Humbled by greatness: Tsuneko Sasamoto

In October I received a call. Would I be willing to create a two-minute speech to introduce a Lucie Award recipient? Having collaborated with them before, I didn’t hesitate. And then I learned who the awardee was. The incredible Tsuneko Sasamoto. I am so humbled.

Lucies 2016: Miriam Romais introducing awardee Tsuneko Sasamoto
Lucie Awards 2016: Miriam Romais introducing awardee Tsuneko Sasamoto (photo by Lucie Awards)

How on EARTH do you compress an entire life of photography (102 years to be exact) into a two-minute speech??!

Panic ensues. Nail biting. I admire her moxie and persistence, but more than anything want to share a tribute that will honor her and everything she has worked hard for. Holed up in my mom’s office for two days researching and writing, I’d like to share my speech:

Infinitely curious.
… and full of hope.

It takes all sorts of moxie to believe you can accomplish something when the world around you tells you, what you want is not a choice. Tsuneko Sasamoto is such a person. Born in 1914, she knew from a young age that she wanted something different for herself – and for all women. As a child, she wanted to be a painter. As a teen she wanted to have a professional career – perhaps a writer or journalist – while her classmates wanted to be brides. I can imagine her teachers frowning, her determination so unheard of in an era where marriage and motherhood are synonymous, and expected. Her chosen path, one against her family’s wishes.

She was often told, “you’re just a woman, how could you even think of becoming a photographer?” And yet she created a career in photography that spans most people’s lifetimes.

Can you think back to your 20s, and what you were doing? In her 20s, she became Japan’s first female photojournalist – which was around the same time WWII started brewing. The things she has seen, and photographed – from daily life to documenting pre-war preparations. The pain, destruction, political and economic turmoil and then rebuilding. Women gaining the right to vote. An evolving shift for her nation and culture. All this through the eyes of hope, dignity and joy for life. She felt compelled to share what she saw in the world.

She had no issues of carrying her camera equipment and all the bulbs necessary for each shoot – but hated having to do it in a skirt and high heels, because it got in the way of climbing ladders and always looking for better vantage points, and different angles. To make a point, she opted for bigger cameras, fearing that if she used a smaller leica, people would think its a toy and then not take her seriously.

Determined. Breaking barriers.

The thing with trailblazers, is they are so busy doing, they don’t realize what a path they have carved for the rest of us. Ms. Sasamoto turned 102 last month and is still just doing her thing. She believes gender and age should have no bearing on a person’s capabilities – she didn’t let the fact she was a woman get in her way, and today she is not letting age get in her way either.

“If I tell people I’m 100,” she says “they’ll ask if i can still press the shutter, or still see ok – but I don’t feel any change in me, even in getting old – probably because I keep photographing. I see the movement of the world, and want to see that all the time.”Miriam Romais holding Lifetime Achievement Award for Tsuneko Sasamoto

Unstoppable. Lets learn more about the Lucie Foundation’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Awardee, Tsuneko Sasamoto.”

I’ll admit to being a giddy 5 year old holding her prize afterwards. I am half her age, and still working on having at least half of her persistence and grace.

Check out Holly Hughes’s follow up article in PDN here. Take a moment to google Sasamoto and while you’re at it, look up other amazing women around the world making a difference in their communities.  We can be humbled, but stay inspired to keep doing good.