Greg Girard: Hidden Places
Photographer Greg Girard's latest publication, Hotel Okinawa, isn’t what you would expect from a photobook about Okinawa. Instead of beautiful sunsets, beaches, and resorts, it’s a pictorial study of the hidden qualities of Japan's southernmost island, focusing on the US military bases that “matter-of-factly,” the photographer says, shaped the island's landscape. Girard’s goal isn’t to highlight the drama sometimes found in mainstream media — he knows these are “supercharged subjects”— nor glorify Westernization in Japan, but to show how the US bases have become a natural part of the society.
“They’re hidden because they’re too normal to be celebrated,” says Girard. “You need to remind the community what needs to be investigated.” Not only does Girard capture the hidden world of the US bases, but he also photographs abandoned commercial buildings, traditional Okinawan homes, bars and nightclubs that cater to both Americans and locals, and off-base residential neighborhoods, highlighting the concrete dwellings that once housed US troops.
The US bases on Okinawa didn’t always have negative press. “In the 90s,” Girard recalls, “there used to be buses that took tourists to watch jets flying in.” Today sometimes the US bases in Japan open their gates to the public for festivals and concerts. "In Misawa, the US base is not on the protest list like how it is in Okinawa. On Iwakuni, F/A-18s flew in, but no one said anything about them. On the Japanese mainland, they’re not topical baggage.”
Girard has no intention of voicing his opinion on the issue of whether or not the US bases are good or evil. “I want to reveal the complexity of their relationship. I don’t think taking a position will help that, but I’m sympathetic.” When asked about the title of Hotel Okinawa, he explains, "For a long time, Okinawa has been accommodating other countries. Okinawa doesn’t have a choice.”
A double-page spread in his book juxtaposes two different images of the tilt-rotor aircraft, the Osprey. On one page, an anti-Osprey banner is attached to a building, and on the other, a US Marine rappels from an Osprey. “Turning the home into a protest symbol,” Girard says, “seemed to me a really potent expression of people’s feeling.” You won’t find photographs of the ongoing protests against the US bases in Hotel Okinawa. To Girard, they are “events,” an ephemeral moment that serves the media; he wants to encapsulate the “daily reality.”
Girard’s interest in Asia began when he first came to Hong Kong at the age of eighteen on a freighter from San Francisco. He cruised into the harbor of the then British colony and looked on in awe at the view before him — distressed high-rise apartments, post-war buildings weathered by the tropical climate, and Toshiba and Pepsi signs in neon colors. “It wasn’t the glamorous chrome, glass, and steel like you see in Western countries,” he says. “They looked dingy, and they made an impression.” He first found steady income as a sound recordist for the BBC, which operated there and in other Asian countries, including India and Fiji. At the BBC he acquired the skills to endure the editorial process, stitching stories together in a short duration. This experience prepared him for his career as a photographer, eventually working on assignment for international publications such as Asiaweek, Time, and Newsweek.
“There’s a limit to editorials though,” he says. “Editors and writers are usually looking for stories which can be done in a short amount of time, and I wanted book-length projects.” Book-length projects lend Girard the opportunity to explore countries in depth, to focus on the mundane and daily routines that usually don’t attract news coverage. “Photojournalism can’t be art. Information can’t be art. There are parameters you have to work within. I still get excited about editorials, but art is indulgence. It’s open-ended.”
Some people might conclude that Hotel Okinawa is a celebration of Western culture in Japan, but Girard doesn’t want to portray colonization in a positive light. “Colonization inherently has problems,” he explains. “Examining history doesn’t mean endorsing it. You can look at the legacy of World War II. It doesn’t mean glorifying it.”
Words John Tang