National

Journalist shines light on suffering

Photographer brings world's marginalized into sharp focus

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

An up-and-coming photographer who won plaudits for her work documenting the suffering and survival of socially marginalized people around the world has drawn together eight years of travel and experiences into a new book.

“Human Dignity” by Noriko Hayashi, 30, contains reports on her work and 40 photos, including portraits of an HIV-positive Cambodian woman and young Pakistani women whose faces were disfigured by acid attacks.

“I have tried to record the stories of those living on the fringes of society through these photographs,” Hayashi said.

Hayashi’s career started in 2006, when she interned at a local newspaper in Gambia, West Africa, while studying at a U.S. college.

Together with the paper’s reporters, she covered international conferences, trials and sports events with her camera and also visited a brothel district to gain a deeper understanding of such issues as poverty and child labor.

“The Gambian journalists walked around town day and night, although they were working under restrictions on press freedom, in the belief that what they were doing was meaningful,” she said.

Hayashi next visited Liberia, also in West Africa, in 2007 to cover the harsh situation facing refugees in the civil war-weary country.

While she was there, she took a picture of a 14-year-old female refugee with a 2-year-old son who earned a living through prostitution. She eventually felt she hadn’t done enough to convey the girl’s story.

“The photo retains my own memory of her, but it does not sufficiently show what her daily life was like,” Hayashi said in the book. “I should have stayed with her over a period of time to show through photos how she cared for her son and how she came into contact with her customers.

After returning to Tokyo following graduation, Hayashi did not take a regular job, remembering the way the Gambian journalists had relished the challenge of working despite the restrictions they faced.

Financing her shooting trip through part-time work, Hayashi headed to Cambodia in 2009, where she met with an 8-year-old deaf boy called Bunheng, who had contracted HIV in the womb from his mother Chariya, who herself had been infected by her ex-husband. The boy lived with Chariya and his grandmother Rochom.

“As I wanted to report how they faced the disease, I asked them to allow me to stay at their home,” she said. After they got used to her presence, she was able to take photos of them going about their normal lives.

When she revisited the family in 2011, Chariya was already dead, while Bunheng, still living with Rochom, had stopped attending school. They earned a living by collecting empty cans.

“People may feel disturbed at the idea of a Japanese person hanging around a little Cambodian boy and an old woman to take pictures of them collecting empty cans,” she said. “But I think it would have been just negligent of me if I had become hesitant to take those pictures.”

“I’m not so optimistic to believe that photos can change an individual’s life or society, but I do believe I will be able to present something invaluable if I spend time to take pictures of a person, a family or a community.”

Hayashi’s work began to draw public attention around 2010, and she has held a number of photo exhibitions in Tokyo since.

On another trip, she stayed in Kyrgyzstan in 2012 to cover bride kidnappings, in which men abduct young women for forced marriages. She captured both the scenes of the kidnappings and the expressions of the women as they were married.

The trip was a major turning point as her work won the top award for feature reporting at an international photo journalism festival in France, the Visa pour L’Image Festival, in 2013.

Hayashi, however, faced a dilemma while covering the bride kidnappings: Should she help the kidnapped women if they request assistance?

In one case, she passed on the pleas of a kidnapped woman who wanted to return to her home to a local nongovernmental organization and police.

“Some people say even a journalist should offer a helping hand to them, while others argue it reveals a lack of professionalism,” she said. “There can be no correct answer, but I can say now that I would do the same if I faced the same situation again.”

The book also refers to how she covered the northeastern areas damaged by the triple calamity of March 2011.

“In shooting the disaster-affected areas, I wanted people even several decades later to understand the devastating situation the area faced” from the quake, tsunami and radiation.

As a freelancer, Hayashi undertakes photo assignments mainly from the foreign media to cover the costs of pursuing her own interests.

She is next looking to cover the daily lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan “because people do not know much about them, although they are quite close to us.” She also plans to focus on human trafficking, mainly in West Africa.

The 254-page book is published by the Tokyo-based Iwanami Shoten Publishers. Her first photo collection on bride kidnapping will be published in June.