Archive for March, 2011

More Scenes from Saipan

The top of Mt. Tagpochau

The top of Mt. Tagpochau

In Saipan, the mix of ancient Chamorro culture, Spanish (and Catholic), Japanese, and American cultures, all in a place with only 50,000 residents, is unique to me.  There’s some of the same in Guam but it’s diluted by the massive Andersen Air Force Base and Hard Rock Cafes, Planet Hollywoods, strip joints, pawn shops, and the like.

Two Merchant Marine ships off the shore of Saipan

Two Merchant Marine ships off the shore of Saipan

Above are two massive Merchant Marine ships stocked with supplies for U.S. military forces.  I was told that the ships are staffed by civilians and they stand ready, anchored offshore year-round, waiting for orders from the military.  They act as mobile warehouses for the military, stocked with food, munitions, etc.  Locals in Saipan said they know that when the ships are gone, something bad is happening somewhere.  Recently, they said, the ships disappeared when the North Koreans were waving their arms about something.

One interesting thing about the Chamorrans; I was told that per capita a higher percentage of Chamorrans go into the military than any other group of U.S. citizens.  Yet, they get no voting representation in the U.S. Congress.

My internet connection in Guam has slowed down again.  So, more soon.


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There’s a pit in my stomach due to the ongoing reports from the earthquake and nuclear fallout in Japan.  I just went through my recent pictures from there and found this one of Kyoko Mizoguchi in Minamata.  I wrote about her in my Paris Review piece of a view days ago.  Both times we saw her she bid tearful farewells to me, Momoko, and Ishikawa and she waved at us with both hands as we parted.

Kyoko Mizoguchi waving us goodbye in Minamata.  March 4, 2011.

Kyoko Mizoguchi waving us goodbye in Minamata. March 4, 2011.


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Scenes from Saipan

Yesterday I arrived in Guam.  The tsunami scare two nights ago in Saipan was a new experience.  All is good now.  But as everyone knows it is a scary situation in Japan.  I made many new friends in my 18 days there and I’m sick with fear for them.  But looking back I’m not unhappy that I was able to make it out when I did.  In Saipan we were ordered to the top floors of our hotel for 90 minutes while we sweated out the tsunami threat.  Then things returned to normal.

My internet connection wasn’t the best so I wasn’t able to post any Saipan photos until now.

View from my hotel's open air lobby, Saipan.  Hill 500 in the background.

View from my hotel's open air lobby, Saipan. Hill 500 in the background.

Above, Hill 500 was named by the American soldiers because the hill is 500 feet high.  Covered in clouds to the left of Hill 500 is Mt. Tagpochau which is 1200 feet high.  Photos of and from these sites are below.  When the American troops invaded the beaches from the west, with Gene Smith following, the Japanese were well fortified on the tops of both Hill 500 and Mt. Tagpochau, with guns that ranged to 1500 meters.  What resulted, of course, wasn’t pretty.  Today, though, Saipan is quite stunning.  There are 50,000 residents, down 40% from a peak before their garment industry was healthy (before NAFTA and other trade agreements – Saipan is a U.S. territory).

View from top of Hill 500 looking back toward my hotel.

View from top of Hill 500 looking back toward my hotel. Tinian is the island in the background.

Much of the warfare on this island took place in the space you are seeing in the photo above.  The Japanese were well entrenched when American troops invaded the beaches from the west (the right side of the photograph above).

By the way, I’ve learned this history from an unusual and rich source in the form of Don Farrell, who grew up in Billings, Montana and has lived in the Northern Mariana Islands for 35 years, teaching school, working in the local government, and becoming the leading historian of the region.  More on him later.  He may end up being the focus of my next Paris Review piece.  Don looks like a cross between a ZZ Top guitarist and Colonel Sanders.  He likes to pop a few cold ones and he’s an experienced horticulturalist, if you know what I mean.  He’s a dogged historian and natural storyteller.  They don’t make ‘em like Don at the universities, although they should.  He would fit in well at CDS.

Hill 500 looking in the other direction.

Hill 500 looking in the other direction.

Mt. Tagpochau, 1200 ft. elevation.

Mt. Tagpochau, 1200 ft. elevation. I was trying to imagine hiking up this mountain with people shooting at you in 90 degree, humid conditions.

View from Mt. Tagpochau looking down into "Death Valley."

View from top of Mt. Tagpochau looking down into "Death Valley."

It turns out my internet connection is slow here in Guam, too.  The hotel is working on it.  I’ll post more Saipan photos when I can upload them faster.  My goal on this WWII battlefield portion of my journey has been to learn something that would allow me to write better about Gene Smith prowling around these areas with his camera during combat.  I keep thinking of a boy from landlocked Kansas, by WWII in his early to mid-20s, lugging his equipment around these tropical islands for 18 months.  I’m not sure, yet, how these impressions will make it into my book.  But they will.

-Sam Stephenson

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On June 15, 1944, 2000 American soldiers died on this beach where I’m standing here.  I don’t know how many Japanese died.  Gene Smith made many of his most memorable WWII photographs in the wake of this invasion.  Many Japanese, including women and children, jumped to their deaths off “suicide cliffs” at the north end of this island a few weeks later.  I made this photo at 7pm tonight.  I didn’t see the faint bronze colors my camera recorded here.  But I’m no photographer.  I only saw the bigger cloud chasing and trying to eat the smaller one.

The sliver of land you can see on the left horizon is Tinian.

More photos to come soon.

Saipan.  Looking west.  March 10, 2011.

Saipan. Looking west. March 10, 2011.

-Sam Stephenson

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Paris Review Daily: Letter from Japan

A store in Minamata.  Photo by Takeshi Ishikawa.

Looking at Gene Smith's prints in a store in Minamata. Photo by Takeshi Ishikawa.

My new blog post at Paris Review is up.

-Sam Stephenson

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Freedom Riders

The Parchman Hour, photo by Chris Fowler

The Parchman Hour, photo by Chris Fowler

W. Eugene Smith’s tapes contain a lot of civil rights coverage that includes radio and television news, documentaries, and conversation. Recently we found a Channel 13 documentary segment about the Freedom Riders. This show contains several first hand accounts of the original Freedom Rides of 1961 as well as interviews with civil rights activists, commentary, and related music. Jerome Smith provides powerful testimony about the violence and challenges faced by the riders. He also provides some memories of working for civil rights here in North Carolina in general and in Greensboro, with an emphasis on grass roots change.  There’s some history of the New Orleans civil rights struggle from Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)  member Oretha Castle and she illuminates the positives effect that the Freedom Rides had on New Orleans and the state of civil rights in 1963.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary Bob Moses was interviewed the day after the murder of Medgar Evers in June of 1963. He speaks thoughtfully and profoundly about the sacrifices of civil rights activists in Mississippi before describing the ongoing issues of fighting for civil rights at that time.

This week, fifty years after the first Freedom Rides in 1961,Center for Documentary Studies students and faculty are traveling through Mississippi  in partnership with Mike Wiley Productions and the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Their play is called  The Parchman Hour. . And here’s a Durham Herald Sun  article by Gregory Childress about this traveling production of the Parchman Hour. Follow the links to read more about it and to find out how to attend the events if you’re nearby. They’ll be on the road through the end of this week.

Great work here from our colleagues at the home of the Jazz Loft Project, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

-Dan Partridge

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Scenes from Okinawa


Cliffs on the southern tip of Okinawa

Pacific Ocean

Pacific Ocean

It’s hard to imagine 1600 American ships parked out there in 1945.  It would have looked something like this:

Photography by W. Eugene Smith. Courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

Photography by W. Eugene Smith. Courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

The past two days have been a search for the location where Smith was hit by shell fragments and disabled on May 22, 1945.  Most of the heavy fighting on Okinawa in those days took place in the Yonabaru-Naha-Shuri valley area around a place the American soldiers called Conical Hill near Gaja, not far from the east coast of Okinawa.  The following scenes are all from that region.  200,000 people died here in the spring of 1945:







Finally, I want to put in a word for the Japanese cab drivers.  They are kind and generous.

-Sam Stephenson

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Two views from the hotel.  Today the effort is to find the approximate locations of some of Smith’s photos made here in May 1945. – S.S.



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Monkey Business

Roland Kelts and Sam Stephenson. Yoyogi, Tokyo. Midnight. February 27, 2011. Photo by Lisa Kato.

Roland Kelts and Sam Stephenson. Yoyogi, Tokyo. Just before Midnight. February 27, 2011. Photo by Lisa Kato.

Writer Roland Kelts and Brigid Hughes of A Public Space are part of a group launching a new journal called Monkey Business this spring.  It will be devoted to new work from Japan.  Roland is Japanese-American and splits his time between New York City and Tokyo.  Here is an announcement for the journal from Roland’s blog, Japanamerica, named for his terrific book.  As part of the Monkey Business launch he and I will have a conversation loosely based on my current sojourn in Japan to be published by A Public Space in early May.


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Minamata Mimic?

New Yorker magazine ad.  February 14-21, 2011 issue.

New Yorker magazine ad. February 14-21, 2011 issue.

Minamata, 1971-72.  Photograph by W. Eugene Smith

Minamata Bay. 1971-72. Photograph by W. Eugene Smith.

Flying from Raleigh-Durham to Tokyo on Saturday February 19 I carried with me the February 14-21 issue of the New Yorker.  On p. 69, in the middle of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about the skews of college rankings, there was the full-page Siemens advertisement (above), regarding their work to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  A few days later in Tokyo, I whipped out the magazine and showed p. 69 to Takeshi Ishikawa, Smith’s assistant in Minamata 1971-74.  Speaking through an interpreter, I gave no warning of what I was about to show him, and there were none of Smith’s visuals at hand, no reference points.  In one instant, Ishikawa glanced at the ad, laughed and muttered in English, “Copy.”

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. Thanks, Ryck, for the jpeg.

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