Artist Feature #1 – Yoshi Shimizu

ART-IS-IN by Chriselda Barretto

About Yoshi Shimizu

Yoshi Shimizu is a professional freelance photographer with 30 years of experience, half of which have been spent in the field in developing countries, covering humanitarian and social issues. He has travelled to over 75 countries, collaborating with the Red Cross as well as other humanitarian NGOs and international organizations. He is also a gifted artist and has developed a large collection of personal work, including portraits, street photography, landscapes, cultural and abstract themes. For the first time, he is making these more intimate photographs available to the public.

Yoshi Shimizu grew up in Japan and, at 19, went to study in the United States. He studied fine art photography in San Francisco where, as a staff photographer for his university newspaper, he also trained in photojournalism. His professional career began in the late 1980s in New York City where, after assisting several established photographers, he worked as a freelance editorial and corporate photographer.

He moved to Europe and became a chief photographer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1995 to 2000. Since then, he has been working with the Red Cross as a freelancer, as well as with other organizations, such as Survival International, UNAIDS, the Global Fund, WHO, UNESCO, the World Scout Foundation and WWF, among others.

Yoshi Shimizu has covered the fates of ex-child combatants in Sierra Leone, victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, indigenous tribes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, street children in Bangladesh, Kenya, El Salvador and Honduras as well as other social, health and development issues around the world.  His abiding empathy for his subjects is reflected in the compelling humanity of his photography.

Along with the convulsions of the planet, he has also been documenting humanity’s yearning for peace and harmony. His personal Intangible Cultural Heritage Photography Project, to preserve the fragile heritage of Indonesia, Bhutan and Bolivia, was exhibited at the United Nations European Headquarters, as well as private galleries in Geneva, between 2008 and 2011. This was endorsed by UNESCO, with technical support from Canon Europe. The Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, Germany presented some of his intangible cultural heritage work during an exhibition called “The World of Shadow Theatre” in October 2015.

In an exhibition held at the Cite du Temps in Geneva, Switzerland in the fall of 2015, Yoshi Shimizu captures the blooming of young violinists, aged 3 to 18, into full-fledged musicians. 

His photographs have also been exhibited at the United Nations in Geneva, the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Yoshi Shimizu’s photographic world extends to portraiture, landscape and fine art photography. He is also exploring new dimensions of visual creation such as multi-media production.

He currently resides in Europe.

1. Hi Yoshi, you are a professional freelance photographer with an amazing portfolio! I especially found the ‘Ex-child soldiers of Sierra Leone’ quite moving. But tell us which of your work was the most fascinating for you to shoot?

You’ve got it… it was indeed the ex-child soldiers. It was extremely sensitive. For the first time it my life I thought I will not be able to photograph because of the sensitivity of the subjects. First, I spent two days at a rehabilitation center without camera. Then, I spent time talking to them. Most of them had never been photographed before. Then, finally, I asked them who would like to be photographed. Out of 30, 15 agreed. For this shooting, since they were extremely nervous, I decided to use an old twin-lens reflex camera, so that I was not facing them frontal. Doing so, they didn’t feel targeted.  For this photo session, I used a small room with natural light coming through one window and photographed one individual at the time while the rest waited outside of the room so that each child won’t be intimidated while being photographed.

2. You have travelled to over 75 countries, collaborating with the Red Cross as well as other humanitarian NGOs and international organizations. Have there been any obstacles or interesting stories from this part of your journey?

Many obstacles… and mainly during preparatory phase or upon arrival in countries for assignment. When you photograph in foreign countries, especially in the field, the only persons you can really rely on are the locals, the drivers, fixers… Those working in offices, giving overall directions about photoshoot and subjects to cover are often so far away from reality. In the field, you must be flexible all the time, creative, problem solver therefore be ready to find alternatives in case planning isn’t what you were expecting.

3. Your art and photography are stunning, dynamic, eye-catching and so “real”. How do you go about getting the still that you want and what are the processes involved?

I shoot by feeling, I take time within the limited time I have, I talk to people. I have learnt to communicate without languages (especially when you are photographing portraits and you don’t speak the same language). I can spend hours talking with communities if time allows me, understanding their life, sharing food, playing with kids… I need to feel their environment, how they live, what they endure every day. Then, shooting comes automatically. Often I don’t have luxury to have a great deal of on each location when I need to cover 3-4 locations  per day. In any event, I put 150% of concentration while shooting which exhausts me completely by the end of the shoot. During the move from one location to another, I always go through what I should or could have done to get better shots. This revision process will never end as long as I keep photographing in my life.

4. Where does your inspiration come from? 

My childhood in Japan: I came from a rural area. I always dreamt I could once leave Japan and discovered the world. In summer, every day, I was lying down in the field near my parents’ house, watching  planes flying far up in the sky, wishing I could be on that plane and travel around the world. Today, inspiration continues because there are unlimited places and people that you can discover within my lifetime and learn a great deal from their lifestyle. After over 40 years of travels around the world, this continues to fascinate me tremendously.

5. Have there been other artists/role-models or books that played a key role in your artistic journey?

Irvin Penn and Robert Frank 

6. What has been your biggest challenge so far?

The most challenging was the assignment in North Korea early 2000. In those days, it was heavily controlled what we can and cannot photograph especially if you are a foreign photographer.  Covering the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster and street children in many big cities around the world were the difficult ones as well.

7. Which project/work has given you the most satisfaction from all your endeavors?

The intangible culture heritage project in collaboration with UNESCO and Canon Europe was a very challenging yet very rewarding project. From the fund raising to the finished products as photo exhibitions, each heritage I covered took a year of work. This project gave me the rare opportunity to visit places and meet people that we normally do not have access to. 

8. How has art impacted your life?

Art becomes a passport to express FREELY my feeling and vision about life in general. Some people appreciate my work others don’t…BUT that’s life.

9. Tell us a bit about your last work.

I was documenting Rohingya refugees in Cox Bazar and the street children in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  I will go to Mongolia at the end of June (this month).

10. What is your current WIP?

My ongoing project is entitled “A passage to death and beyond…” to document the process of death and thereafter.

11. What does the future look like for you and your art?

Don’t know what the future holds but I am happy being able to do what I love to do NOW. I hope the state of my art won’t stay stagnant but keeps evolving with the experiences I have in the future……whatever that state might be…

12. Any words of advice to aspiring artists/photographers?

Put 100% of your energy and concentration and do your best on the next shoot and not to worry about future which we do not have much control over anyway.

13. You have documented humanity’s yearning for peace and harmony with your personal ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage Photography Project’, to preserve the fragile heritage of Indonesia, Bhutan and Bolivia. Truly amazing and priceless work! Could you tell us some more about this? 

After having documented mainly misery on earth, it was great and rewarding to document the positive side of human life which is also the reality of life.

These projects also made me understand that the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. The existence of these men, women, children and places became an undeniable fact to the world through the power of photography.

14. You are also exploring new dimensions of visual creation such as multi-media production. What does that entail and what makes it interesting?

I am having few projects in the pipeline with my son Jun, who is a film producer and my daughter, Tessa who is a photographer. I cannot tell you more about it… we are still in production phase, but I am delighted to work with them, the young generation, exploring new medium and approaches!

15. How can our readers contact you and find your amazing art? 

Through my website easily:




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