Magnum Photos Blog

From the Archive 

Comfort Women 

December 29, 2015 
by Chris Steele-Perkins 
‘Comfort Women’ was the term used to disguise the use of women as sex slaves to the Japanese military during the Pacific (Second World) War. It happened throughout the South Pacific region that Japan controlled, including Korea. Some of the Korean women have been particularly courageous and outspoken about what happened to them and have formed a group fighting for recognition of the crimes committed against them and for compensation from the Japanese government. In other countries there has not been this level of openness and organisation. It was for this reason that I chose to work in South Korea as I would be able to meet, photograph and talk to some of these women as they had already stepped forward to testify in court.
What a sacrifice that is: to stand up in public, as an old woman, having kept the traumas of your past hidden until this time and tell how, for years, you had been systematically raped and abused by the troops of an invading army. Yet it is a tribute to the support they have had in the new South Korea that they are now generally considered with great respect and sympathy.
We will never know how many ‘Comfort Women’ there were as most are now dead, and only a few of those remaining have been able to face publicly acknowledging what happened to them over 50 years ago. These women are some of the oldest surviving slaves. I wanted to include them in this project as a reminder of slavery far removed from African history, but similar in that it was sponsored and condoned by a national government, not some criminal gang. I chose to make very simple portraits of these women and interview them – including their testimony alongside their images.This work needs no further embellishment.
Taking these photographs and conducting these interviews was an emotional experience as just about all of those who agreed to participate broke into silent tears as they told me, through an interpreter, what had happened to them. I did not photograph this, as I wanted to photograph these women as I fundamentally saw them: strong women who had survived the most degrading atrocities unbroken and with dignity. Women I admired.

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