“Nowadays, more than half of the photography students are women, but at the time I was the only one.”

How did you become a photographer? Would you define yourself as a one?

I didn’t plan on becoming a photographer. When I was around 25 or 26 years old, I worked for a publisher. One day, I was told to go and do an interview, and I was given a camera. I didn’t know anything about photographic technique, but I did quite a good job. This made me want go a little further.

I enrolled in a photography school and studied photography for two years. I very soon understood that it wasn’t the technical or mechanical aspect that I was interested in but the relationship between the lens and everything around photography that interested me.

As I was rather gifted, the school offered me a teaching job but I refused. My mother was a left-wing activist and she often went to street demonstrations. She was a big influence on me. One day, I took photographs of a demonstration against the building of the American Yasen hospital in Oji. This was the first time I photographed demonstrations.

I am a photographer, and I am recognised as such. I also practice Āyurveda, but fewer people know this!

What drives you as a photographer?

When I started out, there were only two types of photography: commercial photography and documentary photography. I always refused to do commercial photography, despite being asked to and the financial advantages attached. I have stuck to documentary photography all my life.

Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘woman’s gaze’ in photography? Is this something you can relate to?

When I started out, there were very few women photographers. The media coined the term “woman’s gaze” as a way to differentiate our work. At first, I didn’t like this approach, but then I stopped paying attention to it.

As a student, I already stood out because I was the only woman. I could afford to continue being ‘different’ as a photographer. Nowadays, more than half of the photography students are women, but at the time I was the only one. In Japan, five years after me, Miyako Ishiuchi made a name for herself as a woman photographer.

Perhaps I became interested in environments dominated by men, such as the Tekiya (fairground traders) because I’m a woman?

Has being a woman influenced your work as an artist in any way?

Yes, I think so. It may have been a coincidence, but I am the only photographer in the world who was able to photograph the 1968 student demonstrations from the inside. I was able to take those pictures because I was a young woman and nobody paid any attention to me.

My first series on the Todai Zenkyoto was picked up in the news, and it’s from that time that I started to become known as a photographer.

Do you live off your art?

I am a woman who knows when to say “no”. It hasn’t always been easy, and I have turned down both news and corporate jobs. But miraculously, I still manage to live off my work!

Which authors have inspired you? Are there any women photographers among them?

I have met a lot of photographers of my generation such as Daido Moriyama, Kazuo Kitai, or Takuma Nakahira, but I can’t say they have influenced me. One artist who made a very strong impression on me is Susan Sontag. I discovered her innovative approach during my studies which is surprising as all I could think of at the time was documentary photography!

Hitomi Watanabe


Born in 1943, Hitomi Watanabe studied at the Tokyo College of Photography, where she was the only female student at the time, and graduated in 1968. She then began work inspired by the streets of Shinjuku, before capturing the Zenkyoto movement, opposing students and police officers. From 1972, and for 25 years, she made numerous trips to India and Nepal. “I was attracted to these countries because we share Buddhism, and these common roots are important to me,” she explains. Inspired by documentary photography, she refuses commissions to focus on her own projects. Author of several monographs (Open, Lotus in 2001, The Monkey Philosopher in 2003…), she has participated in several group exhibitions. Among them, 1968 in Japanese Photography, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

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