Photographer Profile - Tim Matsui: "I'm challenging photojournalists to take it a step further"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday November 3, 2015

Acclaim is one thing. Impact is another.

Photographers don’t get that, says photojournalist Tim Matsui.

“We go out there and we shoot images, and we hope they get published, and we’re happy when we get awards, and so often I hear someone say, ‘I just hope my images will make a difference,’” Matsui says. “But they don’t do anything with that. I’m challenging photojournalists to take it a step further, so that the stories they are reporting on can actually lead to positive change.”

That is what Matsui himself is doing. In 2014, he released the feature-length documentary film The Long Night, which examines the sex trafficking of minors in Seattle. The film weaves together the stories of seven people — young girls forced into the sex trade, parents watching their children in crisis, and police officers working to help them and others. Matsui, who had spent years covering human trafficking stories in the US and Asia, began working on the project in earnest in 2012, after receiving the first-ever Women’s Initiative grant from the Alexia Foundation.

“The grant was worth $25,000, which is just enough money to get you into trouble,” he says.

What started as a multimedia project eventually became a documentary film produced by New York-based studio MediaStorm. The film was widely praised and this year won both first prize for Long Feature in the World Press Photo competition and the Documentary of the Year prize from the Pictures of the Year International contest.

But Matsui didn’t celebrate winning the awards. “I am deeply honored for the recognition by the photojournalism community, but the awards are about my work and that work is nothing until it makes a difference for the people whose struggle I’ve witnessed,” he wrote in an essay  he published at Medium.

What he is trying to do now is get his film into the right hands — to be, as he puts it, “a conduit” bringing community groups, police forces and politicians together. This summer he ran a Kickstarter  campaign so he could put his film on DVD and Blue-ray. “Locking it to a streaming-only platform is not beneficial to often grassroots efforts, because you can’t reach people who don’t have reliable Internet connections or schools or libraries or community groups. They need to have physical copies,” he says.

As he noted in his Medium essay, Matsui also wants to insert his film and other materials with a “victim-centric message” into the training programs of country sheriff departments. “So far the response has been positive,” he noted.

Awards do help. Because of his POYi prize, the Kansas City Public Library heard about his film and invited him to speak at a special screening. Matsui went further.

“I called up the FBI office in Seattle and said, ‘Who’s on your sex-trafficking task force in Kansas City?'’’ he says. “Now I can bring this person along with me to the screening so that the community can engage with a law-enforcement expert,” he says.

The Right Tools for the Job

On November 6, Matsui will be taking part in a all-day seminar  at the International Center of Photography in New York titled “Photography: Agent For Change.” Sponsored the the Alexia Foundation, the seminar aims to show photographers how to use their work not just to raise awareness of issues, but how to “truly inform the public and change practices and policies.”

“It’s possible now, given today’s social platforms and publishing tools, to take our stories one step further and connect the audience with some of the solutions that are out there. That’s the challenge I will talk about during the seminar,” says Matsui.

On November 4, Matsui will also talk about his work at the AI-AP Big Talk seminar  in New York.

In a recent interview, he noted that when he speaks to groups about his sex-trafficking project, the one question he invariably hears is, “What can I do?”

“If the photojournalist doesn’t have the quick answer —  like, ‘Here are all these partner organizations you could be looking into, and this one is specific with what your skill set is, go connect with them and do something big’ —then he or she isn’t doing enough,” he said.

In his Medium article, Matsui uses not only stills and video but graphics to explain the sex-trafficking “ecosystem,” which includes homelessness, foster care, the criminal justice system, gender issues, and addiction. He drives the point home: “When we talk about domestic minor sex trafficking, we are potentially talking about a young girl or boy who lives on your block. And, yes, we are talking about your community creating that demand for exploitation,” he writes.

Stories like the one Matsui tells in The Long Night were once usually found in magazines and newspapers. But, as he and other photojournalists  have noted, media outlets chasing Internet clicks are less apt to support such journalism now.

Matsui writes in his essay that The Long Night was created “from the photojournalism community, not for it.” The distinction is interesting.

“I have drawn on tools, skills, networks, and allies in the photography and documentary communities to produce stills, video, audio and, of course, the movie. These are building blocks in the service of a much larger conversation beyond the confines of the photo industry,” he writes.

Agent of Change

Matsui is certainly not alone in using photojournalism as a tool for activism.

“It’s been going on for a while now," says Fred Ritchin, dean of the ICP School and one of the other members of the upcoming Alexia Foundation panel. The trend, notes Ritchin, can be explained in part by changes in the media and the way people now consume information.

“It used to be that you would publish work in some kind of reputable newspaper or magazine, and that would bring enough public attention to force governments to do things. And I think there’s a lot of disappointment among journalists that that doesn’t happen, so they take it into their own hands,” he says.

The nature of photography itself may also be motivating photojournalists to work more as advocates, says Ritchin, whose most recent book, Bending the Frame, examines the new paradigm in which photojournalists work. “The word we’re not using is voyeurism, or spectacle,” he says. “Sometimes a photographer might feel that he or she is just creating a spectacle for the viewer if nothing gets done — you can feel like you’re just preying on the misfortunes of others. And a lot of photographers have felt that they had to create a foundation or work with an NGO or do something specific that’s helpful.”

Matsui’s involvement with the issue of sex trafficking goes back 15 years. A native of Seattle, he was drawn into a story about a local teacher who had committed suicide amid an investigation regarding inappropriate conduct with minors.

“Some of my friends who had been sexually abused or raped came forward and started disclosing to me,” he says. “I started working them to help them tell their stories through multimedia documentary.”

He went on to set up a nonprofit that used his reporting to raise awareness of the lasting effects of sexual violence. Then between 2006 and 2009 Matsui reported on human trafficking in Cambodia and Thailand. When he returned to Seattle, he found that the city was beginning to examine how it should deal with the sex trafficking of minors. Using connections with law enforcement and other groups that he had developed earlier, he plunged back into his reporting. And he began writing grant proposals.

“It took four years of grant writing before I won the Alexia Foundation grant, and when I wrote it,  I thought, ‘Oh, this will be just another rejection,’ but it actually was a kind of perfect grant for this project,” he says.

Though in many respects he is fulfilling the role of an advocate, Matsui still identifies himself as a photojournalist. “I don’t want to be called an activist, because I need to be able to walk that journalistic line, but I know who all theses players are in my story, and I can connect them to make things happen,” he says. “So I ended up in this weird place between journalism and advocacy.”

“Is he doing journalism? Is he doing documentary work? Is he doing advocacy work? Or all of the above? And does it matter?” says Ritchin. “I think it's a positive sign that people are feeling responsible and wanting to do more and make sure that something changes.”