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Camera Grandma’s photos document Gifu village’s demise

Chunichi Shimbun

Izu Photo Museum in Nagaizumi, Shizuoka Prefecture, is exhibiting the work of late amateur photographer Tazuko Masuyama on the Tokuyama Dam in Gifu Prefecture, where a small village vanished under the waters of a reservoir decades ago.

Titled “Until Everything Becomes a Photograph,” the exhibition started Oct. 6 and runs through March 2.

Masashi Kohara, who is in charge of the exhibition, said, “We have been wanting to exhibit her work since we opened the gallery.”

Since its establishment in 2009, the gallery has displayed works by famous photographers, including Nobuyoshi Araki, while turning the spotlight on lesser-known photographers at the same time.

Photos of Meiji Era geisha and peasants became popular among foreigners as souvenirs from Japan, and at one point, besides examples of these, the museum even had on display a portrait of a 19th-century British woman, together with a sample of her hair.

“The photos taken by famous artists and traded in the art market only constitute 1 percent of all photos ever taken in the world,” said Kohara.

“It is not exactly a fair representation of what is art. The remaining 99 percent come with their own stories, which explain the social environment in which they’re created and how the people defined photography back then,” he added.

Kohara differentiates these works from the well known ones by calling them “small shots”.

The photos taken by Masuyama with her Konica C35EF compact camera is one prime example. Dubbed the “Camera Grandma”, Masuyama was born in 1917 in the former village of Tokuyama, which vanished under a reservoir when the Tokuyama Dam was built.

When plans to construct the dam began to take shape in 1977, she started photographing the village and local residents.

She firmly believed that “once the country decides to do something, be it starting a war or building dams, it will definitely happen.”

Even after residents had abandoned the village and Masuyama had relocated to another part of Gifu Prefecture, she continued to return “home” and take photographs until she passed away at age 88 in 2006. By then she had accumulated a collection of 100,000 negatives and 600 albums.

“At the time, there were debates among local residents regarding the plans for the dam and village, but Masuyama was not afraid to stand up and take action by photographing the events, eventually developing the persona known as Camera Grandma,” explained Kohara.

“She captured the events of life on her camera as she experienced it and that makes her as qualified as any photographer, in my opinion,” he added.

Kohara, who was born in Aichi Prefecture, is also an active filmmaker. As a child, he visited Tokuyama village because his father was a close friend of Michihiro Shinoda, the village schoolteacher. Shinoda organized small academic conferences to discuss the village’s future.

Although he cannot remember anything about Masuyama, Kohara went through her photo collection to prepare the exhibition.

“Armed with just a small camera, she fought against the country and the dam to keep the memory of the village alive. I see her as a person driven by the goal of capturing everything that was happening and then meticulously recording it in her photo album,” Kohara said, praising Masuyama’s actions.

“There are many records of Tokuyama because the dam drew a lot of media attention, but many other villages were destroyed during the period of high economic growth, either for financial reasons or for river conservancy for cities located downstream, and left forgotten,” he said.

Kohara went on to explain that “the same can be said for nuclear power plants.”

“The government made small villages dependent on subsidies, thus preventing them from becoming independent or opposing the plants. We still see the same system in place even after the Great East Japan Earthquake (of 2011).”

“I hope that through the works of Masuyama, visitors can see that this problem is not limited to Tokuyama but pertains to current society as well,” Kohara said. “I think there are many things to be learned from photographs, especially after the earthquake.

“The photos may only show the past, but it’s only through the past that we can see the present and the future.”

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Oct. 1.