A Walk In Gion

Canal through the back streets of Gion, Kyoto

Bamboo blinds, with their close-knit horizontal slats that make them more like a flexible wall, hang over the windows concealing everything inside the houses, despite their open windows. The air is still, hot and suffocating; it is mid-July and this is summer in Kyoto. The only shade in the narrow lane in the heart of Gion, an area made famous by its geisha and maiko, is close in to the walls of the houses that edge the street. Few people are around. Now and then a maiko, bandaged in a simple kimono and carrying a paper and bamboo umbrella to shield her against the melting sunlight ventures into the street, as maiko have for centuries in these alleyways. Regardless of the summer heat, she must attend the classes that will eventually make her among the most skilled in the land in the ancient rituals of tea ceremonies, floating dances, singing and traditional instruments that are the stock in trade of these women.

As I shelter in the shade close by a wall, the haunting, melodic sounds of a shamisen drift down to the lane from an open upper floor window. I have heard these simple 3 stringed instruments played like a banjo by young men who would otherwise be in a rock band, with the lightning speed of a lead guitar soloist, fingers screaming up and down the fretboard. But this is different, this one is being played as its makers intended. The strings are being slapped slowly or in rhythmic sequences and each note clangs out into the street from a time that has long passed from most of Japan, and drifts off into the shimmering haze.

Kyoto is a very modern place. Walking up into the city from its glass vaulted station one day I was reminded of the wide backstreets of inner city Melbourne in Australia. But by the early evening, Gion, with its kimono clad, milk-white ghosts, teetering on wooden clogs, and wrapped tightly in a dress that can cost as much as a motor car, is home to an ancient tradition that remains mysterious, enticing and largely misunderstood.

Geiko, the Kyoto dialect word for geisha, participating in the Gion Matsura held in July for the past 1200 years.

The State of Photojournalism

This point of view (POV) piece was prompted by the amount of misinformation about the Padaung women that exists, even in some extremely reputable newspapers and magazines. The idea, for example, that the neck of Padaung women will break if they remove the ring is just one of these and is totally wrong; the young woman in the picture below, having the ring put back on her neck, happily walked around the village for a week without the coil and the strength evident in her neck muscles posed no risk or danger to her neck.

Padaung girl having a brass coil put back on her neck after a week without it.

Magazine and newspaper photography covers every topic imaginable. Unfortunately, much of the information that people have about many topics is not backed by the rigorous research and extensive field work that the best photojournalists produce.

The reason for this is simple – money. Only National Geographic can afford to send its photographers and photojournalists into the field for extensive periods of time to prepare material for their magazine stories, although NatGeo is also not above inaccurate reporting. In many cases magazines these days are more likely to source material from iStockphoto than commission a photographer to gather material for photo-essays which will run in magazines and newspapers which must now survive on ever decreasing budgets.

The downside of this is the quality of the story telling suffers, as it must. Travel stories can be written by someone in an apartment in New Your, Sydney or London much more cheaply than they can be by a photojournalist who actually makes the journey to the place they are writing about and photographing.

To establish the authenticity of stories requires the reader to be vigilant about what they are reading. How many times is a conversation reported? How many times is the voice of the people who inhabit the region visited heard in the story? Is it just description and opinion without the voice of the local people ever being heard? These are important questions. And astute readers must demand that magazines and newspapers are producing authentic material that has been properly researched and is not simply some rehash of travel brochures and National Geographic magazines that an author has assimilated.

The quality of real photojournalism in the future is going to depend as much on demanding readers as it will on writers and photographers being serious about their work and devoting sufficient time to really learn something significant about the places they visit and the stories they tell.