People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Yoshi Shimizu: Curiosity and the camera

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Yoshi Shimizu left Japan in 1976, when he was 18, to study hospitality management in Lausanne, Switzerland. Over 40 years later, he now lives about an hour’s drive from Lausanne in Geneva. The intervening years, however, were not spent working in Swiss hotels.

After finishing his studies in Switzerland, Shimizu had an offer to work at a hotel in Canada. He never got to take it though. While getting his English up to speed and applying for a Canadian visa in the U.S., he started a degree in business management in California. From this first detour, came a second, when he decided to sign on to an elective course in photography. Originally he had thought of it as a good way to avoid having to spend time in the classroom: “We only had to turn up once a week for a critique,” Shimizu tells me over the phone from Switzerland. Photography, however, soon became more engaging than business studies.

“Working in the darkroom was like meditation, just being myself and getting absorbed into the magic of making a print; it was an escape, in a way, from my chaotic life at the time,” he says. “I developed a passion for photography and, you know, when you have a passion for something you get better at it.”

Shimizu’s photography teacher noticed his skills and suggested he switch majors.

“I had no idea what photography was really about, I just really got into the magic of making prints.” Shimizu says of the experience. “If I felt something, I could capture it … that process was very exciting. I slept with a camera in my hand; it was a heavy, old Canon FT that my brother had given me when I left Japan.”

When he committed himself to photography, though, Shimizu was initially wary of letting his parents know: “I’d already given up moving to Canada. They were expecting me to come back to Japan,” he says. “We were typical middle, lower-middle class, from a rural area; even the idea of moving to a foreign country was inconceivable in those days. All my relatives were asking my parents why I had moved overseas, why hadn’t I stayed in Japan and started a business there?”

Now, as a photojournalist specializing in coverage of humanitarian crises, Shimizu has traveled to more than 90 countries. His next job, he says, will be in Kenya, photographing refugee camps. Thinking back to what motivated him to leave his hometown in Hyogo Prefecture, he recalls, “Curiosity was the only thing that made me move, one step, then two steps. … I remember on the way back from school, I would lie down somewhere and look up at the sky. I used to see the planes overhead and imagine that up there was a foreigner, and wondering where they were going.”

Curiosity may have been what first led Shimizu to Switzerland, but tenacity and bloody-mindedness enabled him to make a living as a photographer for the Red Cross, and other international NGOs and agencies in Geneva.

After his studies in California, he spent the late ’80s in New York, where he worked as an editorial and corporate photographer. Making CEOs look good on annual reports was not interesting, though, and getting more challenging projects was difficult in New York, where an abundance of creative people were competing for limited opportunities. Shimizu figured he should move to Geneva, the global hub of humanitarian organizations.

“I had to be pushy and aggressive; I contacted the director of communications at the International Committee of the Red Cross, kept calling him for months, maybe twice a week,” Shimizu says, remembering his desperation at the time. “I was always talking to his secretary, and I think in the end she told him to meet me just so I’d stop calling.”

The director looked at Shimizu’s portfolio and told him that they had no position for a photographer but, impressed with his eye for a good image, and his persistence, he said that he would try and find him some work. A month later Shimizu was offered a year-long contract.

It’s clear from the way Shimizu recounts this episode of his life that the months of uncertainty and unemployment were very tough for him, but he says, “It’s only at the cliff edge that you can find out what you are really capable of.”

Among the many projects he has worked on since then — which have included documenting the environmental disaster of the Aral Sea, the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the treatment of mental illness in developing countries around the world — documenting former child soldiers in Sierra Leone in 2001, Shimizu says, has had the most impact on him.

“It’s the only time I was overwhelmed. The suffering was so strong, I didn’t know if I should even be in the same room as them or not. For the first few days I couldn’t take any photographs, but eventually I asked who would allow me to photograph them,” he recalls. “Out of 70 people, 11 or 12 said yes. I didn’t have to ask them to pose; they looked straight at the camera and their personality came through. When they had to kill people they were drugged; they lost their childhood.”

“I used to carry around copies of National Geographic, and I gave a copy to one of the young veterans. He looked at the pictures and said — ‘Does this really exist? These places, they are so beautiful.'” Shimizu says, “Yes (I told him), they exist.'”

To see more of Yoshi Shimizu’s photography, visit www.yoshishimizu.com.

Profile

Name: Yoshi Shimizu

Profession: Photographer

Hometown area: Hyogo Prefecture

Age: 61

Key moments in career:

1976 — Studies hospitality management in Lausanne, Switzerland

1977 — Moves to U.S. to study business management

Late 1980s — Starts work as a freelance commercial photographer in New York

1995-2000 — Works as a staff photographer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, Switzerland

2000-present — Freelances as a humanitarian photographer

Things I miss most about Japan: “Japanese hospitality, the countryside and the culture.”

Things I love about Switzerland: “The view of the French and Swiss alps from the airplane approaching Geneva airport. No matter how exhausted I am, when I see the view coming back from assignment, I am instantly re-energized; it’s like instant meditation.”

Words to live by: “‘Do what you love to do,’ and ‘Seize the day.'”