Japanese photographer, Ryuichi Hirokawa says the discovery of the remains of Arabic villages near a Kibbutz he had enlisted in after university was the trigger that inspired him to pick up his camera and discover and document history.
As a teenager, Hirokawa took pictures during trips with friends to the mountains in Japan, documenting details about isolated villages, Hiroshima or the struggles of the blind in the country. Though, he later “forgot about pictures.”
“In 1967 after university, I went to Israel,” he explains. “I entered a Kibbutz. In Japan they wrote that all Kibbutz were paradise.” But the Six Day War made him question this.
“In Japan we were taught that war is bad, but people were celebrating,” he explains.
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“I found ruins near the Kibbutz, I asked people what these ruins were but no one answered. One Jewish friend told me that it is written in one area.” It was at the ruins that Hirokawa was introduced to the history of the Palestinian plight. “I understood what history is hidden in Israel. I searched for people who can teach me about the history.”
“I started finding villages and I studied what happened. It took me more than 30 years but I would take pictures and make documentaries about Palestinian villages,” he said.
“Palestinians made me a photojournalist.”
The 72-year-old’s experiences on the ground not only taught him about the history of Palestine, but also about the importance of his work.
During his 1982 trip to Lebanon, Hirokawa visited Sabra and Shatila camps where he met a grieving father: “There was an old man who kept asking me ‘why now you come? Why not before one month?’ I couldn’t understand.”“Then I understood that his son was killed one month before. He said: ‘If a journalist was there, the soldier couldn’t kill my son in front of a journalist.’”
“Before that time, I understood journalists can take pictures and report, but he said I can guard the people,” Hirokawa explains. The image of this grieving father pushed him to enter Sabra and Shatila camps straight after the massacre.
“I remembered this person, without journalists something awful happens, but I was afraid too much. My body said don’t go, it’s too dangerous. The refugee camp was closed by Israeli tanks but I started to enter.”
“Immediately I found dead boy, dead bodies.”
In spite of his fears he says the memory of the grieving father pushed him to “go and watch and tell”.
“I took pictures of just dead bodies. I was too afraid at that time. I was very sad that I only took pictures of dead bodies. I have to know the names so I wanted to go back again but that was difficult as Israel had closed the camp,” he explains. “After one year I could succeed in entering the camp. I found the victim’s families and wrote their stories. When I finished a teacher asked me ‘why you are interested in dead people? Why you’re not interested in survivors?’ So I did an exhibition of war, massacre and 20 pictures of children.”
Documenting the Palestinian villages has taken Hirokawa 30 years but in that time he has also set up the Japanese Committee for the Children of Palestine, a Japanese charity which allows people to sponsor orphans and sees them through their education while building educational institutes for them in Lebanon.
“People want to help,” he explains.