With hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans on the rise in the United States, there is great power in seeing the image of an Asian female photographer towering in front of the Met.
There’s just one problem. Yes, Sasamoto is a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field (born in 1914, she is now 107 years old). But she was also a propaganda photographer for the Japanese government during World War II. Her work supported the violent Japanese colonization of Southeast Asia and was used to enforce the dangerous ideology that cast the Japanese as superior to the rest of Asia. The monumental achievement of this new exhibition is undermined by the real history of a woman whose fame resulted from her participation in a system of oppression — no matter how pioneering she was.
In 1914, Sasamoto was born into a well-to-do family, and she grew up in a time of increasing Japanese militarism and aggressive colonial expansion. In the late 19th century, the Japanese forced Taiwan, the kingdom of Ryukyu (now Okinawa) and the island of Hokkaido into its new empire. Then, in 1910, the Japanese colonized Korea and brutally suppressed the Korean language and culture. In 1931, the Japanese army occupied the Chinese region of Manchuria, turning it into a key part of the Japanese “new order” in East Asia. Extremists pushed the government further to the right, and, in 1937, the Japanese began a brutal war with China and, in 1941, declared war on the United States.
Sasamoto was art school-educated and made illustrations for Tokyo newspapers before she joined the Japan Photography Association in 1939. This collective of photographers produced government-sanctioned photographs that were distributed to national and international periodicals as official propaganda depicting life under Japanese fascism.
Like its European counterparts, Japanese fascism sought to unify people through a belief in a pure bloodline and to dominate those of supposed inferior bloodlines. Photographic propaganda played a key role in supporting this mission. First, when geared toward domestic and colonial audiences, photographs represented the Japanese as racially and culturally superior leaders of an expanding empire. Second, when produced for audiences outside of Asia, the photographs sought to prove that Japanese civilization and culture were equivalent with those of the United States and powerful Western European countries.
Sasamoto’s photographs were a part of this campaign. Her work included celebratory portraits of the right-wing Prime Minister Hiranuma Kiichiro (1867-1952), who served as senior adviser to Emperor Hirohito and his cabinet. She also created idealized images of women at play and work, which helped to portray Japanese women as aspirational symbols of the Japanese empire. Her images appeared in a German newspaper and were printed in popular propaganda magazines such as Shashin Shuho, which advertised the war effort and government policies seeking to take control of everyday life.
Much of Sasamoto’s fame hinges on her claim to be the first Japanese female photojournalist. The 1940 photo of Sasamoto displayed in front of the Met, viewfinder of a press camera held to her eye, celebrates this idea.
But here’s the thing. Although this exact portrait was never published, in 1943, Images du Japon, a propaganda magazine published by the Japanese wartime General of Tourism and the Ministry of Railways, published a similar photo of her from the same shoot in an issue focused on “The lives of women.” This issue was one of many efforts to celebrate modern working women and artists in Japan. The goal was to depict the Japanese as a model to be imposed upon East Asian women whose countries were occupied by the Japanese government.
The magazine used Sasamoto’s portrait as an example of the modern Asian woman the Japanese colonial project promised, and threatened, to impose upon the women of occupied Vietnam, Korea, China and Indonesia. It was a strategic part of Japan’s imperialist colonial project to throw off Euro-American colonial powers and take control of local raw materials and industries such as oil and steel. Together, these photographs of modern working women communicated the goals of the Japanese colonial mission to supposedly rule Asia in the name of Asians and create a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
Yes, Sasamoto was a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field. She also was complicit in the racist, imperialist mission of the Japanese government during World War II. Most important, the Met’s use of this photograph to publicize its important exhibition demonstrates how easy it is to rip photographs out of their contexts to illustrate progress or genius; it also shows us we shouldn’t.
That it has become possible to see this photograph simply as a celebratory image of a female photographer demonstrates the moral and historical perils of celebrating individuals as pioneers without understanding the historical context in which they worked. Without asking what the photograph meant at the original place of its production, it is too easy to pluck a photograph from its original context and transform it into a beautifully misleading image. If we fail to honor their connection to the people, places and circumstances in which they were created, we rob photographs of their ability to give testimony to facts and tell truths.
The desire to turn a blind eye to the uses of photographs made by women working for state projects — and instead praise the fact that female photographers existed at all — is what the historian Gerda Lerner has called the “compensatory” phase of writing women’s history. In this mode of analysis, the key importance of their work is their “womanhood” rather than race, class or the historical contexts of imperialism and colonialism. In covering the histories of women who have been able to “shift from object to operator” of the camera, we sometimes fail to see how women naturalized or even reinforced the oppressive structures from which they were supposedly breaking free.
No museum would turn a photograph of a female photographer working for the magazines of Nazi Germany into a celebratory image of “the new woman.” Nor should one display Sasamoto’s photo stripped of its original fascist context.