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Atelier EXB : Akihiko Okamura : The memories of others


Atelier EXB publishes the book Akihiko Okamura : Les souvenirs des autres edited by Pauline Vermare.

During the Troubles, the struggle for independence which lasted from 1969 to 1998, Northern Ireland attracted a large numbers of foreign photojournalists who came to document the events. Some of them found a subject that touched them personally, pushing them to go beyond the codes of photojournalism. This is the case of the Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura who produced unique and remarkable work in color in the first years of the conflict, and who is curiously still little-known today.

This work brings together for the first time Okamura’s work in Ireland on the occasion of the rediscovery of this archive and the recent digitization of the corpus. It accompanies the eponymous exhibition presented at the Photo Museum Ireland in Dublin starting April 11, 2024.

This work is the fruit of many years of research and collaboration aimed at shedding light on this extraordinary archive, and at elucidating the “Okamura mystery”: why did a Japanese choose to settle in Ireland in the middle of conflict, and start a family there? Why did he become so attached to a story that was not his own, and to the memories of others? If mystery is also part of the beauty of this archive, a few elements help us to better understand Okamura’s destiny and the historical and contemporary scope of his work.

(Pauline Vermare, extract from her text)


The memories of others

Akihiko Okamura distinguished himself as one of the great war photographers of his generation, operating notably in Vietnam in the early 1960s. He is still well respected in Japan, but his work and experience in Ireland, essential both in his work and for his personal life, have been little explored. Okamura arrived on the island with his family in 1969 and lived there until his death in 1985, south of Dublin. He photographed his daily life and the surrounding area, but quickly became interested in the north of the country and its struggle for independence. His attachment to this country and its history led him to produce one of the most significant works produced by a foreign photographer, combining both his very Japanese simplicity of framing and subject matter with great strength in the composition for more violent subjects. In Ireland, he moved away from photojournalism to develop a more personal testimony.

While he is the only Japanese reporter covering the conflict, he moved almost invisibly among the communities, photographing in the North as in the South, favoring not the upheavals, but more peaceful moments of everyday life. He was interested in what Georges Perec called the infra-ordinary, far from the decisive moment or the spectacular, as Pauline Vermare explains or as Seán O’Hagan underlines in his text: The most striking, in the gaze of ‘Okamura is this complex blend of detachment and intimate observation, his outsider’s perspective shedding light on the enduring everydayness of a place where normality has been suddenly interrupted and the ordinary is turned upside down. The result is a depth of vision that eludes the obvious and the ostensible drama – announcing, in passing, the subjective documentary approach adopted by a generation of photographers who would emerge a few decades later.

The choice to work in color, while the reportages of the time were mostly in B&W, and to favor soft, luminous tones, characteristic of Kodachrome, as if out of time, contrast with the violence of the time . His images seem to be detached from reality. He perceived the permanence of everyday life in the impermanence of war. Photographer Michio Nakagawa describes these photographs as both poems and evidence.

Several texts accompany this visual corpus and contextualize it in the history of the period and that of the photographic medium. These texts, mixing different points of view (historical, Japanese, Irish), will provide the necessary reading keys in order to discover this work, unravel some of its mysteries, and create a real reference work for this first monograph outside its native country.


Q&A with Pauline Vermare
Historian of photography, editor of the book and co-curator of the eponymous exhibition at the Photo Museum Ireland

Who was Akihiko Okamura? And how did you discover it?
Akihiko Okamura came to photography late, at the age of 32, in the 1960s. His work was recognized in Japan at that time for his reporting at the very beginning of the Vietnam War, notably published in Life Magazine, which compared him to Robert Capa. I discovered it in 2015 when I worked at the ICP (International Center of Photography, in New York). A curator from the TOP Museum (Tokyo Photographic Art Museum) offered me the catalog of a retrospective which had just been dedicated to him. I was then writing my thesis on the visual representation of Northern Ireland, and I did not expect to see a color photo of Belfast on the cover of a monograph dedicated to a Japanese photographer. I immediately contacted one of the two curators, Ryuichi Kaneko, but he explained to me that the real Okamura specialist was Masako Toda who takes care of, among other things, his archives and who needed help to make his work known abroad.
From that moment on, I told myself that this had to become my mission, because I found Okamura’s work on Northern Ireland so extraordinary. I even made it a very important chapter of my thesis which I defended in 2022, in particular because this series had remained almost unknown until then. 

Why did his series on Northern Ireland take so long to be rediscovered?
There are several factors. First, Okamura never did anything to ensure that his Irish photographs were widely distributed. He took his photos but did not necessarily send them to the newspapers of the time. It should also be noted that he was in post-traumatic shock, having returned from Vietnam. And at that point in his life – he was around 45 – he “went into a spin” and rejected photojournalism. Furthermore, he taught for a living, and his priority was clearly linked to education. Finally, it must be said that color was not widely used in the newspapers and magazines. We mainly saw imagery of Northern Ireland in black and white, with the images of Don McCullin or Gilles Peress.

How long did he stay in Ireland?
He lived there from 1969 until 1985, the year of his death which occurred very suddenly some time after he got off the plane, returning to Japan. He was 56 years old. He first came to Ireland in 1968 to follow in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy. He fell in love with this country. A year later, he decided to settle there with his second wife, Kakuko. They bought a small house south of Dublin. Their four children, three girls and a boy, are Irish and one of his older daughters, whom he had from a first marriage, even came to join them. Which did not prevent him from returning regularly to Japan and traveling all over the world, notably to Biafra. Then, they went to live in County Wicklow, even further south, in a very isolated house. Okamura really wanted to live like an Irishman, he was obsessed with the history of Ireland and British colonialism. His personal relationship with this country is essential to understanding his work on Northern Ireland.

How did the idea for this book come about?
I was fortunate that all of Okamura’s photographs of Northern Ireland had already been digitized for the exhibition at the TOP Museum. Masako Toda sent me the scans and I was able to go through all his images to understand where he had gone and what he had photographed, which helped me immensely with my thesis. Once I supported it at Louis-Lumière University, Lyon, in November 2022, presenting Okamura’s work became a top priority, both in a book and in an exhibition, and above all in Ireland, where it had never been shown. However, it turns out that I had just collaborated with Trish Lambe, director of Photo Museum Ireland in Dublin, for whom Okamura’s work was also a magnificent discovery. Jordan Alves and Yseult Chehata of Atelier EXB found this work equally impressive. So everything fell into place in 2023. It’s as if Okamura was still with us and he had made sure that everything came together perfectly.

What are the specificities of his work in Northern Ireland?
Okamura’s images are unlike any other photos from that era. It’s truly beyond measure and that’s what makes the strength of his work. They are all in color, of course, but what is striking about him is to see that he prefers to settle in weak times. He is not a war photographer, he does not “hunt”, he prefers to observe from a distance. Some images are almost still lifes, which he nevertheless took in the middle of the conflict. We are also, to repeat Georges Perec, in the infra-ordinary, with these everyday photos taken in times of war. However, it is fundamentally political work. But the most incredible thing is that no one ever met him in the field and no one remembers him. He really wanted to distance himself from his subject, wanted to be completely invisible and, in fact, he was. He was, as his daughter Kusi points out, a ghost during his lifetime. He was like a ghost.

How would you define his photographic style?
To compare him to his contemporaries, I find that some of his photographs are reminiscent of those of William Eggleston, with very static scenes, and a very in-depth study of color. We could also compare him to Saul Leiter, in terms of transparency in his colors, which have an almost mystical aura. But there is also a great poetry and a certain form of melancholy in his images which remind me of the series by the American photographer Paul Fusco, Funeral Train, when he documented the crowd paying homage to the funeral procession of Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968. It was the same for Okamura in Ireland: he had to take these photos not for the press, but for himself, and for the Irish – without artistic intention. And for the Northern Irish, as critic Seán O’Hagan expresses in the book, these are the closest photos today to what they themselves felt during that civil war.


Akihiko Okamura (1929-1985)
Born in Tokyo and from a bourgeois family (great-grandson of Count Tsunetami Sano, founder of the Japanese Red Cross), Okamura was 16 years old when Japan, in 1945, was destroyed by the bombings of Tokyo, the bombs atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the arrival of General MacArthur’s troops. The family home in Tokyo is destroyed by bombing. He began training in medicine but abandoned it to devote himself to photography. He joined the editorial team of the New Weekly in 1961 and documented international conflicts. Okamura quickly made a name for himself and distinguished himself as a very important war photographer, particularly in Vietnam in the 1960s. He photographed, among other things, prisoners of war held by the Vietcong after he himself had been held by them for 53 days. His work was published in Life and various major publications of the time. Having retained the trauma of the bombings of the Second World War, the photographer has always been guided by his desire to tell the story of conflicts and denounce human rights violations. Okamura has covered several war zones in the Dominican Republic, Northern Ireland, Nigeria (Biafran War) and Ethiopia. He moved to Ireland with his family in 1969 and remained there until his death in 1985.

His work was the subject of a first posthumous monographic exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in 2014, almost thirty years after his death. Some of his photographs were exhibited for the first time in Europe, as part of the exhibition Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers (2016) curated by Martin Parr at the Barbican Center in London. This book Les souvenirs des autres and the eponymous exhibition at the Photo Museum Ireland constitute a first international publication and personal exhibition. A documentary film on Okamura also accompanies these projects.


Akihiko Okamura : Les souvenirs des autres
Atelier EXB
Director of the book: Pauline Vermare, historian of photography
Trish Lambe, Artistic Director, Photo Museum Ireland
Pauline Vermare
Masako Toda, director of the Okamura archives
Seán O’Hagan, journalist and critic specializing in photography
Kusi Okamura, daughter of the photographer
Hardcover, 19.5 x 28 cm
160 pages
75 color photographs
ISBN: 978-2-36511-397-7
Price: €49 including tax

Limited edition
Two editions available in a box, each numbered from 1 to 15, including the work and a print, authenticated by the archives, in size: 19 x 27.5 cm.

Photo Museum Ireland, Dublin From April 11 to July 6, 2024

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