If you’re into photography, you might know of Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942), the woman who is recognized as America’s first female photojournalist. But you probably don’t know her Japanese counterpart, Tsuneko Sasamoto, a pioneering—and prolific—shutterbug who is still snapping pictures at the age of 101.
Sasamoto began her photography career when she was 26 years old. An acquaintance started a photography organization and asked her if she wanted to join. In accepting, Sasamoto unwittingly became the first woman in Japan to enter the photojournalism profession.
"When I was young I was often told, ‘You're just a woman, how could you even think of becoming a photographer?' But when I saw Margaret Bourke-White's photography I knew I could be like her one day," Sasamoto once said. Today, 75 years after getting her start, Sasamoto is known for her black-and-white portraits, her extensive backlog of historical photos, and her trailblazing approach to her life and career.
Over the decades, Sasamoto has witnessed history through her lens. She shot a portrait of Japan Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma in 1955, five years before his assassination; she photographed Hitler Youth visiting Japan; and she has taken pictures of numerous famous Japanese artists, poets, and novelists, among other subjects. Sasamoto has also paid particular attention to female subjects, documenting the lives of ordinary Japanese women who have exhibited strength, courage, and independence in the face of gender oppression.
Life as a female photographer hasn't always been easy for Sasamoto, though. She dealt with sexist comments from male officials and bureaucrats, whom she was often tasked with photographing while on assignment. She was urged by family members to give up her career and get married. (Sasamoto did wed, twice; she divorced her first husband due to her busy workload.) But the biggest challenge, according to Sasamoto, was having to wear skirts and high heels while she worked, which made it hard to climb stepladders and take pictures from different angles.
Now more than a century old, Sasamoto is still dedicated to her work. She's still publishing photo books and featuring her work in exhibitions. And although she broke her left hand and both legs last year, she’s still plowing away at her latest project—a collection of flower photographs, called Hana Akari (Flower Glow). Talk about dedication.
Learn more about Sasamoto's life in the video below, filmed right before her 100th birthday.