A Photographer's Reflections on Capturing the World's Worst Conflict Zones

Japanese photographer Ryo Kameyama​ lost his sight in his left eye documenting the conflict in Palestine's Gaza Strip.

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Apr 5 2018, 7:26pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Japan.

Back when Ryo Kameyama was still in middle school he admired war photographers like Larry Burrows and Kyoichi Sawada so much that he took a part-time job washing the linens at a love hotel to save up enough money for his first camera. Both photographers had made a name for themselves with moving, personal images that showed the human cost of the Vietnam War.

Kameyama wanted to follow in their footsteps, and as soon as he had enough money to purchase a camera he hit the streets, documenting protests and student movements in his native Japan. He then went overseas, photographing conflicts in places as far flung as Colombia, Palestine, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Congo, Somalia, and Burundi. He does this all as a freelancer journalist, often traveling to new hotspots across the globe without as much as an agreement from editors to run his work.

Hirohisa Asahara, from VICE's Tokyo office, sat down with Kameyama shortly before the publication of his book Senjō (Warzone) to talk about what keeps motivating him to return to conflict zones.

Ryo Kameyama poses at a field behind his house.

VICE: So a bookstore employee recently tweeted that your latest work contained too much elements of tragedy—that it was hard to directly look at the photos. How do you feel about that kind of response?
Ryo Kameyama: Readers might see the images that way. But it can't be helped. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. But if a random right-wing person online tries to have a go at me, then my switch is surely going to be flipped in an instant.

I didn't feel like any of your photos deliberately cross the line or anything.
What do you mean?

Like, for example, photos of mangled corpses or something.
Maybe that's because I've never encountered such a scene. But I also don't think I could even photograph something like that. It's difficult to put into words, but it would be against my principles as a photographer. My current style of photographer is the byproduct of this constant push to avoid taking distasteful photos.

I think it's safe to say my work was inspired by Gilles Peress' seminal work on the Rwandan genocide, The Silence. He documented an undeniably tragic event, but for some reason there was also something profound in his photos that force you to look at and evaluate each image.

A lot of war photographers also shoot video, but you don't. Is there a reason behind your preference for shooting photos only?
Well, with movies, there is always pressure to do post-production and editing work. But with a photo you can opt to have the results straight out of the camera as your final product and then just be done with it. I personally swore off cropping images, so once I push the shutter, the whole photo process is done. If an image turns out poor, I can always just move on to the next one anyway.

At one point, people kept telling me that video would earn me more money. But that only spurred my rebellious streak and made me even more engrossed in photography, which was a good thing, I think, in retrospect. I do believe that video is a more convenient way to disseminate information—it just has so many more elements, like sound and movement. Photos have fewer elements, so it can be a tricky medium to work in. But it's also a powerful medium when everything comes together.

I heard that you've always been a freelancer.
No one commissions me to take a photo, so I can quit whenever I want. I'm free to do as I please since I tend to go out on location without any clear objective or publication targets. But it can get pretty lonely. [Laughs] One thing is for sure, staying in a conflict area can be an arduous undertaking. There is constant pressure from within myself to justify my presence in a conflict area by properly documenting the people and events I see along the way—otherwise, I am no different from a tourist.

It also hurts me, financially, if I can't exhibit my work, although I am aware that my photography doesn't make much sense from a commercial standpoint, especially since I made a premeditated decision to not go to places already heavily covered by the mainstream media.

People running away from Israeli Tanks raiding a town on the Gaza Strip, Palestine. 2001. From Ryo Kameyama’s book Senjō.

I keep going back, and I often find myself in tough situations, so I guess I'm rather adept at enduring working in conflict zones. I really have no tolerance for mundane things. I went through a series of blah jobs to cover my travel expenses— it was horrible. Then a stray bullet robbed me of my eyesight in my left eye while I was working in Palestine. The insurance money from that accident relieved me of my financial concerns for some time, so it's all good.

What sort of jobs were you doing before that accident?
Service-related jobs don't suit me, so it was mostly manual labor—usually construction jobs. Other than that, I've climbed steel poles to replace the netting at driving ranges, which paid me about JPT 12,000 ($112 USD) a day, I think. I prefer to take jobs that pay me daily, so I can work just enough to save what I need then quit. It's not as constraining as jobs that pay once a month.

How much do you usually save before heading abroad on a shoot?
It depends on the value of the Yen at the time, but it's typically around JPY 1 million ($9,340 USD). Although nowadays I get itchy way earlier and usually leave with only half that amount in my savings. I worked some demolition jobs before the Palestine shoot, but unfortunately, my tools were stolen from the Hanazono Shrine, in Shinjuku, while I was out getting drunk with this homeless man after work. That sort of robbed me of my motivation to work. Those tools were really expensive, and the thief took all of them.

I started showing up late to that job and my boss was furious. One day I called him up and told him my dog had died, so I wasn't coming in and that was that. I didn't really have that much saved up at the time so I couldn't say in Palestine for long and that put me in a foul mood the entire time.

You dog died?
No, I don't even have a pet.

Does your family ever tell you to stop this kind of work?
I don't think so. Everyone probably knows it will end in another heated argument. A few years after the stray bullet incident in Palestine, my father killed himself. My mother was upset. She asked me why I kept insisting that I had to go back to a conflict zone. I eventually came to the realization that I would probably go crazy if I stopped, so I pushed forward.

But I also made more efforts to stay in touch with my mom, whether it's via satellite phones, email, or the like. That really improved our relationship. Before my dad died, I barely kept in touch when I was overseas, aside from the odd email when I was in Columbia. It was a scary time there, so many people were getting abducted at the time.

Government soldiers getting drunk during a battle in Monrovia, Liberia. 2003. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.
A child soldier smokes marijuana all day in Nimba county, Liberia. 2004. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.

You've been taking photos since you were a teenager. Was there a turning point that convinced you to take up photography as a career?
The stray bullet in Palestine changed everything. Until that point, photography was just something I did while backpacking through Latin America. Maybe losing my eyesight in my left eye made me feel like I was somehow involved in the conflict myself? Before the accident, I would go back and forth between Japan and Palestine, but I felt bored because I couldn't find anything worth photographing—or so I thought. I regret not taking the time to explore other subject matter. I guess having a home to go back to whenever I felt bored was a sign that I wasn't really involved in the conflict at all.

What kinds of stuff did you wish you explored instead?
Well, for example, I wish I had interviewed and photographed the families of suicide bombers. I could've investigated what sort of families they were, or learned the stories or reasons why suicide bombers resorted to such an extreme action. Unfortunately, in my reckless pursuit to photographing "powerful" images, I failed to really think about and capture the essence of the conflict that was unfolding before my very eyes. But I was a clueless 23 or 24 year old brat at the time.

Aside from the stray bullet, was there anything else that you now consider a pivotal moment in your life?
I guess leaving Tokyo to settle in Hachijō-jima (a small island off the southern coast of Japan) is one of them. My time in Africa was also pretty pivotal. During my days in Palestine, I was simply moving from one conflict to another, relying on my instincts to chase the battle. But in Africa, I was more meticulous in how I weaved together the narrative. I was thinking a lot about where the narrative of the story belonged in the grand scheme of things. It was a new experience for me.

I also went through a difficult phase of trial-and-error because I wanted to refrain from being too subjective in my work. Liberia also stands out in my mind. It was the first time I was so frightened that I couldn't move a muscle. What was happening was atrocious—it was, perhaps, the pinnacle of human savagery, a kind of violence I never thought was possible.

A mother and daughter in Makamba, Burundi. 2007. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.
A portrait of Mai-Mai, a self-defense organization that quickly turned into a roving gang in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.
A Mai-Mai soldier. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.
A portrait of a Tutsi rebel leader taken in Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Kivu Province. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.
In a mountainous region of Columbia with the ELN (National Liberation Army), in 2000. From Ryo Kameyama’s Senjō.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.