Live Encounters Magazine June 2021
Kenro Izu (b. 1949) was born in Osaka, Japan. During his studies at Nippon University, college of art, Izu visited New York in 1970 to study photography, and subsequently decided to stay and work. In 1975, after working as an assistant to other photographers, Izu established Kenro Izu Studio in New York City. He has had numerous exhibitions of his work across the world, published books and founded Friends Without A Border, an NGO, which set up two children’s hospitals – one in Cambodia and the other in Laos. www.kenroizu.com
Kenro Izu, photographer and philanthropist, who is searching for the Divine through the lens of his camera, in a candid conversation with Mark Ulyseas.
Why did you become a photographer?
When I was in school I wanted to be a medical research doctor. So my first camera, Minolta, was purchased to photograph micro-organisms. I attached it to a microscope.
As a kid I read the story of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and Hideyo Noguchi – who was involved in making discoveries and finding cures to incurable diseases. I wanted to be that kind of doctor…not a surgeon or anything else…but to research and find cures – so I was doing my own study when I was in high school. But when it came time to enter medical college I realised I was not really suited for such study as I possessed rather an artistic brain. And since I was already photographing small objects under the microscope I thought…why not photograph landscapes or flowers or people – I had become good at it. So I decided to become a fine art photographer. I joined Nihon University, College of Arts, in Tokyo in 1969. Unfortunately, in those days there was no fine art photography in Japan. The only option was commercial photography, journalism or portrait photography.
I had read a number of magazines, art magazines, that in New York there was a museum that ‘treated’ photography as an art form. They displayed photography on the same level as paintings, sculptures and also there were art galleries that handled photography as objects of art…buy, display, sell. New York beckoned me and so I decided to take a few months break from college and travel to this city in 1970. And in this process my life changed forever. I fell in love with New York. I was 21 years of age. I think the city was really addictive. Soon I ran out of money. My mother refused to help me because I had left college without graduating. She was quite upset. So I took to doing odd jobs, mostly dish washing and working as a mover’s assistant. Fortunately, in a matter of three months, I found a job as a commercial photographer’s assistant.
Of course I was continuing to create my fine art photography but at the same time realised that that kind of work was not going to support me and that it would take at least ten years to reach such a level. So I learned the skill of commercial photography. Soon I opened my own studio to do still life photography – because I was better at photographing objects than people…fashion models…partly because of my language. That was the beginning of my career as a commercial photographer.
Several years on my studio was doing well and I started to make money. At this stage I realised that I had not come to New York to just make money. I wanted to create fine art with my photography. So I began set out to do just this. In 1979 I decided to pack my equipment and visit Egypt. The visual and spiritual impact of the pyramids inspired me to begin the series – Sacred Places.
It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. From childhood the Seven Wonders of the World always fascinated me. I randomly selected Egypt…maybe Giza Pyramid was more attractive to me than others. From the trip, one photograph became my debut piece. It was featured in a book produced by The Metropolitan Museum, the curator of photography. At about the same time Howard Greenberg, who was about to open a fine art gallery for photographs, saw my debut photograph in a charity auction where I donated the piece, and approached me with an offer to exhibit my work in his soon to open gallery. Since then Howard Greenberg has become one of the major dealers in fine art photographs. I was kind of moved up with him, thanks to Howard, he always supported me… he exhibited my work regularly and helped in publishing my books. (see LINK) The reality is that the financial returns from my fine art photography cannot compare with that of my commercial assignments. The income from a single advertising campaign, on which I would spend about a week, could support me for several months! Whereas with fine art photography I could never do this. So until recently, I think about two years ago, I finally stopped commercial photography when I passed the age of 65 years… now I collect pension and focus only to fine art work. I am 67 years of age.
But you don’t look 67 years old.
People say that when you do something you love then you don’t age.
It would appear that with your camera you are making a spiritual journey. Could you elaborate?
I view myself as a pilgrim seeking a path towards the meaning of human existence with my camera. I am not that kind of person, like a philosopher, who sits and think at a desk for long hours. I am born a photographer. When I see something I respond to it. I begin to find a meaning. So my camera is a tool, perhaps a vehicle to transport me from one atmosphere to another.
Also, it is good excuse to travel to the other side of the world where I learn different culture and sense of beauty through the camera recording images of the wonders of life.
Whenever I travelled to different countries I often came across very poor people, destitute and sick children, much suffering. And this disturbed me. And so I would put a donation in the box of the Red Cross or UNICEF at different airports and at Christmas I would send $100 or 200 to my favourite cause, Doctors Without Borders, and then I would forget about it. I thought I had done my bit. Many people also give money to charity and are done with it.
But my photographs always reminded me of what I had seen and confronted me with a reality I would have probably forgotten if I had not recorded the images with my camera.
Eventually it dawned on me that as a photographer I am privileged to be able to go to many places, to do so as part of my work, get paid for it, and have the honour of exhibiting my work at galleries and museum shows. But on the flip side I have obligations to record for posterity what I had seen… the external view of a society and the internal aspects of the same society that is often overlooked. For example – Angkor Wat – this is a positive side of Cambodian society…aesthetic beauty carved in stone, the exquisite architecture, the shapes and how light plays across the surface and the shadows that lurk between the shapes. This series was titled Light over Ancient Angkor. The light was Angkor Wat and the shadows being what ails Cambodian society – the landmine victims and poverty. For me this was photography of Life. For it resonated with the senses and forced one to acknowledge the paradoxes in which we live.
This prompted me to narrate a story, the story of my journey. Perhaps it was at this time that I was confronted with many soul searching questions about the purpose and sanctity of life and the futility of mindless violence.
In 1983 you bought a Deardorff camera which produces a 14” x 20” image/print. Why? What did you hope to achieve with this camera?
Initially I used 4” x 5” and 8” x 10” formats. I tried numerous ways to enlarge the photograph, regardless of the negative size to only depict the architecture but the space, aura, around the object. Though the architectural aspects were sharp the aura was lost during enlargement…the air or atmosphere.
I came across the works of Paul Strand (October 16, 1890 – March 31, 1976) who produced platinum prints using an 8” x 10” camera. Hence, the print was small. I viewed his photographs at a Sotheby’s auction. I observed that the aura, air, around the subjects in his photographs. He had captured the very essence of the object. I learned that this image was a contact print using platinum process. A platinum print is a contact print…it can be reproduced only in the size of the negative. It cannot be enlarged. Hence, I needed a large format camera. That is why I ordered to build a 14” x 20” Deardorff camera. The subsequent prints would be in a large enough size for my fine art photographs of my series Sacred Places which captures the aura, air, around the architecture in holy places.
I am known for my platinum prints. A platinum print is made with a hand coated paper. You cannot buy printing paper for this camera, you have to make it by hand…coat the paper by hand. LINK Platinum prints need a big negative. You cannot enlarge the image. As the platinum paper senses only ultra violet light it captures the tonality… infinitive shades of gray, unlike a plain black and white print, it is fine gradation from black all the way to white.
I was drawn to this process for the quality I could get when creating the series Sacred Spaces because at holy places I am not photographing the architectural sites, I am not photographing pyramids, I am not photographing Stonehenge, I am trying to capture the aura, air surrounding the pyramid, the air surrounding Stonehenge, air surrounding Angkor Wat…the atmosphere.
You pioneered a technique called Cyanotype over Platinum Print. What is this?
Cyanotype is the simple process of making blue prints. I have combined the cyanotype with the platinum print. At one stage in my career I experimented with deep blue images. This was between 2001-2004. It happened coincidentally exactly one hundred years after Picasso finished the Blue Period (1901 and 1904). My work was a little bit of a mutation of Picasso’s.
I was researching a technique to produce a deep blue image over mainly nude and some still life photographs. Finally I came up with a combination of platinum print as a base print with layers of cyano chemicals and negative over the exact position i.e. one image of platinum and four layers of cyano- type. The resultant blue image becoming infinitively close to black, which can express the inner emotion of person.
When you visit a place do you see the photograph in your mind before you actually shoot it?
Both. When I set my tripod, because my camera is so big, I cannot casually move it around as it weighs 120 kgs (including the lens etc., with which I travel around the world for nearly forty years). So it’s not easy to shoot this way or that way. I have to set up the camera and take just one shot. That’s it for one day!
I can take only about 100 sheets of film for one trip (average of 25-40 days in India, Tibet, Nepal and other travels) – when I click 100 times, it’s over. No more photographs are possible. So I have to be very careful, each day or at each given site how many sheets I allocate. So I’m very cautious about when to shoot. Basically when I see the place, I wait patiently to feel it in spirit and to visually observe its physical beauty. And I wait for something to happen…the awakening of the spiritual atmosphere. From my experience I have felt that the Spirit comes to earth only certain hours of the day. He is here for a while before the sun rises and as the sun gets brighter departs from whence He came. During broad daylight humanity takes over. He returns once again after sunset in the twilight hours and departs again when dark- ness falls. And because I am aware of this I do not photograph holy places at times when He is not present. Sometimes, I have to wait for as long as three days to sense His presence. And then, when the time comes, I take two photographs and leave.
After you take the photograph do you process the print immediately?
No. I bring them back to New York because the film is too big to process.
Is it true that these prints last for a thousand years?
History can prove only 170 years. No one can prove beyond this at this time…
When you visited sacred places did you have a spiritual experience at any point, like an epiphany?
I visited Mount Kailash three years in a row and one trip it was snowing so I could not do any photography for one whole week. I could not see Mount Kailash and I was so frustrated lying in the tent and every morning I couldn’t even see where our kitchen or staff tents were…the weather was so bad. When I was lying in the tent looking at the ceiling of the tent, I noticed condensation, a droplet of water running on the fabric of the tent above me and I kept looking at it and at one moment when I was watching I felt frustrated because I had come here to take a picture but in the process I had forgotten that my journey was a pilgrimage, my purpose, my existence… so I thought to myself that I did not have to use my eyes nor my camera and it would be better to simply close my eyes. And when I did, it was an epiphany. From that moment on I was a different person. Perhaps it was the spirit of Mount Kailash.
The other time was in Angkor Wat, before the tourists hordes, in 1993-94. I was all alone in the monument and I wandered in the ruins and began to acclimatize myself, which is my regular routine. First day I walk around without the camera and try to absorb the spiritual air because when I arrive in a new place my body is filled with the New York air, New York pace of the time, everything alien to the place. So if I go to Cambodia, Cambodian pace of the time, Cambodian air is different so I have to acclimate. To take a picture one needs to acclimate to sense the feeling of a particular place. So I started walking through the complex viewing the stones, flowers and ivy. Suddenly I started to feel a presence. I looked around. Of course there was nobody. There were corridors running north, east, west…I was at an intersection of a corridor near the statue of Shiva without a head, behind it was a Buddhist stupa. You probably know that Cambodia’s witnessed the reign of two kings – one Buddhist and the other Hindu. I felt a presence, it was strong but I couldn’t see anything – and the next moment I started to feel emotional for no reason –not sad – I just felt a warm feeling embracing me. I do not remember when I was a baby but I can imagine if a baby is held in a mother’s bosom – that kind of feeling. I burst into tears, I felt an immense love.
The following year another experience followed, which led me to set up the children’s hospital in Cambodia.
Do you think the spiritual experience you had in Angkor Wat in 1993-94 was the force that guided you to build the hospital?
Yes, that experience taught me about love, a very big love that had embraced me. So in the next year when I returned I was interested in visiting the local hospital. In between a photography trip I stopped by the Provincial hospital.
My guide acted as a translator and got me permission to visit the children’s ward. I stopped at the bed of a child patient with her father in attendance. And while I was enquiring about the girl’s illness, she died in front of me.
My guide translated…that the father had brought her from a remote village for treatment by truck. His money was spent on the fare and he had no more money to pay for medicines. The doctor permitted the child to use a hospital bed but did not treat her. So she died. It was at this point that I decided to set up a children’s hospital in Siem Reap for free to all Cambodians. (see LINK)
How did you go about setting up the children’s hospital in Cambodia?
I had a clear vision. I made a proposal and circulated it among my friends. In the beginning we didn’t have an organization. I found out that we would have to create a NGO to avail of tax benefits so my money and those of donors is exempt from tax. I went on field trip to Cambodia and met the UNICEF rep and met other NGO reps to seek their advice, and finally I went to the Ministry of Health.
I set up Friends Without A Border (see LINK) in 1995. In 1997 we raised enough money to start the building of the hospital, which was for landmine victims and the poor, like the child who died in front of me. In 1999, Angkor Hospital for Children opened. Since then it has provided medical care and health education to over 1.6 million children across Cambodia. (see LINK)
Why did you set up the children’s hospital in Laos?
In 2013 when we handed over the Cambodian hospital to the locally established NGO, which was centered around the local staff of the hospital, the Friends Without A Border’s financial burden was reduced drastically because we no longer have to full-fund the hospital in Cambodia. So we conducted a retreat where the Board members discussed the future of Friends Without A Border – whether we would dissolve the NGO or look for another project.
The outcome of this meeting was that we would look for another project either in Myanmar or Laos.
We travelled to Myanmar and Luang Prabang (Laos) in a group consisting of board, donors and a medical advisor.
We settled on Luang Prabang because the authorities were very helpful and welcoming. Also, it was a safer place for our staff and volunteers. Unlike Myanmar which had a democratically elected government but ruled by the army. The ground realities there not conducive to setting up the hospital as we couldn’t risk the millions of dollars of our donors nor the safety of our staff.
We found that there was an existing relationship between Laotian and Cambodian doctors in our hospital in Siem Reap Cambodia. So there was already a connection. Also, Friends Without A Border had a good reputation with the Cambodians, hence the officials at the Lao Ministry welcomed us.
Finally we took the Head of Health Department, Governor and Head of Provincial Hospital on all- paid tour to Cambodia to show the hospital at Siem Reap. After the tour the Laos official gave us permission to set up the hospital in Luang Prabang because we were not trying to own or run a business but only to set up hospital, educate the staff, which would then be handed over in due course to the people of Laos. (see LINK).
Lao Friends Hospital for Children (LFHC) provides free medical care and health education to children in Luang Prabang, Laos. Through the model of Treatment + Education + Prevention, the hospital treats over 20,000 children annually, educates hundreds of local medical professionals, and prevents thousands of diseases through its Outreach Program. LFHC’s guiding motto is “treat every patient as if your own child.”
With the advent of the digital camera do you think we have gone the wrong way?
I don’t think it is right or wrong. The convenience and speed is unbeatable by old-fashion film photography. I think this is a kind of phenomenon. People of late have developed very strong egos. Many loudly announces… me, me, me… The selfie is symbolic of runaway egos.
If you travel to Luang Prabang and visit Wat Xiang Thong Temple you will observe swarms of tourists taking selfies with the beautiful temple in the background. Instead of admiring the exquisiteness and absorbing the sanctity of the place the tourists are admiring themselves in their camera lens.
When I was in Pompeii, Italy, at the archaeological site, where I am presently working on a new project, hordes of tourist descended on the site…everyone had a stick with a mobile-camera attached to it. They were obsessed with taking photos of themselves with the artifacts in the background… beautiful mosaic and frescoes. The ancient artefacts being of no consequence to these tourists posing in front of their own cameras. This is the bad side effect of the digital camera and the phone camera. I shall also add Facebook to this…the posts are all about I, I, I and I…everything I did today…eat, work, play etc. etc. They listen to others only when others listen to them
When you go to exhibitions of Contemporary Art you see art screaming ‘look at me’, ‘listen to what I think’, ‘listen to what I believe’. They are about ‘me’ and many are about what they think, they concerned only with themselves and their ideas, instead of the art itself – Though occasionally there are great ideas and works…
Sometimes I question – is that art showing at the museum… visitors paying 20$ entrance fee to view an artist’s work that is more about the artist than about his or her artwork? The ‘I’ has displaced the art.
I have stopped going to the Modern Art Museum in New York lately. In the 70s it was different. Artists, then were isolated from their work, removed from the subject so the viewer could enjoy the beauty and complexities of the theme. Now it is the artist first and their work as a backdrop. Bit like the selfie.
What is your message to the readers of Live Encounters?
I often receive emails from young people who say they want to be like me – saving the children – they ask for advice. I just tell them to believe in themselves, move one step at a time and to get out of their comfort zone. As long as they are staying in their comfort zone they are not going to achieve anything new. It’s the same with photography. One has to step out.
With my photography the message is – in the most recent series titled Eternal Light (of India) – about the dignity of people whether they are poor, outside the caste, orphans, street children or those who are dying. These people possess a dignity that reflects an inner beauty. You know in western countries, maybe in Asia too, people tend to think being rich and famous is “The success”.
It makes me think about the meaning of “success”. And I believe those who exist on the threshold of society, the dispossessed, and the poor also have beauty in their life. They have a faith which guide their life. They also know how to share their things with others despite their poverty (in the material world).
© Photographs Kenro Izu/interview Mark Ulyseas