When Tsuneko Sasamoto began her career as Japan’s first female photojournalist, people were skeptical. They were convinced she wouldn’t succeed in such a male-dominated industry, and they urged her to give up and focus on getting married instead. Seven decades later, her impeccable work is a testament to her immense talent and admirable work ethics.
Tsuneko was born in Tokyo in 1914. Her father was kimono dealer, but Tsuneko’s leanings were always more artistic. As a child, she dreamed of growing up to be a writer or a painter. She was in her mid-twenties before she began experimenting with photography, a passion that began when a neighbour’s colleague asked if she’d like to become a member of his photography organisation. Soon, she was working as Japan’s first female photojournalist, capturing famous figures, major social and political events, and the impact of our changing world on the people of Japan.
Being a photojournalist was no easy task, particularly in the 1940s. The cameras were heavy, and the lack of an electronic flash meant that Tsuneko had to carry individual flash bulbs for each and every shot she took. Because she was a woman, she was required to wear heels and skirts to work, which made climbing ladders (a skill that was often necessary to get the best angle for the shot) quite challenging. On top of that, she often had to deal with sexist comments, many of which were made by the men she was shooting. Her family urged her to quit and to focus on getting married instead, but Tsuneko wouldn’t hear of it.
I feel compelled to face the world and let people know what I see.
For the next seven decades, Tsuneko continued immortalising the changes taking place in Japan, photographing everyone from artists to politicians and capturing enduring images of important developments in her evolving country. In addition to the work she was assigned, Tsuneko also began seeking out and setting up shoots with women who inspired her. Photographing women who fought against the oppression of gender discrimination and accomplished their goals and dreams, despite having the odds stacked against them, became a passion project for Tsuneko – so much so that she often financed the shoots herself. Recently, she showcased these photos in an exhibition called 100 Years 100 Women.
You should never become lazy. It’s essential to remain positive about your life and never give up.
Now, in 2016, Tsuneko is 101 years old, and she’s showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. In the last five years alone, she’s launched a major exhibition, put out a book of her work, traveled to the Tohoku region of Japan to help villages ravaged by the tsunami, and begun working on a series of photos dedicated to friends she has lost. Last year, she broke her hand and both of her legs, but even that wasn’t enough to stop her. Instead, she began attending physical therapy three times a week to make sure she would be strong enough to continue with the project.
Much like the women who inspired her, Tsuneko is an unstoppable force, and just like the women she so loves to photograph, she has successfully accomplished her goals and fulfilled her dreams despite having the odds stacked against her. It is this tenacity and dedication that makes Tsuneko – a woman who has dedicated her long, full life to celebrating inspirational women – an inspiration to us all.