With her Nikon camera, dozens of film rolls and a strong social conscience, photojournalist Natsuko Utsumi travels the world to capture the human face of the issues that shape public debate.
“I am taking pictures of people who need empowerment,” says the fortysomething Hyogo Prefecture native, who has been based in New York for most of her 20-year career.
While she has covered a wide range of issues, including fashion, politics and deforestation, most of her recent work focuses on women’s and children’s issues, including teenage motherhood, domestic violence, child abuse and anorexia. Her strong desire to photograph and reveal what’s happening has even taken her to war-ravaged Bosnia, where she covered victims of rape by soldiers during the conflict there.
The expressive eyes and the anguish on the faces of people that Utsumi photographs stare out from the pages of leading magazines, including Newsweek and Time. She has also worked as a regular contributor to the Japanese edition of Cosmopolitan.
The most challenging thing about her job, says Utsumi, is winning the confidence of the people she photographs, which can often be a time-consuming process. “True-to-life expressions come only after people start opening themselves to me, showing their inner sides and becoming unaware [that I am there with a camera]. Then it’s up to me to capture that moment,” she says.
While photographing victims of domestic violence, for example, Utsumi regularly visited a women’s shelter in Philadelphia over a period of many months.
However, she doesn’t always have time to get to know her subjects intimately. “When I’m covering breaking news, I must take the picture at that moment.”
There have also been cases where she’s been unwelcome, and she is careful not to push too far. “I think you need to respect people’s privacy to a certain extent,” she says.
Utsumi left Japan for New York in the 1980s, and she didn’t look back. Japan, for her, lacked enough interesting subjects for an aspiring photojournalist.
But she moved back to Japan in August last year to compile a book on her coverage of female genital mutilation in some African nations, including Uganda and Kenya. Japanese society, she says, is grappling with many problems of its own today, such as domestic violence, illegal drug use, homelessness and alcoholism — topics she covered elsewhere in the past. “Things get interesting when the pus comes out from society,” she says.
But taking journalistic pictures in Japan is hard, Utsumi says, because creating an atmosphere that can lead to a good photo can be difficult among Japanese people.
“I think it is common for Japanese to hide their embarrassment from other people, or to refrain from crying in front of others. They don’t open themselves up easily and that makes it hard for me to work,” she says.
In that sense, foreign photojournalists may be at an advantage here, Utsumi points out. She admits that being a foreigner has proved to her advantage while working overseas.
Utsumi’s last professional photos in Japan were taken in January 1995 — just after the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Utsumi was visiting her parents in Kobe when the temblor hit, devastating the building.
Although her journalistic instinct drove her to shoot photographs of the disaster, Utsumi says it was tough. “I had mixed feelings about taking pictures because I was a victim myself, and it was hard to point my camera at people who were traumatized.”
While Utsumi was covering the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake, her efforts to take pictures were met with hostility from some of the victims. Responses of this sort were not new to her, but she observes that Americans are perhaps more tolerant toward photojournalists in such situations.
Commenting on the current Japanese photojournalism scene, Utsumi notes an increase in talented Japanese photojournalists compared with when she started out. But she says that many of them are too timid. “They should step 50 cm closer to their subjects,” she says.
Japanese society is a far more interesting place to work now, says Utsumi. But she wants to avoid falling into the trap of focusing on subjects that have been covered too many times before. Utsumi feels the need to dig deeper and find her own approach to exposing what goes on, out of the public eye.
“I’m starting to feel that I’d like to take some pictures here,” Utsumi says. The question is whether her Japanese subjects will open up to her. Her book project keeps her in Japan till next summer, but this intrepid photojournalist is already getting restless. “I’m moving to Europe next, to continue my work in Africa and beyond.”