Shiho Fukada speaks with an accent about which she's shy; it conjures an image of a young, diminutive Japanese woman—which makes no sense when you see her photography. Her bold, stunning images depict stories in exceedingly dangerous environs. Fukada's career is like that. She's a photographer for whom the rules don't apply.
Ironically, it was the language issue that was, in part, responsible for her pursuing photography. “I gravitated toward photography,” she says, “[because] it doesn't matter if I speak English well.”
Fukada passionately loves to tell stories visually. Her work is incredibly compelling in the way that she becomes a part of the environment that she's shooting. This provides uncommon, almost uncomfortable access for the viewer. For her subjects, that access is granted much more through Fukada's attitude toward them rather than the awkward juggling of dialogue.
Her approach is one of sincere gratitude toward the people who let her into their lives. This serves as a brilliant social bridge that creates an immediate trust. If you try to honestly become part of the lives you're photographing, it diminishes any sense of objectification that the camera can sometimes cause. Given the intimacy of Fukada's imagery, it's easy to see that she's onto something. When she tells me that she picked up a camera for the first time six years ago, I have to pause for a second for a reality check.
Through The Jungles You Can Go, In Books
An adventurer at heart, Fukada has no inhibitions about the environments to which she's exposed when shooting her stories, many of which are inherently dangerous. A story about child labor in Bangladesh put Fukada in the middle of hazardous chemical conditions. Another story on ostracized transgender males in India had her navigating a shanty encampment in a destitute area of the city. Fukada's willingness to travel where most would fear to tread is a realization of a dream that started with photography books.
The fashion company where Fukada worked always was in a frenetic state, preparing for New York's annual fashion week. Officemates raced past Fukada's cubicle, totally unaware that she often was lost in a mini-safari. Fukada was addicted to editorial photography. Escapism was provided by a photography book on the African continent.
In spite of her formal education in Japan as an English major and her career path as an account executive in fashion advertising, Fukada was feeling the pull of visual storytelling. Her desire to make a transition to videography or photography, however, was muddled by her father's happiness that she had become a successful businesswoman, an expectation that he had for his daughter ever since she was a child.
Although at 26 years old she was living her father's dream, her departure to New York was a little surprising for Fukada's family. Her father, ever optimistic that she'll return to live in Japan again, vigilantly looks for corporate jobs in Tokyo on her behalf. Understandably, he worries when she's on assignment. He calls her often, occasionally in a state of “freaking out,” as she puts it. Whenever she has a phone conversation with her father when she's safely back at home, he dutifully maintains his campaign to get her back to Japan by alerting her to the job opportunities he has discovered.
“He has a picture of me in his head as a businesswoman with a briefcase,” Fukada laughs.
For many, especially those living in New York, the shock of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was a catalyst for change. For Fukada, it was the event that caused her to accept the fact that “I didn't feel like I belonged [in her job] because I couldn't find a purpose with my life.”
The glamour of her fashion job was nice, but Fukada constantly found herself getting lost in the far-off destinations she found in her photography books. A profound sense of “not knowing when you're going to die” was instilled in her on September 11th. This motivated her to make a radical leap into a new life.
Initially attracted to shooting video, Fukada quickly found that the price of video production was more than her budget could handle. So she looked at her resources and found a 35mm SLR at her company that they gladly let her borrow. The first project assigned to her from the evening photography class in which she enrolled yielded a roll of film so grossly overexposed that it came back from the lab translucent.
“It's funny,” recalls Fukada. “The first thing I remember about my photography is a mistake.”
Today, Fukada is trying to sell Life In A Brothel, a photographic project about the sex trade in Bangladesh. Her story depicts a family of three generations of sex workers, all of whom work in one of the state-licensed brothels. The youngest, Munnie, started taking clients eight months prior to Fukada's arrival. Munnie's entry into the sex trade has spawned a rivalry with her mother, who competes for the same clientele. Munnie is 15 years old. Fukada describes the response from the American magazines to whom she has pitched the project: “Third-world brothels have been done to death. What else do you have?”
Fukada is remarkably stoic about the rejection. She chose the project for the same reason she chooses all of her assignments; they're stories that she cares about and wants to communicate to the world. The commercial viability is a distant afterthought.
The Bangladeshi daughter, mother and grandmother represent an entire cycle of life in the brothels. For Fukada, it's a remarkable opportunity to illustrate Munnie's future by photographing the lives of the young girl's mother and grandmother. Fukada says that she can almost “see what Munnie will look like in 32 years by looking at the pictures of Munnie's grandmother.” Without the photographs, the story is irresistible. With Fukada's images, the story is a knockout.
Fukada is optimistic that the story will sell eventually and moves onto talking about her recent trip to a political event in Iowa. Unlike most of her other work, these images are in black-and-white and depict the signature intimacy that has become the hallmark of Fukada's style. But unlike her images from India and Bangladesh, the photographs from Iowa have a traditional American feel to them.
“I have to immerse myself in the situation, so I can feel it to shoot the story,” says Fukada. It's this dedication to the story that sets Fukada's work apart. She's in the right place at the right time because she's able to disappear into the environment and patiently wait for the right time.
Fukada always sets out on her assignments with an idea of the story she wants to capture. And every time, the story is “never the same like you imagine.” The brothel story was anticipated to be full of intensity and action. Instead, it became a story of “quiet portraiture.” To Fukada, the assignment always dictates the style. The commercial viability of the project she entrusts to the imagery itself.
Partly because of the language barrier and partly because of her personality, Fukada says that she hardly exchanged any words with the family she was photographing for the Bangladeshi brothel project. Yet she still found a way to capture the story and build a friendship with the grandmother with whom, to this day, she has an ongoing relationship. For Fukada, the camera is a tool of translation and communication. In a way, the language barrier makes Fukada the truest form of objective observer, a quality that comes through in the authenticity of her work. The challenging barrier of language isn't a barrier to Fukada at all—it's an asset and a component to her style, a unique circumstance that could never be emulated or taught. It's the secret to her success that is hers alone.
Shiho Fukada is a storyteller first. Photography wasn't the goal for her; it was the vehicle to realize her passion for telling stories. And that's one of the reasons why her work stands out so significantly. She's totally committed to the narrative. When one talks to her, Fukada is reticent about camera gear or technique, but she's enthusiastic about the lives and lifestyles she has captured. It's a state of mind that has evolved after a decade of shooting, except in Fukada's case, it seems to have been inherent as soon as she picked up the camera.
Born To Draw?
Fukada never thought she would ever be a photographer. The stories she conjured in her dreams as a child were depicted through drawings. Art was a passion that gave way to the practicality of a traditional Japanese education as she grew older. Ultimately, the education, especially the English language courses, provided her a means to get to New York.
If someone was to recount the path of Fukada's life, it would be impossible to predict that she would end up where she is. Her father still may be scratching his head.
Fukada's photographs already inspire phrases like “how'd she do that?” But when you look at her images and consider the context of where she came from, there's a curious sagacity to it all that's driven by a singularly unique ability to communicate through the camera.
Admittedly, Fukada misses her family. Being an adventurer has taken her away from a few momentous events with them back in Japan, which saddens her. However, she's scheduled to see them soon, and when she does make it back to Japan, her father will have a list of safe “businesswoman with briefcase jobs” for her to consider while she's visiting.
Photo: Shiho Fukada