Japanese Freelance Photojournalists Go Where the Action is Hottest
When freelance journalist Peter Allport found himself in the middle of an artillery barrage while covering a government assault on the resistance stronghold of O’Smach last summer, he balled himself up in a foxhole and covered his head.
Just after the last shells dropped, he peered up and saw photographer Masaru Goto smiling down at him as if nothing had happened.
“Oh Peter! What are you doing down there?” Allport quoted Goto as saying as he recounted the story last summer.
The tale is one of many circulating around Phnom Penh about the handful of young Japanese freelancers dubbed by local journalists as the “kamikaze photographers.”
While photographers and camera crews from major Japanese newspapers swoop into Phnom Penh for the big stories, stay in five-star hotels, then leave as soon as the dust settles. Goto, Toru Yokota and Ko Sasaki stay in a $3-a-night guesthouse then head to the front-lines hoping to get pictures that will sell for as little as $10 each to The Cambodia Daily or $25 to the Phnom Penh Post. Occasionally, they make bigger sales to the wire services or Japanese magazines.
“We’re not worried about money, we’re just trying to get a good shot,” said 26-year-old Ko Sasaki, a Tokyo native.
Still, money is a reality they cannot avoid. Nagoya-born Goto, 32, relies on loans from his brother to get him over rough financial times. Yokota, 27, goes back to Tokyo for three-month stints and shoots videos at weddings. Sasaki has worked as a photographer’s assistant in Tokyo taking pictures for advertisements.
“Real boring stuff, packages of cigarettes and things like that,” Sasaki said.
Also part of the informal group is Kazuhiko Yamashita, a 23-year-old Meiji University student who has come to Cambodia twice on school breaks. But his parents in Tokyo have yet to find out that he spent his summer vacation last year at O’Smach in the middle of a battle.
”They didn’t know then, and they still don’t know,” he said. A picture of him made it into the Japanese-language version of Playboy magazine in an article about students who spent their vacations in dangerous places.
Fortunately, Yamashita said, his parents are not subscribers.
Southeast Asia has long been a proving ground for combat photographers, according to photojournalists who came here in the early 1970s looking for battles.
“It always has been and always will be a proving ground,” said legendary Vietnam War-era photographer Tim Page who returned to Cambodia recently to cover the July elections.
“I guess it’s because there’s always so much combat around here.”
Page knows the dangers of combat photography. He was twice severely wounded in Vietnam, and recently published a book, “Requiem,” a tribute to the scores of photographers killed in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Young Western photographers looking to prove their mettle haven’t been coming to Cambodia over the last year, Yokota points out. Why that is, he’s not sure. But the Japanese come for the action and the low cost of living, he added.
“If you’re looking for a war, for two or three decades this was the place to go,” said Al Rockoff, who served four years as a US Army photographer in Vietnam, then came to Cambodia in 1973 to launch his freelance photojournalism career.
Because of the nation’s small size, news agencies have often relied on freelancers instead of staff photographers to chronicle the Cambodia story, he said.
All of the Japanese freelancers point to Vietnam War-era photographers Page and Rockoff as their influences.
Rockoff is known for being one of the last journalists holed up in the French Embassy in 1975 as Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Sasaki, a latecomer on the scene, said he’s not the type of photographer who looks for danger or combat.
But he found both July 26 after he and Yokota bribed their way onto a military helicopter going to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Vengn.
At 5 am, the two woke up in their tent to the sound of rockets and small-arms fire. About 2 km away, the remnants of the hard-line Khmer Rouge had launched an attack on villagers who defected from the movement earlier in the year.
Both photographers were on the scene less than an hour after the attack ended. Their photos of burning homes, wounded villagers and dead rebels were some of the few shots the world saw of the attack’s aftermath.
Sasaki, who had never made more than $70 a month free-lancing, sold six photos to Reuters for an amount he won’t disclose. Yokota sold his shots to Agence France-Presse, the photo agency Sepa and several Japanese publications.
Being at the right place at the right time is key, according to Goto, whose adventures during last year’s O’Smach assaults helped the group earn the “kamikaze” tag.
“I’m not a special photographer. But I can live in the jungle. You just have to be there,” he said. “As long as you can wait in the jungle with no food, water or medicine, you can get a picture.”
Conditions in the field are rough, he said. He once slept alongside soldiers on the bare earth in pouring rain with no cover. The officers may not want the photographers there, but the soldiers do. They want the world to see the conditions in which they’re forced to fight, Goto said.
As for the ever-lurking land mines, Goto said, “I just try not to think about it.”
Yokota has a more practical approach: he follows in the footsteps of soldiers in front of him.
All count themselves lucky not to have stepped on a mine. O’Smach is in Oddar Meanchey, the most heavily mined province in one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
Rockoff said the Japanese photographers have an advantage over Westerners with their Asian looks. Goto, when wearing militaray fatigues, can pass as an ordinary soldier, he said.
When officers put a moratorium on photojournalists on the front-line at O’ Smach last year, Yokota put a krama, a Khmer scarf, around his head and got past the checkpoints.
But that almost backfired for Goto during the July 1997 fighting in the capital when he took pictures of looting soldiers. Twice in one day, soldiers pointed guns at him and threatened to shoot. Fortunately, Cambodian journalists nearby talked them out of it, he said.
On the same street later in the day, soldiers involved in looting shot dead a Cambodian-Canadian for taking pictures of the same scene.
That same day, Goto met Rockoff as they both took pictures of a burning tank near the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Since then, the well-known photographer with the long gray beard, has become the group’s unofficial “sempai,” the Japanese word for “master.”
At O‘Smach a few weeks later, Rockoff passed along such valuable tips as where to stand so you don’t get shot while taking pictures, and how to tell where artillery fire is coming from and where it might land.
“When I talk to him, I cannot speak right and my hands shake,” Goto said. “’He’s my ‘sempai.’ ”
Yokota said he has the same problems when encountering legends such as Rockoff and Page. “It’s hard to talk to them; they’re too famous,” he said. “When I first came to Cambodia, I wanted to be like them.” Mostly he just listens as Rockoff tells stories of his days in Vietnam and how he covered the fall of Phnom Penh.
Now that the elections are over, the Khmer Rouge is nearly finished and Cambodia is falling out of the international spotlight, the group is wrapping up their Cambodian adventure and looking for the next hotspot.
The only exception is Yamashita, who has landed a job with Kyodo News Service starting next year and will have to spend three to five years as a domestic photographer before being sent overseas.
Yokota said, “The Khmer Rouge is finished, so my interest is finished too.”