In April 2010 I began planning a month-long trip to walk in W. Eugene Smith’s footsteps in Japan and the Pacific. I planned to conduct around twenty oral history interviews so I asked Simon Partner, the head of Duke University’s Asia-Pacific Studies Institute, how to find an interpreter. I also needed someone to help with travel logistics. He posted my job announcement on a listserv that deals with the history and culture of Japan. There were around fifty applicants. One of them was Momoko Gill, a young, Japanese-British woman who was finishing high school in Santa Barbara. She told me she was born in England and spent her first five years there, then ten years in Japan, before three in Santa Barbara. She grew up speaking both English and Japanese. Her eloquent articulation of interest, plus persistence, made her my eventual choice. She had no interpreting experience, but she was a serious jazz drummer and basketball player and I thought those backgrounds were good for this line of work. The trip occurred in February-March of this year. After six weeks to reflect, we conducted the following interview on-line, me at home in North Carolina, Momoko in Indonesia where she continues traveling during her “gap” year between high school and college. In the fall she will report to college in England and she’ll continue to work with me on issues related to my biography of Smith and Japan. – Sam Stephenson
SS: What interested you in this job?
MG: I saw the ad soon after I’d decided to take a gap year. The words that attracted me were “travel,” “Japan,” “Jazz Loft Project,” and “interpreting.” The Jazz Loft photos entranced me. They looked like they’d come from somewhere deep underground, where things are rich, hot, and crude. After I had a proper look at more of Smith’s photos, especially his work in Japan, I grew more interested in his story, too. I loved his photos. From every angle, the job appeared to be a perfect opportunity for me. I had to give it a try. Though I knew my chances of getting it were slim, I had some faith in the appeal of a young, enthusiastic person taking a chance. Gap-year students are idealistic! It pays off, every now and then…
SS: What was the interpreting experience like? Can you describe that? Was there anything surprising or especially challenging about interpreting these interviews?
MG: In the beginning we had a messenger-style method, where you would ask me to ask the person something, I would talk with them, and then relay to you what was said. I was acting as a middle-man. As we got used to working together, and as you got used to interviewing people who didn’t speak English, the interviews began to feel more like normal conversations. We all talked directly to one another, while I acted as your Japanese voice.
I knew interpreting wouldn’t be a matter of direct word-for-word translation, but I didn’t expect it to require so much of my own judgment. For example, interview respondents would often leave a sentence hanging incomplete. On such occasions I would look closely at their face: the tension around their eyes and lips sometimes indicated why they had stopped. Was it out of fear of offending somebody? Or was it out of some variety of humbleness (like hesitating to discuss an achievement of their own)? Were they savoring a fond memory, or pondering their own words, inspecting them, as if vaguely unsettled by the definition words have given to complex emotions? Are they just a bit senile? The reason was different every time. When the meaning behind words was ambiguous, I tried to tell you the exact words that were said, followed by my interpretation of the words, which included impressions I got from pauses, gestures and facial expressions as well. Communicating these subtleties as quickly as possible, while distinguishing my own subjective views from what was actually said, was a challenge.
SS: Do any particular interviews stand out?
MG: My favorite interview was with Mr. Kazuhiko Motomura, a retired local government employee who doubled as a publisher of fine photography books. An averagely-prejudiced observer might have looked at this exemplary elderly Japanese man – humbly dressed, friendly-eyed – and seen little signs of eccentricity (other than a slightly oversized backpack…but it contained heavy books to show us, so presumably it wasn’t something he carried around all the time). Such an observer would have readily expected politeness, dignity, and manners to be defining elements of his character. Of course, he had those qualities. But he also proved to be a free man—a man whose life is dictated by passions. You described him in a Jazz Loft Project blog post as follows:
(He is) an extraordinary collector of photography books and prints, and a selective publisher of five sublime, limited edition photo books, including three by Robert Frank and one by Jun Morinaga.
Being a collector is one thing, but Mr. Motomura is also a man of action. He has not published many books, but the ones he has published are all extraordinary. He was clearly committed to making these books available to the world. What remained unclear, however, even after your persistent quizzing, were his motivations—what made those particular books special to him. He resisted a clear answer, or he didn’t have one. All these things combined with his constant efforts to divert attention from himself – he thought it was a cheerful joke when you told him you wanted to write an article about him – made me see him as a man whose actions were guided by real passions, rather than by expectations, egotism, fears, or anything like that. I will always admire him for that.
SS: How did it feel to be interpreting for me in a room of 100 male photographers at the Japanese Photographers Society, some of them a half-century older than you? (Earlier that morning Momoko asked me if I’d need her to interpret for me at this conference and I told her no, that they’d have somebody to interpret for me, since it was planned several months in advance. They didn’t).
MG: I was definitely under scrutiny! But the people in the room were mainly artists rather than academics, by profession and by nature. It wasn’t as if they were debating amongst themselves whether sentence A was really the most appropriate interpretation of sentence B, or whispering sour remarks about the way I was dressed (I hadn’t expected to be on stage). They were all extremely friendly.
I think it went well. I enjoyed watching you present to an audience what you’ve been researching for over a decade. I didn’t have too much trouble interpreting. Next time, though, I will take a pen and paper with me, as big numbers and dates stream swiftly through my head from one ear to the other. After it was over, a lady (probably the only lady in the room) came up to me and thanked me for my interpreting work. She said it was very effective and easy to understand. That made me happy.
The second part of the event, when you and I were in a smaller room with 20 photographers, who either knew Smith personally or had an especially keen interest in him, was more of a challenge. One man would talk passionately about something, pausing occasionally to make sure I catch every detail, while another man sitting next to me would mutter “that’s bullshit” under his breath. I tried to communicate to you the social dynamics and the overall atmosphere in the room, as well as the little huffs of disagreement and restrained ambivalence behind politely crossed arms. It was a challenge. The tension in the room was exhausting for me, and from your tightly knitted brow, I could tell it was for you, too.
SS: You had substantial background knowledge of Smith by the time our trip began. Did your impressions of Smith change during or after the interviews? If so, how?
MG: Though I was always intrigued by new accounts of Smith told by the various people we interviewed, I don’t think there’s anything I learned about his character that really surprised me. This is probably because I can relate to his personality.
SS: Please elaborate on relating to Smith’s personality. That is very curious.
MG: Smith had a very deep, personal yearning for the truth. He wasn’t just a committed photojournalist who fought censorship. When I look at his photos, even those of Minamata or the battlefields, I know that he wasn’t just driven by a sense of entitlement to the truth, or a sense of responsibility to make that accessible to the public. He captures the essence of his subject, whatever it is–a stray cat, men walking in the streets of New York, or his daughter. Out of the million angles from which to look at any single object, Smith always pursued the truest one. This is a tremendous struggle. The truth is elusive. But he couldn’t have produced such moving photos if weren’t for his self-torturing relentlessness.
My itinerant childhood has made me search for the truths and essences of things, rather than just the immediate and familiar. The familiar, for me, has been fleeting and transient. Having lived in three continents, I sometimes feel like a jumble of cultural influences with no real roots, like a wandering decorator crab with bits of this and that hanging off its shell. I think that might be why I seem to spend a lot of time observing, questioning, and reflecting on my surroundings and myself. It’s a form of truth-seeking.
SS: We spent 3 days with Takeshi Ishikawa (Smith’s former photographic assistant, now age sixty) in Minamata, and we also did one of our longest interviews with him in Tokyo before that. What stands out to you from working with him?
MG: Mr. Ishikawa might be the oldest person I know who could feel like a brother to me. One memorable time in Minamata I caught a glimpse of the boy in him. He had been arranging a casual dinner with some Minamata Disease victims and care workers, who were old friends of his. You and I were planning to go to the dinner at first, but the exhaustion of the previous two weeks had caught up with us, and we were seeing the same group the next day, so we decided to give it a miss. When I told Mr. Ishikawa that we were passing on the dinner, I remember vividly the look on his face. We had burst his bubble. He was increasingly shaken by each word I spoke, like a plant that sways in resistance as heavy raindrops roll off its leaves one by one. After some struggle, he was able to summon a mature voice of understanding. He hadn’t told everybody that we would be there, so it wasn’t that he feared people would be offended or upset. He just really liked the idea of everybody getting together, friends old and new, having a nice meal and some drinks. But the next morning when I caught up with him at breakfast, he seemed to have already forgotten about it. He was looking forward to the day ahead with us.
SS: What from this experience will you carry forward? Do you know, yet?
MG: When I asked you what inspired you to do the work you do, you told me about the healing quality of listening to people. I’ve really come to believe in that.
Hearing firsthand from people stories that mean something to them was an extraordinary privilege. Other than Mr. Ishikawa, we only interviewed each person once. Interviews generally lasted an hour or two. With such little time, you and I needed to step straight into people’s private sphere, as we asked questions about how they felt about things that happened decades ago. Somehow, this was accepted by every person we interviewed. Almost everybody seemed willing to share feelings and thoughts about Smith from the very moment we began. We were strangers from different ends of the globe, united by one man of the past, sharing for just one or two hours a small space within the present-day world. In this space, whether it was a coffee shop or an office room, the requirement for distance between people seemed to be suspended. It was a special space to be in.
SS: Two days after we finished our work the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear fallout hit Japan. I was in Saipan. You were by yourself in Yokohama and nine days later you left Japan for Bali. Did this experience impact your thinking about our work in any manner?
MG: The recent tragedies in Japan and my work with you have strengthened my Japanese identity. People often ask me where I consider my home. You asked me that. People also ask which country/culture I identify with the most. My usual answer for the former is “wherever my friends and family are.” For the latter, I say I’m a merry mesh of everything. On rougher days, it’s more like “I don’t know…tell me where I belong!”
To Japanese people, I appear a foreigner. This is funny sometimes: Once during our trip a woman tapped me on the shoulder to ask directions. When she saw my face as I turned around, she apologized profusely for not realizing I was a foreigner – “Sorii! Sorii!” I certainly feel like a foreigner sometimes, too, when I talk to people who’ve spent their whole lives in Japan. But interpreting for you made me sensitive to the subtleties in people’s expression and behavior that are distinctly Japanese. These subtleties, that I imagine appeared so foreign to you, were not only normal and understandable to me, but were a part of my own character. In short, I realized I was much more Japanese than I thought I was.
The disaster in Japan affected me more than any other natural disaster I can remember. Thankfully, my friends and family were all safe. But the death toll up north kept on rising. I remember when the TV was announcing 24 deaths in Sendai, 26 deaths in Sendai…and then they discovered 200 bodies in Sendai. I imagined being a child walking around Sendai, searching for her mother amongst the mountains of rubble, and discovering 200 dead bodies.
I left Japan and flew to Bali largely for the comfort of my distant parents. The unknown nuclear dangers terrified them, understandably. Though I knew it was a wise move, I felt a definite sense of guilt when I left the country. I’d left “my people.” I identified with the Japanese people more than any other time in my life.
SS: One last question of a different sort: In addition to interpreting, you took care of most of our travel arrangements. How was that burden?
MG: Handling logistics definitely isn’t my strength. But I’d known that all my life, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to acquire an important life skill. I never felt really burdened because your schedule was flexible, but there were a couple of times when we had a meeting at an exact time with a busy person, and we were cutting the time very fine. Those were times when I thought: “Sam would never hassle me, but if we’re late for this, I would obviously look terrible, but he would look bad, too!” Thankfully, these moments of tension were rare. You seemed to accept my style of finding a destination, which involved shamelessly asking lots of questions to train conductors and passersby, rather than knowing exactly what to do before leaving. You always expressed appreciation for my efforts, which is quite amazing considering you were actually paying me for competence.