A collection of nearly 300 images captured by renowned photographer Akihiko Okamura are on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, chronicling a career that drew international attention following his critically acclaimed coverage of the Vietnam War over half a century ago.
Okamura, a former medical student, began his career as a photojournalist in 1962 while working in Thailand. Then 33, he had drifted through a wide variety of different jobs, including work as a clerical assistant at a monastery and as a rights activist for Japan’s socially ostracized “burakumin” communities.
He shot to fame in June 1964 when the U.S. magazine Life carried his photographs of the Vietnam War as part of a nine-page feature. Buoyed by the success, he continued traveling around the world, covering the conflict in Northern Ireland as well as the Biafran War in Nigeria.
An interest in bioethics that emerged later in life led him to become an ardent supporter of the hospice movement prior to his death from blood poisoning in 1985 at the age of 56.
The Tokyo Museum of Photography has conducted a comprehensive study of some 50,000 photos left behind after his death to put together its exhibition, which is titled “All About Life and Death.”
“We worked to identify when and where these photos were shot and who appears in them by cross-checking the images with his chronology and other related documents,” said Masako Toda, a photo history researcher involved in the project.
More than 80 percent of the exhibit is make up of previously unpublished works, according to Toda, who is also a lecturer at Musashino Art University in Tokyo.
The show of 282 photos comprises 182 color images and a further 100 in monochrome. It is divided into seven sections — each corresponding to a distinct shift in the focus of Okamura’s attention
The first part, “On the Street at War,” is a collection of chaotic scenes from Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called, in the early 1960s, such as demonstrations against the pro-U.S. government.
The second section, “Into the Battlefield,” is a record of Okamura’s activities while working as an embedded reporter with South Vietnamese government forces, documenting a series of harsh battles fought against the National Liberal Front for South Vietnam.
During this period, Okamura was able to clinch an interview with the second-highest NLF official. The interview in 1965 resulted in him being banned from South Vietnam for five years.
Other sections of the exhibition show how he explored the background of wars in regions with a colonial history, such as South Korea and Okinawa, and reveal how he viewed people in conflict-affected regions such as Northern Ireland and Dominica.
While covering the Biafran War, he shot a noted photo of a rebel soldier collapsing after being hit in the chest by Nigerian machine-gun fire. He noted later that “the photo certainly chronicles a real segment of the war in Biafra, but I felt depressed as I thought I was profiting from this man’s death.”
“We expect young people in particular to learn through his photos how Okamura viewed wars, at a time when we face various conflicts around the world,” Toda said.
Okamura’s photographic eye also fell on the roots of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the descendant of Irish immigrants who, as president, escalated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Okamura eventually settled near Dublin with his family, using it as a base for his international activities.
Referring to his later involvement with the hospice movement, Toda said, “It was because he settled in Ireland, the birthplace of hospice, and also because he was a medical student as well as a war correspondent who kept thinking about the meaning of death. I think various factors were behind his interest in hospices.”
The museum also displays Okamura’s photos on the 1966 crash of an All Nippon Airways jet off Tokyo’s Haneda airport, including memorable shot of a stack of coffins prepared for the victims.
The exhibition runs through Sept. 23. For further information, call the museum at 03-3280-0099.
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