Life In Philly

Never-before-seen images from Mao Ishikawa's uncompromising portrayal of '80s Philadelphia

Life In Philly
Mao Ishikawa

In 1986, Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa travelled to America for the first time to spend two months in Philadelphia photographing an ex-marine she had met during the US miltary's occupation of her home island. Following Myron Carr, her marine friend around back on his own home turf, Ishikawa became a fly on the wall. Living amongst his family she experienced the passion and the mundanity of everyday life - even going so far as to photograph Myron's brother having sex. At times courting the voyeuristic side of photography, Ishikawa's photos feel integrated rather than intrusive. Conflicted by her love for the US soldiers and her hatred for how military life impacted upon their lives and mental health, Mao became taken with photographing these soldiers and the everyday minutiae of their lives.  

Here, Dazed talks to Ishikawa about the re-release of these never-before-seen images from the 2010 release of Life In Philly through Studio Equis

Dazed Digital: How would you summarise what life in Philly was like at that time? What was the overwhelming impression you were left with?

Mao Ishikawa: I went to America for the first time in 1987. The sanitation workers’ union of the city of Philadelphia was on a long strike then, so there was no garbage collection. Philly was a very dirty city. I expected the US would be a nice, clean place, so I was totally shocked.

My Marine friend in Okinawa, Myron Carr, was discharged after returning to America and got a job at a company. The neighborhood where he lived was predominantly black, and there were some immigrants from Latin America. There were very few white residents. Everybody was struggling with poverty, but lively, carefree, and welcoming. I was accepted in the community quite naturally and could take photos. That two month stay was very pleasant.

I said to Byron, the twin brother of my friend Myron, “I want to take pictures of you having sex, just like you're eating a meal. You have sex just as naturally as eating.” Byron took his girlfriend, not his wife. The girlfriend had just delivered a baby and lived with a boyfriend. She and Byron were both flirting and they let me take photos. I admired American open-mindedness, I guess.

DD: What drew you to photograph Philly in the first place?

Mao Ishikawa: I was born in 1953 in Okinawa, eight years after the battle of Okinawa. The islands of Okinawa had been separated from the rest of Japan, and placed under administrative rule by the US military. Okinawa Island was occupied by many US military bases. Until the 1972 reversion to Japan, numerous crimes against Okinawan people were committed by US soldiers. Those offenders were not arrested, nor tried, and they were allowed to return to the US quietly. Okinawa was a lawless land.

When I grew up, I made up my mind that I would take photos of this absurd island, my homeland. I was thinking about how to take photos of US military bases, that is, US soldiers. The idea struck me to work in a bar for US soldiers. In April, 1975, America withdrew from Vietnam. Many US soldiers came back to Okinawa. I began to work in the Teruya district of Koza City (then Okinawa City). Teruya was known for a concentration of bars for black soldiers. I got a job as a barmaid at a “Black Panthers’ Gathering Place”.

The Civil Rights Movement had reached Okinawa. Fights between black soldiers and white soldiers often erupted outside the base. I heard that because of this atmosphere, the US military separated black and white entertainment districts. Myron, the Marine, came to the bar right after I started. He was good-natured and gentle. We became friends immediately. He told me that he had many step-siblings. I was interested in his family and his life. “Myron, you seem to be from a typical poor black family with many children. I want to visit you in America someday. Could you please let me take photos of your daily life?” I asked him, and he answered, “All right. You are welcome anytime.” Myron went back to America in 1977, and I flew to Philly where he lived nine years later in 1986.

Soldiers kill, but they are the first to be killed.

DD: You've said that you love American soldiers - what was it about them and their lives that made them such an interesting subject for you?

Mao Ishikawa: When I say, “I hate the US military, but I love US soldiers”, some people look puzzled. The young US soldiers I met in the entertainment district in Okinawa were mostly from poor families, and some of them sent money to their families. Many immigrants also served in the military. They did not speak much English, so their job opportunities were limited. The easiest way to get a job was to enter the military service, some of them told me.

The soldiers have to go wherever to fight whenever the government orders them. When they are ordered to go back to America, they have to go back. Soldiers kill, but they are the first to be killed. I think working in the military is a tough job. I have seen many soldiers came back to Okinawa with PTSD. I know many young soldiers with unstable mental conditions. From US military bases, they are dispatched to all the battlefields and conflict areas. I have lived on such an island, so I naturally got interested in their lives. I have been taking photos of young soldiers on the street since the 1970s.

DD: Do you have a favorite image from the series and why is that one most powerful to you?

Mao Ishikawa: Photo #7 is my favorite. I do not remember the cause, but Byron and his wife were quarreling and there was a tense air in the house. I think the photo captured such an ordinary moment of life.

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