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Small lives changed through the power of a photo

Kyoko Harada repays past kindness with animal welfare help

by Barbara Bayer

Special To The Japan Times

For over five years now, The Japan Times has run a weekly photo box featuring a cat or dog in need of a home, as well as success stories of animals that have been adopted.

Many of the pets have been rescued from horrific situations in which they had suffered abandonment, starvation, abuse, neglect or outright cruelty. Some have health issues, others a deep distrust of humans. All need loving, caring homes.

Many times, the photos are instrumental in finding those homes. Many of the portraits of the animals, indeed most of the best, have been taken by Kyoko Harada, a professional commercial photographer.

In 2006, Harada was prompted by the death of a close friend to approach Elizabeth Oliver, the founder of the animal welfare group Animal Refuge Kansai, and offer her services as a photographer.

Harada, who half-jokingly expresses fear of being labeled an “animal freak,” says her image of the people working in animal groups was one of “hysteric women.” Oliver, however, Harada remembers, “was British and didn’t seem hysterical, so I went there with some of my photographs, told her I wasn’t anyone to be wary of, and that I just wanted to help.”

Naturally, Oliver welcomed the offer. What she may not have known was that for Harada the offer was a personal “payback.”

“I’d always had cats and dogs as a child,” the Kawasaki native says, “and one dog in particular that lived to be 15 had helped me through a lot. She’d been there for me emotionally and I felt almost that I’d been raised by her. Because of her presence, I’d realized that I had a maternal instinct and a lot else about myself. I’d always wanted to do something to help repay her.”

It was through Harada’s main work as a commercial photographer that she was prompted to finally act on that intention. Strictly freelance, Harada’s work ranges from shooting clothing for catalogs to shots for billboards, advertisements in trains, magazine covers and CD jackets. “I’ll do just about everything,” she says.

She also does fashion shoots and works with celebrities, and was friends with singer Minako Honda, who died of leukemia in 2005 at the young age of 38. Honda was six years Harada’s junior and her death was a tragic reminder of mortality. “I’d always wanted to do something for animals and just thought, ‘Oh, some day,’ ” says Harada, “but when (Honda) died it made me feel I had to do something soon because, well, maybe I wouldn’t get the chance to do it later.”

Harada’s work for the ARK shelter has included, among others, a photo collection history book of the group, photos for its annual calendars, as well as many of the pictures on its website, and for The Japan Times. All her work is voluntary.

Harada’s website displays a number of examples of the work she has done professionally. But what she labels “lifework” on the site are the photos of animals she has done pro-bono. “Taking photos is my lifework, but my paying assignments are one-off things. If no work comes my way, if I don’t get offers, I don’t have work and can’t say I’m a photographer. But, with this particular lifework,” she says of the animals, “it’s something that no matter whether you have paying work or not, you can still do it.”

Work, to Harada, has always been divided into two types — “the kind you do for money and then build a life from the money you earn, and the kind of work that makes up your life. I’m more someone who wants to develop myself through my work. I wanted work that I would do until I died, not work I would retire from.”

In her childhood, she had been urged constantly by her mother, an ex-ballerina in an unhappy marriage, to “do what you enjoy in life.” Harada took it to heart, though initially photography was not something she considered.

“I liked photographs but didn’t want to be a photographer. I thought there were too many weirdos among them,” she says, laughing. At the same time, attempts at office work failed. “I just couldn’t do it. I tried over and over, but I couldn’t stand coming in to the office every day, at the same time, seeing the same people. I tried and there was a time when I wished I could be like others, but I just couldn’t. If I had forced myself to, I know I would become neurotic, a total neurotic mess.”

Work in the early days at an ad agency later led to her hooking up with a photographer setting up his own studio. Harada became his assistant and learned the ropes of commercial studio photography for four years, then took on work of her own before finally going freelance.

It was a move opposed by many of her friends and work mates, who questioned why she wanted such a “difficult life.”

” ‘Stay here and you can get married,’ they’d tell me,” Harada says. But she made the break and never questioned it again. That was over 20 years ago. “This is my happiness, doing something different every day, growing constantly through the new experiences and seeing how I’ve grown, what I bring to my work.”

And though the freedom to express herself is extremely restricted by the clients’ demands in commercial photography, “you’re still in the work no matter what. Not only the techniques, but the decisions you make at the set, how you cue someone and such. How you bring someone out. That’s all part of it,” she explains. “I am always thinking of how to get someone to trust me enough to want to come out. I think of what I can say and such. And the changes, how I grow in this respect, is something that makes me very happy in my work.”

It’s growth that has surely served her well when photographing animals, but exactly how is difficult to pinpoint and impossible to produce on demand. “It’s hard to say what I’m looking for in a picture; it’s like asking what is so beautiful about a certain landscape. But with the animals, I want to get their essence across, everything about them, who they are, their personalities, their stories. That’s the most important thing. It’s important to have pictures that are interesting on their own. Then again, sometimes you just need ones that are straight-on shots, pictures that will make someone want to come and see the animal.”

The shelter animals “have something different about them,” Harada has found. “Perhaps it’s a strong sense of self from what many have been through. They’re looking at you as if asking ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ That often comes out in the photo.”

Perhaps Harada sees the questions in the animals’ eyes because she herself understands what it’s like to wonder what the next day will bring. “Sometimes, I think about what a challenging life I have made for myself, how work could suddenly just stop coming and wonder what would become of me.” She claims she’ll “laugh off” such worries, but most of all, keep them to herself and keep a smile on her face. “I just think I’ll be OK. In fact, I keep telling myself, ‘I’m OK, I’m OK.’ And I feel things go pretty much as you think they will. It’s very simple. It’s some sort of ungrounded positive thinking,” she says, and chuckles.

Pressed further, she reveals that her philosophy is not as flippant as it may sound. Along with a strong sense of self-reliance, resilience, and confidence in herself and her work, her definition of “OK” is more an acceptance of whatever life brings her. “Being afraid of what could possibly come along is no way to live your life. Even if things were to get really tough, so bad I could die, well, it’s my life, so I’ll be OK with it.”

Some of Harada’s most memorable photographs have served as posters for ARK, such as the touching photo of a little girl holding her adopted puppy. Another, of a dog named Yu huddled against the wall in a corner, became the cover of the photo collection published in 2008. Yu had been rescued from a breeder’s tiny cage. His legs had grown deformed from spending eight months cramped into a space so small he could barely move. He was fearful of everything. When Harada clicked the shutter on her camera, she knew she had the “perfect” photo. “It was all there, everything about him. His look, the way he was backed up against the wall, the way his legs were.” Yu now lives happily in England.

“An animal’s life can change because of one photo,” Harada points out. “I think about that all the time. If the animal’s fate doesn’t take a turn for the better, my taking photos doesn’t mean much, is how I look at it,” she says. “Of course, I want them all to be helped, but that may be difficult. Still, I feel that if I don’t try, if I don’t go into the work with that kind of feeling, that I have no right to be taking their pictures.”

For more from Kyoko Harada, visit her website: www.kyoko-harada.tv/index.html