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BEST OF 2012, TK
Miyazaki, Japan
Project: On-going project to document the resettlement of a Kyrgyz Chinese family and observe what changes will be imposed on them and the community as their new home urbanizes as a result of the completion of the Kayi Expressway.

© Go Takayama

© Go Takayama

While traveling in China, Go Takayama picked up a local hitchhiker on the terms he could come along to the man's destination. There, he met an ethnic Kyrgyz Chinese family, now the subject of a documentary project addressing dramatic changes to the family's nomadic roots.

“This year, they begin a resettlement from their mud-and-thatch house in one of China's most culturally and ethnically intact minority communities,” Takayama explains. “Descended from generations of nomads, in the future they will be fixed within an urban community. This is an on-going project to observe the changes imposed as their new town urbanizes after China's completion of the world's largest highway network.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Go Takayama: After graduating from Ohio University in 2008, I completed two six-month internships at local newspapers and then began working as a freelancer in the summer of 2009.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

GT: Since participating in the 2011 Eddie Adams Workshop.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

GT: Photojournalism and long-term documentary projects.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tools?

GT: Mamiya’s 43mm and 65mm lenses, Canon 5D Mark II and MacBook Pro 15-inch laptop.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

GT: All of the above the gear.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

GT: It’s probably my motivation to choose China as the place to pursue my photography. For me, this is because a part of history always sits between Japan and China, keeping us separate. I wanted to come to China to better understand the country and its people. This reason helps me to shape and choose my photo projects in China.

ASMP: Please tell us about your image series, “The Edge.” Who are the native Kyrgyz Chinese and why are you interested in photographing them?

GT: I initiated my project “The Edge” to extend my understanding of China in a broader sense. During my first year in China, I began traveling to lower-tier cities along the eastern economic coast to photograph Han Chinese youth. That experience made me want to see China’s farthest edge, away from anything I had seen in those developed cities. This summer, I began the second part of “The Edge” along the river Heilongjiang (Amur). The project will continue as I explore my curiosity and China’s geographical limits.

The Kyrgyz Chinese are one of the Islamic minorities in China’s Xingjian Uygur Autonomous Region. They are generations of nomadic herdsmen who live at the western tip of China in the Tianshan Mountains. It’s one of the most intact ethnic minorities in the region. As the waves of development are marching westward in the region, the generations of nomadic herdsmen will now be fixed in an urbanized community.

ASMP: “The Edge” began by accident when you picked up a hitchhiker on the terms that you could follow him to his destination. There, you met a native Kyrgyz Chinese family and stayed with them for the remainder of your journey. Do you often find inspiration using such whimsical and spontaneous methodologies, or was this an exception to the way you generally work?

GT: I visited this place after doing my homework and research. Since this was a remote region where I couldn’t call or e-mail in advance and I didn’t know any fixers there, whether I would be able to meet my ideal subject was totally up to me. I was lucky.

ASMP: How long did you photograph this family, or are you still photographing them? Do you have a language in common? If not, how do you communicate?

GT: This project began in the summer of 2011 and I returned during the following winter, in 2012. The project continues, as I’m planning to go back for the family’s resettlement. One of the daughters studies Mandarin Chinese and she has been my helpful translator.

ASMP: How did you gain the native Kyrgyz Chinese family’s trust? Have you shown them the photographs you’ve made of them? If so, what is their reaction to the images?

GT: I ate their foods, slept under the same roof and willingly gave my help in whatever they needed me to do. My second visit got a lot better. I gave them prints from my previous trip. They brought these everywhere to share with their friends and relatives. This also introduced me to new friends and I was able to better explain why I was there and what I was doing. It was great to give something back to them for their hospitality.

ASMP: Your bio explains that you photograph with a lifetime goal of promoting the understanding of issues challenging Asian countries. What compelled you to make this the focus of your photography?

GT: Knowing that there is a part of history that always divides Japan and China and blocks the two from getting closer, I believe that photography can be shared and understood by both people. It also helps me to go back to my own roots and search for my identity.

ASMP: What first drew you to photography?

GT: I bought my first camera, an all-manual Ricoh, for about $200 dollars at a mall in Philadelphia. After that, I took my first black-and-white photography class at a community college. I believe that I was simply drawn to the aesthetic appeal of black-and-white fine art photography.

ASMP: You have dual bachelor’s degrees in photojournalism and political science from Ohio University. How have your political science studies influenced your work?

GT: I focused on studies of Asian and African politics in college, then I definitely shifted my curiosity toward China because of its complex political ideologies and history.

ASMP: What compels you to photograph complex and multi-ethnic cultures in China? What is your ethnicity? Where were you raised?

GT: I was born and raised in Japan and I moved to the United States when I was 18 years old. I am interested in having a broader and more well-rounded understanding of China. Until recently, the only aspect of China I knew or photographed was the Han Chinese and their life. I feel it’s necessary for me to explore the part of China I know nothing about.

ASMP: What equipment do you bring with you while travelling to these remote areas in China? Do the materials you travel with vary from one project to the next?

GT: My gear varies from one assignment to the next, but in working on “The Edge,” I work with the Mamiya 7II and 43mm, 65mm and 80mm lenses. I also bring the Canon 5D Mark II, the Zoom H4n audio recorder, a bunch of 120 film (Kodak Portra 400), a tripod and my Macbook Pro.

ASMP: You have attended several workshops over the years, both in the U.S. and abroad. What was the most important feedback you were given at any one of these workshops? How did that feedback shape your current photography practice?

GT: During an exhibition at the end of the Missouri Photo Workshop in 2009, held at a local library, one of Leon Wulfers’ daughters (Leon was my subject for the workshop) had tears running down her cheek when looking at her father’s photo hanging on the wall. When she thanked me with tears filling her eyes, I felt for the first time that what I did really meant something to someone. That unforgettable experience has grown inside me ever since.

ASMP: Does your approach to commercial assignments vary from that of your personal work?

GT: I don’t think it is different, in both cases I’m trying to gain my subjects’ trust. To gain trust from a subject is always my first priority.

ASMP: You have worked for major publications in both the U.S. and in Asia. Is there much difference in the way that U.S. companies and Asian companies do business with you?

GT: In both regions, I think that meeting up with editors and clients to present myself in person results in a better chance for receiving a call about an assignment.

ASMP: You documented the Japanese response to the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 in the series “Nature and Nurture.” How do you deal psychologically with taking in such atrocities? Do you ever find it difficult to continue making pictures when you witness such devastating scenes?

GT: I was first in Fukushima four days after the earthquake. On my first day, I went to Nihonmatsu, where evacuees from Namie-cho were staying (they had already changed their makeshift shelter three times) as they ran away from the unseen danger — the radiation. They were transferred to a shelter in an abandoned elementary school with neither running water nor a heating system, during the month of March in northern Japan. I stepped into the school, but the air inside was so heavy and depressing I couldn’t do any photography. Instead, I started to talk with them. It was harder than any of the assignments I had previously done. I knew the deadline and knew that I had to make a photo, knew I was there to tell their story, yet the more I spoke with them, it became harder to think that I was there for an assignment. I connected with them deeply; many of the elders there looked the same age as my grandmother. The few rice balls distributed as allocated foods were the same kind I ate everyday. The futon mattresses that lay on the hard and cold classroom floor were the same as I’d slept on. It was the same type of a classroom where I used to study, which had become their temporary home. I knew I was naïve, and it was my first time covering such a disaster. At the end of each day, I spoke with another Japanese photographer with whom I shared the hotel room we both used as a base. The conversation with him really helped me focus and carry out my assignment.

ASMP: In the text accompanying “Nature and Nurture,” you explain that many of the tsunami survivors refused to move away from their home, even if it was deemed unsafe. You attribute this to the fact that Japanese society is steeped in agricultural traditions, with strong ties to the land and the sea, and the belief that these ties will keep them alive. As a fellow Japanese, do you identify with this inclination?

GT: I left Japan when I was 18, and I’ve been moving around ever since. It’s not right to say that I fit in this inclination, but it did make sense to me. When I went to the Tohoku area after the earthquake and tsunami for an assignment, almost all the survivors told me they did not want to leave. First, this confused me because of the level of devastation. The place had nothing left. Then, one young tsunami survivor in Kesenuma told me “Shouganai” in Japanese (in English, this has a similar nuance to saying “It can’t be helped”). He lost his sister and mother in the tsunami. He wasn’t saying this out of total desperation or hopelessness; instead, he was at a fish market where he had begun cleaning up debris and mud, so he and the other fishermen had started to work again. That was just a few weeks after the disaster. I thought about the words in Japanese “Shizen ni Ikasareteiru.” An English translation is: “It’s not us in control of nature, but nature has kept us alive.” In Japan, where people often deal with fear of natural disasters such as an earthquake, tsunami or typhoon, I believe people live with their own beliefs that are nurtured in their relationship with nature.

ASMP: A project you began during a workshop in Cambodia, “Seven Color Princess,” is inspired by a Cambodian folk tale of the same name. Please tell us about this series and the ideas and/or story behind it. Why did you feel compelled to begin this project?

GT: I’m always inspired by the folk tales and narratives of different regions or counties. These give me hints about the indigenous beliefs, culture and people, even though I’ve never been there before. I knew nothing about Cambodia or Siem Reap, the city where I was invited to join the Angkor Photo Workshop. Prior to the workshop, when I started to look for and research my story, I was connected to a good friend of mine, who was a Cambodian native. I asked him whether he knew any Cambodian folk tales, and he referred me to a group of students from a Japanese university, who conducted research for a Japanese translation of the Cambodian folk tale “Seven Color Princess.” After I received a copy of their translation, I decided to do my project based on the story.

ASMP: In the midst of shooting “Seven Color Princess,” you were apprehended and imprisoned by the local Cambodian police, accused of shooting pornography, when in fact you were just making consensual portraits of a married couple posing topless. What was your first reaction when approached by the police? Given the benefit of hindsight, would you react differently now?

GT: (The girl wasn’t completely topless. She took her T-shirt off and kept her bra on.) My first reaction was to think I would be mugged. The policeman was very muscular and he wasn’t in uniform. He didn’t tell me who he was until he pushed me back into the room with the couple. If there was something I would do differently, it would be to change my mindset and approach. At that time, I was so blind, careless, and selfish that all I saw was what I wanted and I was driven by my ego to make a photo to complete my series. I did not try to see the potential consequences, and also I didn’t really care much about the couple and what could happen to them. That was my biggest mistake.

ASMP: According to your Web site, “Seven Color Princess” is still a work-in-progress. Have your experiences in being detained while shooting this project made it more difficult for you to go back and finish this series? Did this occurrence change your vision for the work?

GT: I want to complete the project but I’m not exactly sure what it will look like. If I went back, I would definitely want to meet the couple and all the people who generously helped my case.

ASMP: Have you faced other situations where you were questioned or detained by authorities while working on a project, or has your work ever been censored? Based on your experiences in Cambodia do you have any advice for other photographers who might find themselves in a similar circumstance?

GT: My experience in Cambodia is the only one so far, and I hope it will be my last. During my detention, I was warned by an international authority not to make more “noise” outside of Cambodia (mainly in the U.S. and Japan), where my dear friends and generous supporters were writing, calling and e-mailing to Cambodian and Japanese embassies, trying to do whatever they could to help my case. While some didn’t like that kind of attention, it definitely did help my case. It was an article written and published by Donald Winslow of National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) that caught the attention of the Cambodian Minister of Information, Khieu Kanharith. The NPPA article (based on information from my spokespeople, Jessica Lim and Wakako Iguchi, the workshop supporters) differed from what a local newspaper published about my situation (probably just information gathered from the local police). After this article came out, information minister Kanharith began his own investigation. In the end, his letter, which was sent to the court, helped get my charges dropped. When I spoke with Mr. Winslow by phone after everything was over he told me that Mr. Kanharith had his own experience in being detained on a wrongful charge when he was a journalist.

ASMP: Creating a series inspired by a folk tale is very different from covering hard news or documenting the native Kyrgyz Chinese family being forced to move. Does editing the images for “Seven Color Princess” differ from your photojournalism assignments?

GT: Yes, I took a totally different approach. The project “Seven Color Princess” was pure self-expression. I think that “I” was the center of that work. It centered on my feelings about and interpretation of the story.

ASMP: Which photographers do you most admire and why? What do you feel is their most important contribution to the medium of photography?

GT: Many — it’s very hard to mention a few, but Darcy Padilla, Monika Bulaj, Carolyn Drake and Lynn Johnson. Taking just one example, when I saw Darcy Padilla’s “The Julie Project,” I understood why photography can be so powerful and is an applicable medium for telling such a compelling lifelong story.

ASMP: Have you explored in the past, or do you have an interest to incorporate in the future, motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense, as well as the relationships between various components.

GT: I’ve done a few multimedia projects back in college and during my internship at a local newspaper. Then I stepped back from it for a while, because I only wanted to focus on photography. It was also to challenge myself to see if I could establish myself as a photographer. After living in China for two-and-half years, I think there are some stories that would be better told by including the subject’s own voice. Like I was taught back in college, I believe that it’s up to us to choose which medium to work with in telling the best of what we want to tell. The tools are available. I believe that we just have to think about the outcome we want to achieve and decide which medium or mediums will tell the story best.