Photo-news loses its focus

by Mark Schreiber

Last August’s demise of Shinchosha’s weekly photo newsmagazine Focus marked a major publishing milestone in Japan.

When it was launched in 1981, Focus flaunted a bold new style, rejecting the B5 format and cheap newsprint used by most weekly magazines in favor of the larger A4 format on glossy paper. Its appearance was timely, just before the economic bubble began to swell. Magazine readers hungered for an upscale publication that matched their newly, affluent lifestyles. Yet, at the same time, it was eminently practical for urbanites; its short articles placed minimal demands on the reader, allowing it to be perused from cover to cover during a single morning’s commute.

At its peak — soon after its launch, and before competitors emerged — readers snatched up 2 million copies of Focus a week.

Its lively contents — visual, gossipy and immediate — spawned at least four flagrant imitations in the print media. Together, these became known as “3FET” — the first letters of Focus, Friday, Flash, Emma and Touch. (At present, only Friday and Flash are still being published.)

Focus had elan. Its appeal was owed, in part, to a derring-do not found in the lightweight publications featuring celebrity gossip and peepshow-style reporting. Its warts-and-all reporting pushed the envelope beyond what, up to then, had been regarded as the boundaries of privacy and good taste.

In one of Focus’ best-remembered stories, on June 18, 1985, nearly two dozen reporters and photographers had converged at the Osaka apartment of Toyota Shoji President Kazuo Nagano. His arrest, on charges of defrauding hundreds of elderly people out of their savings, was expected any moment. Suddenly two roughnecks appeared, announced their intentions to “kill Nagano” and proceeded to do just that, climbing into his apartment through a smashed kitchen window and slashing him with an army bayonet. The following week, Focus shocked an already-stunned nation by running Shuichi Masuda’s photo of the dying Nagano, his scalp split open and blood cascading down his face.

During the past half-decade, however, Focus’ weekly circulation declined to around 300,000 copies, and in announcing Shinchosha’s decision to halt its publication, without consulting the editor-in-chief, director Hiroshi Matsuda noted that the magazine’s accumulated deficits topped 1 billion yen, with losses of 300 million yen projected for 2001 alone.

Is Focus yet another victim of the ongoing recession?

“I don’t think so,” says Igo Yamamoto, who edited Focus for the last 3 1/2 years of its existence. “Although you might say there was some linkage to moves to cut costs.

“What beat us in the end, I think, was that the era for our kind of magazine just came to an end. Except for a few cosmetic alterations, very little else about Focus had changed from the earlier stage when we were selling 2 million copies a week. But it came to the point that we were no longer at the leading edge of change in society, and toward the end, Focus became buried among many porn-oriented weeklies and new media that offered faster access to visual information, such as via the Internet or the daylong TV ‘wide shows,’ which feature more sensationalistic qualities.”

Italian photographer Antonio Pagnotta, known for his controversial courtroom photos of Aum Shinrikyo’s leader, Chizuo Matsumoto, and for those of the Tokai nuclear accident he took after sneaking into the plant, feels one problem Focus had was the “poor artistic quality” of its pictures.

“It had a staff of senior, old-style photographers,” he says. “And it cultivated a trashy look for too long.”

Another problem, Pagnotta believes, was that low fees kept it from running photo scoops.

“Focus should have begun to rethink itself at least six years ago when it was still possible to reshuffle the staff. But they waited too long,” he says.

“It’s a pity, because it was fun to read.”

In the view of American photojournalist Everett Kennedy Brown, a fundamental difference of attitude exists toward photography and photographers in Japan and the West.

“With the exception of commercial photography, where the standards can be equal to that in the West, by and large the kinen shashin [commemorative photo] mentality is very strong in Japan. You see a lot of this in the Japanese weeklies — most of the photographs are simply snapshots, showing evidence of the ‘event,’ but having very little substance or textures of meaning.

“Some Japanese editors complain that the average reader does not have an ‘eye’ for sophisticated photojournalism, where the photos are comprised of various layers of meaning that convey a story the photographer wishes to portray.”

Brown believes that because most Japanese magazine editors are text- rather than graphic-oriented, photos are seen as playing a supporting role to the text, rather than standing on their own as a means of telling the story.

The result has become a surefire formula for reader boredom.

“Japanese magazine readers are no longer interested in scoop photos that are devoid of any real substance,” Brown asserts. “The photos are simply snapshots that the reader sees every week and has become bored with. These images hold no meaning other than a fleeting record of a moment. Weekly magazines as a whole numb the readers’ sensibility and intelligence.”

Although it served up plenty of peep shots exposing the secret lives of the rich and famous, Focus also ran the faces of several notorious criminals, which landed its publisher in trouble with the judicial authorities. In 1997 the magazine challenged a long-standing taboo against publicizing juvenile offenders when it ran a photo of the 14-year-old killer who had terrorized Kobe.

Others, however, were dubious in terms of their newsworthiness. Writing in the monthly journal Tsukuru, Hiroyuki Shinoda noted that Focus’ parent company had recently been ordered to pay 3.3 million yen in personal libel damages to Reiko Yamaguchi, the defendant in a Nagasaki murder-for-insurance trial, for having run a nude photo of her.

“Focus may have tried to justify the publication of photos of accused criminals as a form of social justice,” Shinoda writes, “and certainly some readers perused them with interest; but others may have been alienated, wondering what it would be like if they themselves were forced to undergo a similar trial by media.”

Some are wont to believe that certain events, Princess Diana’s death in particular, turned the public against paparazzi-style snapshots, but Italian photographer Pagnotta believes that little or nothing has changed.

“Despite the tragedy, huge media coverage has stimulated the readers’ hunger — making more people curious about celebrities’ private lives,” he says. “Take the ‘$1-million photo’ of Diana kissing Dodi Fayed; it set a new level for prices and a new set of rules in the photo market.”

Whatever the pros and cons of running expose photos, former Focus editor Yamamoto admits that they failed to boost circulation. But he rejects the charge that it alienated readers.

“I’ve got no regrets about what we did,” says Yamamoto. “And we believe about 80 percent of the readers supported our efforts.”

In his view, Focus tried its best to pursue exclusive photos that told the “whole story” and captured the “human nature” behind the news.

“We considered ways to modify the magazine and tried, but failed, to read the minds of the masses. I was firmly convinced that Focus should pursue its own original style, and I wasn’t willing to change it to resemble the ‘pink’ style found in the other weeklies.

“I decided that if we were to do that, it just wouldn’t be Focus anymore. It was better to let it go under. So I guess an era came to an end, in much the same way Life magazine ended its epoch-making role in the United States.”