Archive for July 26, 2010

Tuol Sleng, Cambodia

Several years ago I had the pleasure of going to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Whilst there I learnt of an important prison museum. I didn’t know what to expect, and I found myself stunned there. I now wish I hadn’t had all my senses pummelled by the events that occurred there. Consequently, with a shocked and unpleasantly awed brain, these are the best that I could get.

The great news is that Kaing Guek Eav, “Dutch” the former prison chief, was found guilty in his part of the atrocities at Tuol Sleng prison. Tuol Sleng was a regular high school, until the Pol Pot regime took over Cambodia in 1975. There ensued the Killing Fields. Dutch was a fairly low-ranked member of the Pol Pot regime, but to day, he’s the only person to have been brought to trial for his part in the Pol Pot era atrocities. In this prison, new prisoners were stripped to the waist, and had a piece of paper pinned to their skin for a a prison-record photo. They were then thrown into over crowded wooden cells in converted classrooms. Torture could include having fingers cut off with bolt cutters, being hung by the arms but were tied behind the prisoners’ backs causing horrible injuries, and there were more atrocities.

Tuol Sleng – Images by Andrew Blyth

Sumo Metaphors

The idea occurred to me as I began shooting at the Nagoya Summer Grand Sumo Tournament on the 14th and second to final day. There had been scandals and problems. Let’s list some here:

  • Abuse of apprentices (resulting in the death of one 18 year old)
  • Allegations of match fixing
  • Unruly behaviour in public of one of the top wrestlers (Asashoru)
  • Giving highly prized ring-side tickets to gangsters (extremely taboo in Japan), and most recently
  • Illegal gambling on baseball, and high school baseball games.

I can’t hit all of those points, but I’ll tell you a story through pictures. Here’s the link the the complete Japanese Sumo Gallery.

This isn’t an abuse scene, it’s just regular practice, and no one batted an eyelid (if they even noticed this)

As a result of all the scandals, ticket sales were down 10%, according to the national radio and TV broadcaster NHK, so the first half of the tournament had few seats filled. This image was taken early in the afternoon before the crowds had finished arriving.

Whilst some see the light of day, many members of the public are still sceptical and suspect that there’ll be more scandals.

As a result of the most recent scandals, involving illegal gambling, some of the top wrestlers were told to withdraw from the tournament, which has caused a thinning out of the ranks.

However, the later half of the tournament saw the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium filled, though with late ticket sales. This image below, shows the banner displayed thanking the spectators for making this a sell-out day, which was seen much less in this tournament.

Generally, the heads of the Sumo Association have been seen as weak, ineffective, or unable to deal with the problems. These ring-side judges are actually conferring on a bout where two wrestlers knocked the referee out of the ring so the referee was unable to rule on the bout.

In the past, the Sumo Association has not wanted foreign sponsors and their sponsorship banners. However, many major sponsors including HB-101 has withdrawn their support. As a consequence, the Sumo Association has allowed in some foreign sponsors… The Golden M.

An innocent victim. Not really a metaphor, but pertinent information just the same. This proud Mongolian, Hakuho striding away from this bout, had just scored enough wins to secure a tournament victory. The next day he won again, making him completely undefeated for three tournaments straight, a first in modern (post-war) sumo. In a rare show of emotion, Hakuho wept with joy afterwards. However, the Sumo Association decided not to award him the coveted Emperor’s Cup (another first), given the circumstances and the general public’s current displeasure for their beloved national sport. Not getting the Emperor’s Cup on the day that Hakuho made sumo history has got to sting.

Cover-ups. The Sumo Association has tried to keep a lot under wraps in the past, but have decided not to cover-up the latest scandal. I bet they wish they could have put a big green tarp over the illegal baseball gambling fiasco.

The winners of bouts in the top divisions are shown with a red mark above or below their name. The wrestlers who have withdrawn from the tournament have their name listed on the left. Usually one or two pull out due to injury in each tournament.

Every crowd has a golden lining. Sumo is special. It’s the only sport that Japan has exported, and is iconic to Japan. It has its group of eclectic supporters like all sports in all countries. The Gold Hat Man (as I call him) is ubiquitous. He is seen in the much sought-after ring-side area on every day of every tournament since I’ve been in Japan (about five years now). He is one of the many characters that really enjoy the sport through thick and thin. He’s an inspiration to many.

But the crowds still gather to see their favourite wrestlers leave at the end of the day.

Nagoya Sumo Tournament

I was able to attend the 14th and second to final day of the summer Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. I arrived early afternoon, when the last of the lower ranked wrestlers were still battling their way to move up in the world. I saw the Ring-entrance Ceremony of both the Juryo (intermediate) and Makuuchi (upper) divisions, and then the Yokuzuna (highest rank) Ring-entrance ceremony, too. On this day, all my favourite wrestlers won (always makes for a good day), and saw some great, and entertaining bouts.

There have been numerous controversies in sumo in the last few years, culminating in the latest illegal gambling issue. As a result, far fewer tickets have sold, and some ticket vendors have claimed that they will run at a loss by the end of the tournament. Also, some important sponsors have withdrawn their support, namely HB-101 that was the biggest financial contributor to the sport. Last year, the sumo association ceded, and allowed foreign advertisers to show their banners, consequently, McDonalds Japan is now a major sponsor, and is currently one of the very few supporters of sumo. Interestingly, when the banners were paraded, the crowded cheered and applauded, I never thought I’d see anyone do such a thing at the sight of a Golden M.

These sumo photos will be available at both Asia Photo Connection and my PhotoShelter account. Also, look out for the “Metaphors in Sumo” and Sumo Spills that I’m planning to produce, soon.

Japanese Sumo – Images by Andrew Blyth

Sumo Practice

This morning I got to the training session of the Minezaki Stable, just one day before the controversial Summer Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament is to begin. The same old faces were there, practising hard, but looking far more ready and experienced. However, there was one new addition, a young Caucasian who looked like he was just giving it a go, and today was perhaps his first day.

The sumo association has been rocked by a series of controversies, and the latest includes cavorting with the criminal underground. This has caused the association to be censured for the first time. The national broadcaster, NHK, will not air this tournament live on TV, but show pre-recorded highlights after 7pm (one hour after the last bout). A lot of community support had been withdrawn from the association and individual stables. Usually, there must be absolute silence from on-lookers (like me) during the practice sessions, and absolutely, now flash photography. So, it’s little wonder that the Minezaki Stable appeared to allow an outsider to tryout today, and a group of children to watch, and not be told off for the racket they were making.

I’ve photographed this stable before, mainly because I really like the location, accessibility, and that there is the potential that I might be photographing a future top wrestler already. You never know.

My practice session shots are already available at PhotoShelter, and will soon be at Asian Photo Connection, and Gekko Images.

Sumo wrestlers of the Minezaki Stable practicing ahead of the summer Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament

Early morning practice session

Sumo wrestlers of the Minezaki Stable practicing ahead of the summer Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament

Early morning training session

Sumo wrestlers of the Minezaki Stable practicing ahead of the summer Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament

Early morning sumo practice