Mary Beth Meehan is a documentary photographer based in Providence, RI whose work investigates issues that define, change, and inspire communities. Her image “Ashleigh’s Bouquet” from City of Champions was selected for a Juror’s Award by guest juror Larry Fink. Meehan traveled to Tokyo last month to attend the ONWARD ‘11 Japan exhibition at the invitation of Ricoh’s photo gallery Ring Cube.

By Mary Beth Meehan

My heart jumps as I look back over my pictures from a week in Japan. I feel a rush of gratitude tinged with anxiety: Was I really there? Did I have my eyes open every minute? Will I ever be back?

The invitation to travel to Tokyo with ONWARD ’11 was an honor and cause for celebration, soon dampened by news of the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leaks that followed. It seemed impossible to travel there to celebrate when so many were suffering so much nearby.

Mary Beth with Mr. Seidoh and Mr. Kubo. © Tsuyoshi Ito

But Tsuyoshi Ito, already in Japan photographing and trying to understand the crisis in the north, met me in Tokyo and guided me through airport and subway into a new world. He delivered me to the most generous of hosts. With Mr. Seidoh, from Pictorico, we slid through a backstreet-evening of sushi, sake, and squid. With Mr. Hashimoto, from Ricoh, we toured the ONWARD exhibition in its sleek and modern Tokyo home. Tsuyoshi’s old friend Kubo-san treated us to creamy ice coffees and promised to visit me in Providence. Without them the trip would never have happened.

Through it all, my senses were completely overwhelmed by the sounds of a language that my Western ears could not decipher, the tastes of a culture surrounded by the sea, and thousands of years of Japanese aesthetics revealed in every corner. I tried to absorb the muted silk peonies woven into an elderly woman’s kimono, the 16th-century raked-gravel garden swarmed by schoolchildren in matching yellow caps, the taste of miso soup for breakfast.

I’ve read that it’s very rare to be invited into the home of a Japanese person – that, for a foreigner, Japan is a place to be experienced from the outside. Indeed, the photographs I took in one week’s time were those of a tourist. Of course there are photographers who can make magic out of that dislocation, but not I; as a photographer I need to be invited home for dinner, find a way to be on the inside, before I can really see and make work that feels like mine.

So I rode the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto, gazing out the window and longing to be invited home with the woman pedaling her bicycle through the rice fields: Please take me home with you. Please let me see your kitchen and bedroom and feel the rhythm of your life.

Though such intimacies were not to happen on this visit, the kindnesses of strangers carried me along: “Look, Mount Fuji!” said the woman on the train, as she put her soft hand on mine and pointed out the window; or Sumiko, who received me at her ryokan in Kyoto and, on hearing of my interest in ikebana, gave me a private lesson. Her husband photographed us as we clipped ferns from her garden and arranged them in bowls. Even my last cab driver, who chuckled gently in his white-lace-covered seat as I stumbled over the Japanese for “Please help me,” took my map and found the way.

As I moved through on my own, seeing very few Westerners (“They all left,” said Tsuyoshi), I was reminded of a bus trip I had taken years before through the Irish countryside. On the bus was an African man, as out of place in Ireland as I was in Japan. He asked for the bus driver’s help, but had confused the name of the town he was seeking with one long since passed. The driver and some teenagers had a laugh at his expense, and hustled him off the bus in the middle of nowhere.

How different was my experience in Japan. How different to feel privileged, safe, and welcome. How lucky I was.

Unless otherwise noted, all images © 2011 Mary Beth Meehan.

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