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History’s witness: <br class="br_visual" />the incredible career of Hiroji Kubota

History’s witness:
the incredible career of Hiroji Kubota

© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

January 2016

He’s witnessed events that have changed the course of history, and documented people, places and cultures all over the world for over 50 years. So what drives Hiroji Kubota? And what is the story behind the career of one of Magnum’s longest serving members? CPN writer Ian Farrell discovers more...

Hiroji Kubota first met members of the Magnum photo agency while studying political science at the University of Waseda in Tokyo, Japan in 1961. This chance encounter led to friendships with René Burri, Burt Glinn and Elliott Erwitt; friendships that would help Kubota make a name for himself as one of the most prolific photojournalists of the 20th century.

One of the most significant moments in Kubota’s career came in 1975 when he witnessed the fall of Saigon and the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. It was a period that had a profound effect on his photography, resulting in a vow to never photograph conflict again. In 1979, Kubota embarked on a 1000-day tour of China, shooting more than 200,000 images that would be published as the seminal book and exhibition China in 1985.

To add to his many awards and recognitions, Kubota has recently enjoyed two retrospective exhibitions of his work – one featuring platinum black & white prints, the other images made using his beloved dye-transfer process. A book entitled simply Hiroji Kubota Photographer has just been published featuring images from throughout his remarkable 50-year career.

© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos
© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Asakusa, Japan, 1967. Sanja Matsuri Festival.

Q: Can you remember the first time you picked up a camera?

I think I perhaps first started taking pictures as a hobby, back in 1959 or 1960. A junior high-school classmate told me recently I was shooting pictures back then – I do wish I could find the original negatives from that time.

Q: What was it like in your early days – when you were assisting and relocating in the US?

I briefly assisted Elliott Erwitt in Tokyo in 1961, and Cornell Capa a couple of times when he was a LIFE magazine photographer. And Burt Glinn gave me assisting work many times between 1962 and 1963. They were all very kind to me.

I went to New York in August 1962 to try to be a photographer, and had a lot of help from Elliott. Without him, I simply could not have done it. I’d studied political science at university in Tokyo, but I’d never studied photography or art. I’d never even worked in a darkroom. I also got involved with the people at Newsweek magazine. It was the time of the Cuban missile crisis and the world was on the verge of an atomic-bomb war – I thought it was my fate to die there.

That was the same year I first became involved with Magnum – it felt like my family, and I really wanted to join. Luckily, I became semi-officially a Magnum photographer in 1965.

Q: Why photojournalism? When did you first learn to tell stories with your photos?

I have never thought of myself as a photojournalist; I am just a photographer. The first time I told a story with my pictures? This was probably 1963 when, purely by accident, I photographed Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous address in Washington D.C.

I didn’t really know who he was, but the people at Newsweek told me I should be in Washington D.C. on 28 August for this important rally. I turned up early that morning at the Washington Monument. There were lots of youngsters chanting and dancing. As more people came I was pushed back and had to fight through the crowds. I later heard this incredible voice saying: “I have a dream…” and I knew instinctively I was witnessing a page in history.

Q: Tell us about your time photographing the Vietnam War. You witnessed the fall of Saigon...

Yes, I visited South Vietnam for a month in 1972 – René Burri urged me to go there. I ended up staying at the same hotel as Don McCullin, who asked me if I’d ever been up to the combat front line. I said no I hadn’t, so he took me there to see it for myself. I was terrified, but Don told me to listen to my intuition: if I was scared then I should just jump into any nearby foxhole to get out of the way, even if soldiers were already in it.

© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos
© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Inner Mongolia, China, 1982.

I thought I’d never go back to Saigon, but in 1975 Magnum contacted me while I was in Bangkok and asked me to get there as soon as possible. I didn’t need a visa to enter the country because of my Japanese passport. I said that I had very little money, but they replied that the Newsweek Saigon office had plenty of ‘green bucks’ and film, so I flew straight there.

I meant to stay for a week or so, but a 6am–6pm curfew had already been imposed. The city was surrounded by north Vietnamese soldiers, so you couldn’t really venture very far. Soon after the fall of Da Nang things got pretty chaotic and I ended up staying six weeks, until the capital fell on 29 April.

I got very well paid for photographing those who were suffering and I felt very guilty about that. I recalled my memories of the last days of the Pacific War, when I was six years old, and from that day on I decided not to photograph any war or conflict again.

Q: How difficult was it to get permission to shoot in China back in the 1970s?

Japan and China established diplomatic relations in 1972, but this was still during the Cultural Revolution. In October of 1978, the office of Mr. Kinkazu Saionji – a close friend of Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai – called me to ask if I still wanted to go to China. Of course I said yes and went straight to Beijing to meet with the senior governmental officials.

They asked me what I wanted to do and I had the nerve to tell them that I wanted to photograph all of the provinces of their vast country – and they said yes. It took me seven years and I made over 40 trips to China, spending over 1000 days to complete the project. Soon I found out Deng Xiaoping had became the new paramount leader in the autumn of 1978. I was just very lucky to have that opportunity to make those connections while I could.

Q: Congratulations on your retrospective exhibitions and book. How was the experience of editing your work to create these projects?

I learned a lot! I have done many large-scale exhibitions around the world in the past, and published 18 books before the retrospective book. One doesn’t do a retrospective too often, so I went through all of my images – over 4 million of them – which took three years. Luckily, I had a great publisher and a brilliant book designer. Of all of the exhibitions I’ve had, this one was unique… very beautiful. It had both dye-transfer and platinum-print exhibitions – a wonderful combination.

Q: Is there a big difference between curating for an exhibition and editing for a book?

When editing for the book, I had help from the Executive Director of Aperture, Chris Boot, and my super book designer Stuart Smith. I made a few comments, but essentially those guys did just about everything. It’s very hard to edit your own work.

© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos
© Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Pyongyang, North Korea, 1982. Mass games for Kim Il Sung's birthday celebration.

For the exhibitions I worked with Ms. Junko Ogawa, the director the Magnum Tokyo office. I also had the invaluable assistance of Phillippe Laumont, who is a great framer. Elegant, durable framing is essential in exhibition design. Annette Booth of Aperture and Art Presson at the ICP were also very helpful.

Q: How has photojournalism changed over time for you?

I used to be able to do many magazines and newspaper jobs, but after the big success of my China book [published in 1985 in seven international editions] I went on only to do book projects – good days! Since then I’ve enjoyed spending time producing prints with very special processes, like dye-transfer, which has meant that I’ve spent less time focusing on conceptual matters, like how photojournalism has changed, even though that is a good and serious topic.

Q: When did you first become interested in these alternative printing processes?

Soon after my China book project was completed I started to experiment with dye-transfer prints – up to 12 natural dye colours hand-printed on 20 x 24inch (51 x 61cm) paper. It’s out of this world! With modern technology you can also make beautiful prints of almost any size – and I like these too – but dye-transfer is special. More so, perhaps, because you cannot do it now, and none of the materials you need are available any more.

Q: Have you now switched over completely from film to digital photography?

I shoot digitally with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and I would like to get the EOS 5DS – people say it’s terrific. But I do still use film from time-to-time, especially with panoramic cameras.

Q: Even in this age of high-definition video and instant rolling news, the still photograph continues to be a very powerful journalistic tool. Why does it continue to be so impactful?

Video is very powerful, but I cannot do it really – I’m terrible with those machines! Maybe, I am outdated or too old (76 years of age) to change my style. However, I am very curious – maybe I’ll start doing it soon.

Q: Which region of the world has been the most interesting for you to photograph?

The world is so interesting all over, but also so huge! When it comes to serious projects, I prefer to work in the south – China, the Korean peninsula and Japan. But I have never been to South America, sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia/Eastern Russia. I would love to visit those regions, even if it was for a short amount of time.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

I have never been satisfied with my own photography. I shall keep working hard to find new ways of expressing myself. In that sense, I’m very optimistic: I want to challenge new photographers and new styles of photography.

Biografía: Hiroji Kubota

Hiroji Kubota

Hiroji Kubota witnessed the fall of Saigon in 1975, refocusing his attention on Asia. It took him several years to get permission to photograph in China. Finally, between 1979 and 1984, Kubota embarked on a 1,000-day tour, during which he made more than 200,000 photographs. The book and exhibition, ‘China’, appeared in 1985. Kubota's awards in Japan include the Nendo Sho (Annual Award) of the Japanese Photographic Society (1982), and the Mainichi Art Prize (1983). He has photographed most of the Asian continent for his book Out of the East, published in 1997, which led to a two-year project, in turn resulting in the book ‘Can We Feed Ourselves?’ Kubota has had solo shows in Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, New York, Washington, Rome, London, Vienna, Paris and many other cities. He has just completed ‘Japan’, a book on his homeland and the country where he continues to be based.


March on Washington, Washington, D.C., 1963.