As a result of the election campaign of Donald Trump and his subsequent presidency, the debate about American immigration policy and the strengthening of the US southern border to Mexico has become one of the most divisive issues in American national discourse. Increasing anti-immigration rhetoric has led to the vitriolic scapegoating of illegal immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and Central America. Amidst the cries of “bad guys”, “rapists” and “criminals”, swarming over the border into the United States, it often goes unmentioned that illegal immigrants contribute to economic growth, enhance the welfare of natives and contribute more in tax revenue than they collect. Worryingly, there is even less attention paid to the individual stories of the migrants, their motivations for leaving their native countries and the struggles they endure in the search of a better life for themselves and their families. Japanese photographer Kosuke Okahara shot the following story by accompanying illegal immigrants, leaving behind their lives in Central and South America, on the perilous journey to the US. We spoke with Kosuke about his experiences and his take on shooting such an immersive, long-term project.
When did you first discover your passion for photography in general and long-term reportage in particular?
When I was in my 3rd year at college I came to know a person who was working in Kosovo for the UN. She asked me to come and visit, so I just went there out of curiosity and she showed me around the area when she was off duty. That experience made me think of becoming a reporter. I was not particularly into photography at that time. To me anything was fine, writing, photography or video. Somehow photography stayed with me and I became more interested in using this medium to tell stories.
Regarding my interest in long-term projects, it’s simply impossible for me to finish a project in a very short period of time. When I started photographing a project in Colombia, every time I went, I would find something I could not photograph, or something related to what I was doing appeared just as my time there was running out. So there was always a reason to go back. For me it simply takes time to do a project. Maybe I am a slow learner, so it takes time.
Several of your projects were shot on location in Colombia. How did your relationship to the country and people develop?
The first time I went there was in 2003, when I was 23. By chance I read a book about the country and that sparked my interested. When I arrived in Colombia, I met several people by chance and one of them was a local journalist, who was working on a report covering the violence in a town called Barrancabermeja. I was relatively green and inexperienced but he was super kind and taught me so much about the town and the country. He also taught me how to function as a journalist in the town. He was like a mentor to me. He even took me to very sensitive situations. The way he talked to people was really gentle and caring. He is not a photographer but I learnt so much from him.
After shooting a few times in the same town, I started to have more questions about the situation and conditions people were living in. Also, generally speaking, people in Colombia are really kind and nice. I fell in love with the people too. As I developed my relationship with people in different places in Colombia, I came to know more stories that led me to other stories.
Your different series on the drug trade in Columbia display a rare level of access. How did this come about? And why is this kind of intimate access so important for your work?
To me, it is very difficult to photograph people on the street. I am comfortable taking pictures of people who are OK with being photographed. In order to do that, I need intimate access. One of the interesting aspects of photography (I don’t know how it is for other people but this is my experience) is that photography is an art that shows the relationship between the one who photographs and one who is photographed. Therefore I spend a lot of time and energy achieving access. This is probably one of the most important things for my photography. I am not intentionally trying to find difficult situations, just for the sake of “gaining access”, but when I do, it is important to me because the kind of access I get also makes my photography that more individual.
In terms of gaining access (practically speaking, although this not practical at all), I basically talk to people and walk around an awful lot. I really spend a lot of time and energy on it. I would say I am also quite patient. So there’s a lot of waiting involved while I carry out my projects. I think 70% of the time I spend on a project is not photographing but gaining access. However, once you get access or develop trust with people, then you can simply be there and anything around you can be a part of the story.
Your series “Almost Paradise” follows the perilous journey of migrants from Colombia through Central America to the U.S. This is a journey of some 4500 km over the course of 4 months. Were you traveling with the migrants every step of the way? Could you tell us a little more about your experiences while shooting this superb body of work?
The idea for the story came to my mind when one of my contacts from another story I photographed told me his cousin had just come back from the U.S. He meant that his cousin had been deported. I had coffee with him and he talked about his story while in the States and his wife and his son, who still lived there. He said one day he wanted to join his family again. That made me interested in doing this story. The initial plan was to photograph on the way to the U.S. and to go and see his wife and son in NYC. Long story short, I called the wife when I reached New York and I was expecting to hear a kind of beautiful love story, that the wife is waiting for her husband but she told me that she was getting married to another man, who was in the States legally and that she doesn’t love the man I had met in Colombia anymore. One of the Colombians, who runs a travel agency and helps a lot of fellow Colombians told me, “Life in the States is not easy if you do not have legal status”.
In terms of the story that came to be “Almost Paradise”, I first went to a town in the north of Colombia to see a person, who helps to smuggle migrants across the border with Panama. I got his contact through a local journalist in Medellin. Then I started traveling with him and his clients. After arriving in Panama, however, he didn’t want me to come along with him, thinking I might stand out because I am Asian.
So it was not easy to find an individual, who I could accompany on the entire journey but I started meeting people along the way. I traveled each part of the journey with one particular group and after finally arriving in Mexico by boat from Guatemala, I then continued until the border between Mexico and the U.S. At that time, there were two ways to cross the border to Mexico from Guatemala: Either from the north through the jungle, which is very notorious for the gangs that wait for migrants there, who are known to kidnap women and children, while men are robbed or killed, or via the coastline where the Coyotes (those who help to smuggle the migrants across the border) use small boats to smuggle people into Mexico. I chose the route via the coast. We went to the house of this coyote and his mother and sister were really nice to me (maybe I was an interesting stranger as I came from so far away). After I explained who I am and what I am doing, the coyote said he can take me with the other migrants. I spent a few days on the coast of Guatemala with other migrants from different countries of Latin America, including Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. One day the boss of the coyotes (who was a woman) told us we were to leave but the sea was really rough on that day. We left anyway but it was really tough and the coyotes decided to turn back. After that failed attempt more than half of the migrants left as they feared for their lives. The next day the sea was a little calmer and the boss said we would leave now. We were split up into two boats and not far from the beach (probably not even 50m) when one of the boats capsized. In Japan we have swimming classes in every school, so most kids know how to swim but there are migrants who have no idea how to swim or even float. The coyotes and those migrants, who could swim, jumped into the sea. I didn’t have time to photograph as I jumped into the sea and tried to help those who could not swim. It was crazy. The sea was not so deep but everyone was panicking. Finally, all the people who had been in the capsized boat were rescued.
When we got back to the house where we had waited before, the boss told us to leave the very next day as the sea was quite calm but after the incident more migrants left as they no longer wanted to go by boat. It was late afternoon, around 4pm, when seven of us left the coast of Guatemala toward Mexico’s Oaxaca state, which was approximately 600 km away.
We saw the Mexican coastguard on the way and the captain of the boat told us to hide. The trip was not so harsh but it was cold and dark. It took us around 12 hours to reach Mexico and it was really tiring and scary.
How did your personal relationship to the migrants develop over time? How would you describe the people you were traveling with and photographing?
As we experienced more of the journey together, we became closer and closer but at some point they realized that the presence of me as an Asian could cause a problem for them, so it was intimate while I was with them but, after experiencing difficulties, I had to leave them as they continued their journey. The people I traveled with were basically nice and good-humored people. Some of them were more serious while others didn’t seem to care that they were risking their lives. It really depended on the individual’s personality. One woman I met along the way spoke perfect English with an American accent and said she was raised in the U.S but sent to Mexico when she was discovered to be staying illegally in the States. She was officially a Mexican but she said she had no close contacts in Mexico at all.
You shoot almost exclusively in black and white, as is the case with this series, and your images have a recognizably high-contrast, grainy feel to them. This often creates a soft yet foreboding feel in your photos. How much does the style of your photography relate to your storytelling for such intimate, long-term projects as “Almost Paradise”?
Honestly speaking, I simply like black and white, though I shoot color for assignments and I also find this very interesting, as I can use the power of color, which is really strong. The combination of the film and chemical developing techniques I used for this series makes it look the way it does. I wanted to have something stand out from the 2D world of photography, which is why I used Rodinal to develop the rolls of Kodak Tri-X. This combination gives the pictures some kind of 3D effect. I don’t know if I would call it my style but probably not. I mean style is not simply how the photographs look but it is more about the approach taken or the relationship between photographer and subject, which you feel in your stomach when you see the pictures.
You shot this series with the Leica M7 and a 24mm/f2.8 Elmarit ASPH, as well as a 35mm/f2 Summicron lens. What do you appreciate most about this particular set up? And to what degree do the focal lengths of 24 and 35mm force you to get closer to your subjects?
Most of the pictures were shot with a 24mm lens because I was always very close yet wanted to show the environment the people were in. 24mm forces me to get close, otherwise my perspective becomes too withdrawn. I haven’t seen how close I actually am when I am shooting but it feels physically quite close. 35mm was also a good length when I was not inside the buildings or cars or the boat. It gave me a perfect distance to the subjects.
Have you always shot with the Leica M7? And how has your relationship to the camera developed over time?
I first bought this camera in 2006, since then I have used it as my primary camera. It’s quiet and small and the lens is really good. I see absolutely no reason to change my camera.
With current US immigration policy hitting the headlines again, how do you think this series (shot in 2008) has aged? And do you think it is just as relevant as when you shot it?
Since I haven’t been back to the borders recently, I cannot really comment on the current situation. However, the important thing is to realize the situation in the countries where the migrants are coming from. I think the situation in Central American countries is far, far from ideal. I’m not sure if my work is still relevant today but if we are talking about the struggle for people who choose to leave their countries, it can be something the photographs are able to show, not the travel itself but the emotions of the people who undertake the journey.
Your other work includes a long-term project on the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, as well as a project on the Japanese concept of “Ibasyo”. What are you working on at the moment? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I have recently been working on a project in Okinawa. This is nothing directly related to the history of war or the presence of the American army but more like the lives of those people living in a particular town in Okinawa. I already have an exhibition in France (at the festival in Saint-Brieux and my Parisian gallery called Polka) but I will continue with this project in the coming years and hope to reveal something that’s not really been seen before.
Finally, what one piece of advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their reportage photography?
It is difficult to say such things. Each person has different ways of conducting their own project. It takes time and requires patience, which is probably not so practical these days, especially when everything moves so fast. But the process is really quite important and only such a process, one which requires much energy and time, can get you the best pictures possible.