From July through October, a 25-foot photograph of the Japanese photographer Sasamoto Tsuneko hung above the front entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City advertising its exhibition, “The New Woman Behind the Camera.” The exhibition, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it will be on display until January, showcases the work of many important female photographers in the first half of the 20th century. These pioneers include women who ran their own successful photography studios in Black communities in New Orleans and those who lived and worked around the world.
With hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans on the rise in the United States, there is great power in seeing the image of an Asian female photographer towering in front of the Met.
There’s just one problem. Yes, Sasamoto is a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field (born in 1914, she is now 107 years old). But she was also a propaganda photographer for the Japanese government during World War II. Her work supported the violent Japanese colonization of Southeast Asia and was used to enforce the dangerous ideology that cast the Japanese as superior to the rest of Asia. The monumental achievement of this new exhibition is undermined by the real history of a woman whose fame resulted from her participation in a system of oppression — no matter how pioneering she was.
In 1914, Sasamoto was born into a well-to-do family, and she grew up in a time of increasing Japanese militarism and aggressive colonial expansion. In the late 19th century, the Japanese forced Taiwan, the kingdom of Ryukyu (now Okinawa) and the island of Hokkaido into its new empire. Then, in 1910, the Japanese colonized Korea and brutally suppressed the Korean language and culture. In 1931, the Japanese army occupied the Chinese region of Manchuria, turning it into a key part of the Japanese “new order” in East Asia. Extremists pushed the government further to the right, and, in 1937, the Japanese began a brutal war with China and, in 1941, declared war on the United States.
Sasamoto was art school-educated and made illustrations for Tokyo newspapers before she joined the Japan Photography Association in 1939. This collective of photographers produced government-sanctioned photographs that were distributed to national and international periodicals as official propaganda depicting life under Japanese fascism.