No worthwhile art ever escapes at least some controversy of some kind from some people at some time. Even Ansel Adams, whom no one would likely consider controversial, was no stranger to controversy himself. In the 1940s, Adams produced a series of photographs of interned Japanese-Americans in the landscape of the Manzanar camp, entitled “Born Free and Equal.” Even long after the end of Word War II, these photographs still invite controversy, some of which even emanates from the Japanese-American community itself!
Renowned Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama used his work to criticize Japan’s martial past and photographed anti-government protests in Japan during the 1960s in support of the anti-war movement. His fellow photographic artist Nobuyoshi Araki photographed women nude in full bondage regalia and even photographed nudes of his own wife Yoko. He later photographed Yoko during her slow decline in her battle with cancer, which she ultimately lost. Both photographers along with others formed a collective and issued a magazine entitled “Provoke.” These photographers were certainly not at all cagey about the objective of their art!
All significant art and every significant artist at some point make people uncomfortable, and even angry. So it is no surprise that notable Japanese Street photographer Tatsuo Suzuki, founder of the photography collective Void Tokyo and former Fujifilm X-Photographer, found himself mired in a controversy of his own.
Suzuki has long been partial to Fujifilm’s X100 series cameras, and so when Fujifilm recently launched its new X100V, featuring Suzuki and his work as part of the marketing launch was a no-brainer. However, a video Fujifilm had posted on its corporate website of Suzuki practising his art in the streets of Tokyo elicited criticism of Suzuki’s method from the public that proved too much for Fujifilm to bear. In the video, Suzuki weaves and bobs in the crowd getting right in the faces of his subjects, some of whom are visibly perturbed.
Fujifilm promptly expunged from its website all mention of Tatsuo Suzuki and removed him from its X-Photographer roster so thoroughly that there is not a trace of his ever having existed there—an erasure job so well done as to make a Soviet propagandist blush. Ironically, Fujifilm’s expungement of Suzuki, far from drawing attention away from him, has likely boosted awareness among people who had not yet heard of him, bolstered his celebrity if not notoriety, and added further heft to his street cred as a serious artist.
In Japan at least, Suzuki is doing nothing illegal in terms of fine art photography or photojournalism in public spaces. The laws in Japan are remarkably clear on this, as long as you can read Japanese. (I can and do.) While Suzuki violates no laws regarding photographing people in public, police likely could stop him just for being a public nuisance should they have a mind to do so. According to Suzuki, they never have.
Legal or not, whether Suzuki’s methods are ethical and proper is an entirely different question. The ethics of street photography and its myriad methods should always be worthy of debate in my view no matter how you happen to feel about street photography at the moment.
Now I don’t fault Fujifilm for dropping Suzuki. There is nothing immoral or unethical about Fujifilm’s decision. In fact, morality and ethics have nothing to do their decision. So all those who cheer Fujifilm for doing the right thing or otherwise condemn Fujifilm for doing the wrong thing, save your breath. They don’t care.
Selling cameras is Fujifilm’s business, not making art, but the company’s managers appear happy to patron artists as long as patronage supports the primary business objective of—once again—selling cameras, in case you have forgotten. That’s their prerogative, and Fujifilm’s executives have a fiduciary imperative to act in the best interests of the owners of the business. That’s all. Nothing more.
So while Fujifilm’s decision was not driven one way or the other by ethics, hypocrisy on other other hand is an open question in my view. After all, how can you possibly tout the X100V as the quintessential street photography tool of choice while highlighting one of the most significant practitioners of the art in our time only to abruptly erase him from your history as soon as an inevitable artistic controversy arises?
As for me, I look to Fujifilm for cameras, not artistic inspiration. Tatsuo Suzuki is one of my most significant artistic influences, among whom I also include some well-known artists like Daido Moriyama and Jacob Aue Sobol, as well as some of whom you have perhaps not yet heard, like Meg Hewitt, Josh White, Chu Viet Ha, Souhayl A., Tadashi Onishi, and Kawara Chan. If you are unfamiliar with any of the artists I have mentioned, have a look, and see their art for yourself.
The photos in this piece I have shot recently in the Shibuya and Aoyama areas of Tokyo, Tatsuo Suzuki’s stomping ground, in homage to him.
Well done, Tatsuo! I tip my hat to you!