Tsuneko Sasamoto, who was among the first women to become a professional photojournalist in Japan, has died at 107, CNN reported on August 15. Sasamoto died of natural causes.
In the eras during and after World War II, Sasamoto photographed a rapidly changing Japan, often doing so on commission for major publications. She set a model in the country for women photojournalists who followed after by taking up a mode that had for so long been associated only with men.
Sasamoto had recently been included in the exhibition “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” a survey of the women who shaped photography as an artistic medium during the first half of the 20th century. That show appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A self-portrait of Sasamoto had been used to market the show.
Born in 1914 in Tokyo, Sasamoto studied illustration and pattern design in college, and later became a photographer when, in 1940, she was approached by Kenichi Hayashi, a family friend who served as head of the Japan Photo Library. Although she was not trained in photography, she began taking pictures at Hayashi’s suggestion. Her earliest photographs are done in a style that recalls Margaret Bourke-White, an American photojournalist who shot for LIFE.
Even if her photography did not seem to show it, Sasamoto came up against the gender constraints of the moment. According to Andrea Nelson, a National Gallery of Art photography curator who organized “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” Sasamoto had to wear a skirt and heels—the customary garb for female professionals at the time—and this kept her from getting some of the best shots possible. She also was never able to directly photograph conflict during World War II because she was a woman.
She did, however, get to take pictures for the Japanese weekly Shashin Shuho and a Chinese publication, and was able to travel while on commission for them.
After the war, Sasamoto captured how radically Japan had been altered. Photographs such as Ginza 4 Chome P.X. (1946), which shows a woman passing before a Post Exchange, show the incursion of the American military into Japanese life in the years following World War II’s end.
Although Sasamoto’s photography has been esteemed in Japan, it wasn’t well-known in the U.S. until “The New Woman Behind the Camera” opened. Some have criticized the way that Sasamoto’s work was framed in the show, since her images included a portrait of a right-wing official and pictures that were exported to the West as symbols of Japanese progress.
Historian Kelly Midori McCormick, who has studied modern Japan, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that Sasamoto “was complicit in the racist, imperialist mission of the Japanese government during World War II.” The Met show, she continued, “demonstrates how easy it is to rip photographs out of their contexts.”
In a 2020 article published by the National Gallery of Art, Nelson recounted meeting Sasamoto before the pandemic and asking her what it was like to be a rare woman working in her field.
“She told me that she often felt isolated within the group and that her work was not taken seriously,” Nelson wrote. “Yet she added that there was a camaraderie between photographers…. Looking back on her career, what remains with her is how the camera brought her confidence and the opportunity to meet so many fascinating people.”