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English teachers photographed in anthropologically minded study

by Edan Corkill

If aliens were to arrive in Tokyo wanting to document its inhabitants, they might end up taking photos like those now on show at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Front view. Side view. Neutral lighting. High resolution to catch all the details in the subjects’ faces. Of course, whether or not the aliens would focus solely on English teachers is another question. But Gary McLeod, the 30-year-old British artist behind the FCCJ exhibits, had his reasons.

McLeod sees the current crop of young men and women from English-speaking countries who take a few years out to teach English in Japan and elsewhere as the inheritors of an age-old tradition: Like sailors of yesteryear, he told The Japan Times, “they have a desire to see the world.” Of course, sailors of yesteryear also made copious records of their journeys, taking photographs, for example, to document the inhabitants of faraway lands.

McLeod has decided to turn that documenting camera around, and photograph not the “natives,” but the “nomads.” And to emphasize the historical connection, he has imitated the front- and side-view compositions preferred by 19th century documenters.

So, were Tokyo’s teacher-nomads happy to have their photos taken?

“They were very accommodating,” McLeod reported. “A lot of them saw this as a chance to be remembered as an English teacher,” he added, explaining that otherwise their years here would be quickly forgotten. McLeod’s lens offered a shot at genuine permanence, too: His photos will be donated to the Natural History Museum in London.

McLeod has also recorded some of the teachers’ experiences. “I just wanted some adventure really,” says one. “I can’t really imagine going home now,” says another.

Others still took the opportunity to vent some frustrations. “You know, the whole you-have-to-be-there-for-appearances -even-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-anything thing. You’re sort of purposeless a lot of the time,” reported one.

Maybe that’s why many English teachers end up pursuing their own projects on the side. McLeod has been busy taking photographs, but why did he first come to Japan? “To teach English,” he said. “I was on the Nova boat!”

“Privilege: Photographs of English teachers in Japan,” continues at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan until Aug. 28. Admission is free. Call (03) 3211-3161 or visit www.fccj.or.jp or for details. The exhibition will also be displayed at Zuishoji Art Projects near Tokyo’s Shirokanedai Station, Sept. 17-23. See www.garymcleod.co.uk