Photographer seeks out conflict


By Lincoln Anderson

Q Sakamaki is a small, elflike man with a moustache and a twinkle in his eye. He’s unfailingly courteous. Though he might not fit the stereotype of the macho war photographer, he regularly puts himself in harm’s way in the planet’s most dangerous combat areas. And he’s quite good at what he does.

“For the last 10 years, I concentrate on conflict zones,” Sakamaki said during an interview at an Avenue A café last Thursday. “I want to cover more how wars affect people, how people suffer. I prefer war zone, battle zone, because it concentrates human emotion.”

An E. Fourth St. resident, Sakamaki, 45, was getting ready to go to the West Bank that weekend, his sixth time covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other conflict zones and wars he has photographed include Bosnia/Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Angola, Cambodia, Algeria and most recently, Iraq and Liberia.

He considers the gang battles in Brazil’s favellas, or slums, that he photographed, also to be wars and among the most lethal situations he’s experienced. Every night, he saw a dead body in the street. In Sakamaki’s closest brush with death, while he was shooting portraits of young gang members, a teenager came up behind him and choked him unconscious. They stole his photo equipment, though expecting something to happen, he’d left his wallet and passport behind. He told the story smiling, as if amused at having survived.

He’s only been wounded once, in the West Bank during the Intifada. He found himself among a group of 300 Palestinian protestors when Israeli soldiers started shooting a mix of rubber bullets and live ammunition.

“I call it paranoia trigger,” Sakamaki said of why the soldiers fired. “Sometimes they can’t figure out, is this danger or not? It happens everywhere, not just Israel.”

The bullet ricocheted off a rock and glanced off his forearm, fracturing the bone.

The hellish war scenes of Liberia, where he recently photographed for three weeks, are still vivid in his memory, though he seems completely unrattled.

“It’s maybe worst time I ever experienced,” he said. “To die or survive is just luck.” He calmly pointed to the wall behind him, three feet away, when asked how close bullets had come to him.

Sakamaki’s goal, as always, was to reach the front line.

“Any time, before moving, I look for the hiding place,” he said. At other times, he followed behind government militia.

Using napkins on the tabletop to denote battle line positions, Sakamaki described the difference between the front line and the “second front line.” On the front line, the soldiers accept the photojournalists’ presence. “We share same risk once we are on front line,” Sakamaki explained. “We share same feeling, so they respect you.

“Except they don’t like you to photograph or talk to child soldiers,” he added. “They know it’s not right.”

Sakamaki saw small girls fighting in Liberia. He also saw child soldiers in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Angola.

“Too many child soldiers,” he reflected.

On the second front line, at a distance from the fighting, the soldiers are often drinking or doing drugs and tell the photographers to beat it, he said.

Sakamaki was in Baghdad at the Palestine Hotel with other journalists in March and April during the Iraq war. He recalled the “decapitation strike” that started the war as being “like an earthquake. Air is orange and red. Then air blew me back one meter and floor is also moving. And how many Tomahawks, I don’t know.”

His impression of the Iraqis’ initial reaction to the American’s invasion is not exactly the welcome party the Bush administration portrayed.

“They never seen the American soldiers,” Sakamaki said. “People just getting panicked. They afraid. Most people in Iraq, they don’t like Saddam Hussein. But they don’t like America more — because they’re occupier, simple as that.”

Sakamaki’s hotel room was on the floor below where two journalists were killed by an American tank shell fired into the hotel.

“U.S. soldiers said they saw R.P.G. [rocket-propelled grenade launcher],” he said. “I think the U.S. government definitely lying. The U.S. government doesn’t want to admit mistake.”

Sakamaki attended press conferences with Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, a.k.a. “Baghdad Bob,” who was derided for his inaccurate statements. But Sakamaki said Fox News and other media exaggerated the extent of the U.S.’s initital forays into Baghdad.

“He’s a nice guy, no seriously,” Sakamaki said. “He has great humor. Fifty percent he’s correct; U.S. is half incorrect…. We call it information war.”

Before leaving for assignments, Sakamaki tends not to discuss them with his wife. Similarly, at the warfront the photojournalists tend to talk about other subjects.

“Usually people on my job, we don’t talk about war zone so much once we go over there,” he said. “Talk about outside politics or we have nice food or something.”

Sakamaki has seen more of war than most ever will. He feels he’s close to understanding it. As he sees it, war’s causes are several: ethnic conflict, religious conflict, territory and economics. The U.S., because of its role in globalization and protecting its interests abroad, is another chief cause of conflict, he feels.

“Since beginning of time, still people fighting,” he said. “I want to know why people fight. I want to get the answer…. I understand — almost.”

A native of Osaka, Japan, after coming to the East Village, Sakamaki, in the mid-1980s and early ’90s, photographed the AIDS crisis, homelessness, the nightclubs and gay scenes and other various subjects that he described as “something weird” for lack of a better word.

In fact, ironically, one of the only times he was ever arrested while working was when he was covering a squatter eviction in 1989 in the East Village. The charges were later dropped because he was only shooting photos as a journalist, not refusing an order to vacate the building.

Sakamaki’s photographs have been published in The New York Times, Time, LIFE, various European magazines and The Villager, when he photographed the Tompkins Sq. Park homeless. He also writes political analysis for Japanese media.

His photographs are currently on view at Clayton Patterson Gallery, 161 Essex St. Call 212-477-1363 for information.