With soldiers silhouetted against dramatic desert sunsets, or helicopters swooping over cityscapes, most mainstream-media photographs we see of the war in Iraq are nothing if not models of artistic composition and taste.
For the most part, though, they are also devoid of the human tragedy that everybody knows is happening there minute by minute.
One view in the news industry has it that readers should be spared the depressing details.
Then there is Ryuichi Hirokawa’s view.
Hirokawa, 60, a photojournalist with nearly four decades’ experience reporting political hotspots, has laid down his camera for now to launch Days Japan, a Japanese-language monthly magazine that shoves the war in Iraq and other serious issues, such as Hansen’s disease and domestic violence, right in its readers’ faces.
On the cover of the inaugural April issue there was a photo of an Iraqi man cradling his 9-year-old niece, whose right leg has been shredded by a cluster bomb. (The tatters of her foot, hanging by a tendon from a leg bone stripped of flesh are plainly visible in an uncropped version of the photo inside the magazine.) Also included are bleak images from war-torn Chechnya by James Nachtwey, and of starved desert wanderers in Mali by Sebastiao Salgado; both photojournalists are among the best-known in the world.
Such photos may shock, says Hirokawa, but anything milder amounts to cheerleading for war or turning tragedy into entertainment.
A controversial view, certainly, but Hirokawa’s opinions are founded on firsthand experience few could rival. In addition to decades of photographing war and other strife (he visited Iraq three times last year) he has also made numerous television documentaries and written both fiction and nonfiction books on issues including guerilla campaigns against Israel, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and AIDS.
In 1982, his photos from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon — taken immediately after a massacre there by Israel-supported Phalangist Christian militia forces — won him the Yomiuri Shimbun’s Shashin Taisho photo award, just one of a long list of coveted journalism honors that have made him a legend among Japanese photojournalists.
In this recent interview with The Japan Times, Hirokawa is harshly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. However, he also tells how, after graduating in sociology from Waseda University in 1967, he moved to a kibbutz there to work and study Hebrew, only returning to Japan in 1970. Of his three children, two — born to Israeli-born former wife Ruti Yoskovici — are, like their mother, Jewish.
Why did you start Days Japan?
I realized that war victims’ stories weren’t being reported, and I couldn’t accept that. After 9/11, Japan offered its support to the United States. Ultimately, Japan took the side of the invader in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And the media companies that reported the outcome — the destruction wrought by these invasions — were few and far between.
I particularly felt that way when I was in Afghanistan. There were play-by-play broadcasts about U.S. bombing campaigns, but nobody reported anything about the human destruction they left in their wake.
What do you think about the practice of embedded journalism, in which specially accredited reporters accompany allied military units?
I disdain embedded journalism. During the fighting in Afghanistan, there were embedded reporters from around the world present. But in the refugee camps I visited I was told I was the first foreigner ever to come there. The Afghan people were suffering greatly: There were no doctors and there was no food, yet journalists who were so close just passed on by. Almost nobody reported at the refugee camps; embedded journalists had no interest in the camps.
Major Japanese media were completely uncurious about the situation there. Rather, they used all their air time for broadcasts of the bombing raids. Play-by-play broadcasts of Tomahawk missiles being launched do not constitute war reporting. I believe war reporting is showing what a Tomahawk does. But nobody’s showing that.
Who do you think makes that decision — the individual embedded journalists, or the major media who employ them?
It’s both. It’s not just the [major Western media]; it’s also Japanese TV bureaus and newspapers. At some newspapers, reports about refugees and other victims of war don’t go any further than the editing desk; they get stopped there. They’re not considered to be stories. That’s not the case at all newspapers; some of the bigger ones aren’t like this.
Why are such stories not used?
This is how the thinking goes: A newspaper supports the war and finds it justified. Hence, victims are a nuisance and should be kept off the page.
The stories are not considered necessary. If by showing readers that the war in which they are participating is yielding victims, the readers will know that this war is a mistake.
For example, I learned of a staff reporter at one major Japanese newspaper who tried to suggest a story about war victims, only to be told, “We don’t need it.” The reporter was told that even if the story were filed, it wouldn’t run.
Have you heard similar accounts from journalists working for foreign organizations?
Yes. You see, this has to be painted as a “just war,” and if too many civilian casualties get reported it won’t be considered a just war anymore.
In the photographs you select for Days Japan, there is a strong sense of lyricism both in your own work and that of Sebastia~o Salgado and James Nachtwey. However, some people object to making art out of human suffering. What is your view?
Maybe they think this is nothing more than art. Take this photo, for instance.
[Hirokawa points to an image of a man in a hospital bed, motioning anxiously with his arm. According to Hirokawa, the man and his family were shot at by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint in southern Iraq while sitting in their car.]
This man’s four children were killed. He told the story of how he ended up this way while I snapped away with my camera. I never told him to pose this way or that. When his movement was most expressive, I pressed the shutter.
I’ve never met anyone who only thinks of this as art.
In your writings, you have come out strongly against the war in Iraq. This contrasts diametrically with the U.S. view that the war is warranted . . .
Not all of America believes that; it’s the U.S. government. At the outset of fighting in Iraq some 70 percent of the people thought it was necessary. But few Americans have seen war photography like that shown in Days Japan. They’ve barely seen any photos of the victims.
Granted, but the U.S. administration also points to the “rape rooms” and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Of course. There were those things and much more. There was also the slaughter of Shiites. That’s given. But that’s also absolutely no reason to drop bombs on the children seen here in my photographs.
Military officials often say “collateral damage” is unavoidable in war. What is your view?
Well, if that’s the case, let’s take the example of some U.S. weapons factory somewhere in California. What if an enemy engaged in war against the U.S. were to target one of those with a projectile and it happened to hit surrounding homes causing lots of death? Would the U.S. call those deaths collateral damage?
The one who’s doing the killing may say that civilian casualties are unavoidable. But when he’s the one being killed, be it America or anybody else, it becomes unacceptable. This way of thinking makes light of other people’s lives.
Or consider Afghanistan, where the population is 70 percent women and children. Let’s say there is one Taliban fighter in a house somewhere, and the U.S. military drops a bomb on that house. Seventy percent of the other people in that house are going to be women and children. Can you really say that to kill one person you must also kill all those women and children because, hey, that is simply the way war goes? This is how I interpret collateral damage.
Back to Iraq. Was there any better way to get rid of Saddam Hussein than how it was done?
It’s a very difficult question. Either way, though, no matter how bad a dictatorship may be, no matter how bad the politics of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, it was obviously no justification for bombing the people you see in my pictures. That is common sense in an international society.
You see, Afghanistan was not really a war. Iraq was not a war. In both cases, the conflict between military powers was on an extremely limited scale. The bombs fell on civilians. The same was true of Lebanon. They engaged in fierce carpet bombing, and the victims upon whom those bombs fell were common people. Is that war? No, in reality it’s nothing but bombing. Those who refer to these conflicts as “wars” are lying to us.
The places I have seen with my own eyes, what was going on there was not war. It was only the ruins left by bombs. This was just people dropping bombs and people being killed one after another.
How did you become interested in the problems of Israel and Lebanon?
I was working at the kibbutz farm and nearby there were some ruins. There are lots of ruins in Israel, dating from the Crusades and the Roman period and such. I asked people what those ruins were, but nobody would tell me. Then about a year later, a Jewish friend showed me a map dating from before Israel’s birth [in 1948]. Looking at it, I discovered that the place where I had been working was marked with the name of a Palestinian village. That’s how I discovered the connection between the farm where I worked and the Palestinians who once lived there but were driven out — not to be allowed back.
As it happens, war broke out at that time. The year was 1967, the year of the Third Middle-East War [more commonly known as the Six-Day War]. While I was working at the kibbutz, Israeli soldiers returning from the war told me, “We fought a just fight and we won it.” That was the general mood among Israelis.
As someone from Japan, I felt this was very peculiar because we had learned from losing World War II that there is no such thing as a just war. No matter how many reasons there may be to wage a war, inevitably children and other civilians will be killed. Hence, war is not good but evil.
Did you lose faith in the kibbutz?
The kibbutz had been my dream. So many good things were being practiced there. There was no wage labor, children were raised by the entire community, prejudice didn’t exist.
But where was my kibbutz built? It was built on other people’s land. That wasn’t the case with all kibbutzim, but the location where I worked had once belonged to Palestinians.
You reported the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The defense minister at the time, who approved the entry of the Phalangists into the camps, was Ariel Sharon. The same man is now the Israeli prime minister. What is your view of this?
First off, it is important to understand that Israelis did not order the killing of the people of Sabra or Shatila. But they did permit the killers to enter the areas. The Israeli military was occupying Beirut at the time and controlled all the entryways to the refugee camps and allowed the Lebanese militia entry — and the militia went on to kill vast numbers of people.
Naturally, Israel shares responsibility. But to say that Israel killed children there would be incorrect.
How long did the killing go on?
It started on Sept. 16 and concluded on the morning of the 18th. I didn’t witness the slaughter itself, but found my way inside to the killing grounds after the fact.
It is widely reported that parts of Iraq are polluted with depleted uranium. Did that worry you when you were there?
I’ve shot in Chernobyl, so I know what fear of radiation means. I always feel the fear of radiation.
I’ve seen plenty of children collapse from radiation sickness in Chernobyl, and whether it is Chernobyl or Iraq the situation is the same: Nobody acknowledges that they were made ill by radiation. Neither the military, nor the governments of the United States or Russia in the case of Chernobyl admit it. Because if they do, it’ll make it harder to build nuclear reactors.
But the U.S. officially maintains that depleted uranium is safe, doesn’t it?
That is a complete lie.
In Iraq, do you think people have been irradiated by DU?
I visited many such people at hospitals. At hospitals near where DU was employed, the incidence of leukemia is tens of times higher than at other locations.
Have you ever been really afraid while working in a war zone?
I have. For example, there was the time I was being pursued by an Israeli tank — that was frightening. In Lebanon, there were shots all around and I was scrambling to get away. I was shot at in Gaza. They didn’t hit me but . . . do you know rubber bullets? There’s a kind with an iron pellet in the middle. I was hit in the elbow by one of those, and I couldn’t rest my elbow against a table for two years. It was fired by the Israeli military in Ramallah.
I feel fear. But the ones most fearful are those Palestinian people who live in the area. Because of curfews they can’t leave. Some people get shot when they poke their heads out on the veranda. I get scared, but there are people much more afraid.
Somebody reading this interview may think you are anti-Jewish. Are you anti-Semitic?
Of course not. Some rightwing Israelis may say that anybody who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic, but I say that is mistaken. What I’m against is Israel’s policy of occupation.
When you return to Japan and review your photographs, do you ever cry?
I feel indignation. But because of that feeling of indignation I go out and report again.
I felt the same thing at the grave of a Jewish child killed in a suicide bombing. Child victims are child victims. And if you don’t look at the root cause of violence you cannot prevent its recurrence. As far as I’m concerned, that root cause is the occupation that began in 1967. If the occupation ends, these things won’t happen.
Do you have nightmares?
After Sabra and Shatila, when I got back to Japan, I couldn’t sleep well for a very long time — maybe four or five years. I had dreams. To sleep, I had to drink lots of alcohol. Now I don’t drink much.
They launched flares above the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while they shot their guns below. From the distance I watched the flares flutter slowly, slowly downward.
They kept reappearing in my dreams, together with images of dead children. For four years, I couldn’t eat meat. The smell of cooked meat reminded me of the smell of rotting or burnt human flesh . . . I couldn’t go to a yakitori shop. It’s not completely the same smell, but nevertheless, I felt like vomiting. I’ve got over that now.
But do you cry?
I do cry. When I’m on site it happens a lot, like in Iraq, when the bombs were falling, when I visited the hospitals and saw the children.
Considering all the problems we’ve discussed, what are your expectations for Days Japan?
At its current scale, I think the magazine will be able to exert some influence on the major Japanese media. In terms of Japanese society at large, though, I think it’s still early.
Our message is: “You get one image from the big media, but this is what’s really happening.” And as I look at the media’s choice of photos in recent days, I get the sense that we’re already achieving results.