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Supporters rally behind Okinawan photographer Ishikawa amid battle with cancer

Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa (Mainichi)

Friends of 64-year-old Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa, who is battling what is said to be stage 4 cancer, have launched a project to help her pay for the medical expenses she is expected to face as she continues her work.

    The project is titled "Live! Shoot! Mao Ishikawa!" It stems from an expanding ring of support for Ishikawa, who has photographed Okinawans shouldering a heavy burden in the hosting of U.S. military bases. Through her works, it is hoped many people will catch a glimpse of "flesh-and-blood Okinawa."

    Ishikawa was born in Okinawa when the prefecture was under U.S. military control. Soon after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, she began photographing islanders living surrounded by U.S. bases. Her subjects were diverse, from a woman working at night in entertainment areas who fell in love with a U.S. soldier, to port workers, to residents who had been tossed around by the base issue in Okinawa. The photographs, which provided intimate views of the subjects to capture the true face of Okinawa, were highly appraised both in Japan and abroad.

    In 2000, Ishikawa was found to have cancer. After this, she revealed that she had received a colostomy, and made herself a subject of photos. In 2013 she began photographing a collection titled "Dai-Ryukyu Shashin Emaki" (A narrative photo scroll of the great Ryukyus), representing her life work. In this series, she interprets struggles of Okinawa from the age of the Ryukyu Kingdom to the present.

    One of her staged photos titled "Osupurei Tsuiraku" (Crash-landing of an Osprey) depicts a scene of people running away in haste before the crash of an Osprey aircraft. It is based on a real accident in 2016 in which an Osprey operated by the U.S. military crashed-landed in shallow waters off the coast of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago, suffering major damage.

    Mao Ishikawa's photograph "Osupurei Tsuiraku," from "Dai-Ryukyu Shashin Emaki," Part 4. (c) Mao Ishikawa

    "The scene was right in front of a settlement. At the time, there were people doing Izari fishing (which fishermen carry out while walking in shallow water). The next morning, photographer Osamu Makishi went and snapped images of the scene while the Osprey was still under the water. ... An Osprey could come down anywhere in Okinawa. I depicted that scene with Makishi playing the leading part," Ishikawa says of her work.

    In February this year, a cancerous growth was again found in on the left side of Ishikawa's chest. A doctor told her "If we operate now, you'll live." But she had planned an exhibition from her photo collection in the autumn, so she prioritized her work, and instead underwent an operation in early July.

    Ishikawa was discharged from hospital in early August. She expects to face more hefty medical bills in the future, but is set on continuing her work.

    "I want to continue photographing the people of Okinawa until I die," she says.

    Aware of her aspirations, her friends moved to support her. Manabu Sato, a 59-year-old professor at Okinawa International University, commented, "I want lots of people to see Okinawa through Mao's photos. There are still lots of pictures I want her to take."

    For six days from Sept. 5, Ishikawa held an exhibition in Naha displaying all of the 90 photos from Parts 1-4 of her "Dai-Ryukyu Shashin Emaki" collection. In November her photos will be shown at the world's largest photo fair in Paris. And from early next year she will work on Part 5 of her collection.

    Ishikawa has made it through three operations so far. "I was born and bred in Okinawa, and I've taken photos while going through various experiences. Drawing on the pride of Okinawans, I'm now bombarding people with pleas to look at these 'made in Okinawa' photos. I was found to have cancer, but I guess the god of photography said, 'You go back,'" she says.

    An internet crowdfunding campaign for Ishikawa that ended in August raised 2,525,000 yen. From September, donations are being accepted at a Japan Post Bank account at 17010-18182421.

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