Saturday, 18 September 2010

Picturing secrets

How do you decide the line between morbid curiosity (as a viewer) and celebration (as a photographer)? The yakuza seem to occupy a level in people's minds where curiosity makes them a bit more mysterious than the Mafia, for example. I got to meet a (largely inactive) yakuza during the summer and to see his full-torso, epic dragon tattoo – which was decidedly impressive and a treat to see. Again – and elsewhere – this summer, I visited an onsen where yakuza were obviously allowed (tattoos are usually disallowed in public baths). Again, there was a frisson to be sharing a public bath with impressively tattooed – though also tightly-permed – bathers.

But, being on the wrong end of the yakuza, is the same as being on the wrong end of the mafia. (Perhaps check out Jake Adelstein's documentary of dealing with Tokyo Vice, for example. Or Beat Takeshi's fictional attempt to bluntly outrage in film).

Would a close-up visual exploration of the Italian Mafia, in these well post-Godfather days, be rewarded in the same way as the self-publishing site Blurb has rewarded the book The Yakuza in Tokyo, a winner this month in their photo book award? The photographer – Anton Kusters – had a great deal of access, that is plain. And a great deal of photographic skill and talent. But more and more, while ackowledging their part in cultural history, Japan is more wanting to deal with the problems of yakuza as much as giving them a continued air of mystery.

You can look at Kusters' photos, or not, for you to decide the line…

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