The Pot That Boiled Over – Julia Thomas Mourns A Lost Opportunity

On 21 May, Julia Thomas transported an attentive audience back to the frozen moments of the 1960 ANPO crisis in Japan, captured in the iconic photographs of Hamaya Hiroshi.

Thomas described ANPO as ‘a cleaver to the eyeball’ for Japanese photographers. The crisis resulted from the January 1959 signing of the ANPO treaty, a document that perpetuated US military presence in Japan as well as US authority to mobilise Japanese resources for war. The shared feeling of a nation was felt in the following months with an estimated six million people taking to the streets to protest. Small victories were scored along the way, such as the astonishing blockade by protesters of Haneda airport, preventing ‘Ike’ Eisenhower’s presidential visit to Japan. In the final account, however, the treaty was ratified forcibly, aided by the dominance of Prime Minster Kishi Nobusuke. The potential for a new kind of democracy flourishing in Japan died young, as did Kanba Michiko, a protester who’s brutal death compounded a sense of impotence amongst the marchers.

Hamaya Hiroshi includes an arresting portrait of Michiko in his ANPO collection, a book which Thomas translates as ‘Record of Rage and Sadness.’ Although the lecture addressed the trajectory of Japanese photography as a whole, the focus remained firmly on the example of Hamaya. Thomas remarked on an extraordinary transition from the photographer’s early career, where, she argues, the majority of his work had a political or historical context. From sparse views of folk festivals in Snow Country (雪国) to the snap shots of post-war Manchuria in The China I Saw, Hamaya’s photographs deal intimately with a shared vision of civic society. After ANPO, Hamaya followed a path that diverges dramatically from his former work, shooting vast panoramas of Japanese landscapes, in full-colour and with an emphasis on the artistry of each individual shot.

 

Japanese PM Kishi Nobusuke - featured on the front cover of Time Magazine, January 1960

Hamaya Hiroshi’s example does not stand alone. Many photographers were disillusioned in the aftermath of the ANPO crisis. In Hamaya’s words, ‘the pot only boiled over once’ – a rare opportunity had been squandered if it had ever existed at all. ANPO may not have signified the death of political photography as, in the years that followed, increasingly radicalised individuals produced work that stretched the bounds of political criticism. But Thomas argued that all this latter commentary has been made from outside a lost civic space; society became polarised into adherent or dissident and no sense of a united, common vision remained. Following ANPO, a new kind of documentary photography emerged guided by the status quo; identifying a problem and then asking for the established order to fix that problem. In 1960, Thomas argues, a special moment presented itself in which civic photography had the potential to change the order itself.

Ultimately this opportunity was lost after the ratification of the treaty in May 1960. Two decades of civic debate spurred by an extraordinary shared optimism ended emphatically in defeat. The question remains whether photography can inhabit this space again in the future.

Attendees were honoured by a special guest, Hitoshiko Marks, who had personally taken part in the ANPO protests. She emphasized that revisiting Hamaya’s photographs reminded of her of the protests’ universal popularity, supported by many people with no previous political allegiance. Marks memorably said ‘we didn’t know how to dress to protest.’ The contrast between ANPO’s thousands, turned out in their Sunday best, and the hooded and masked protests of subsequent years could not be more striking.

 


 

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