to share some shots.

Enjoy!

Damon

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