In 1989, photographer Seiichi Motohashi visited a Japanese slaughterhouse where cattle were being killed, gutted, skinned and cut up for meat.
Some of the documentary photos he took there are now on display at the Ginza Nikon Salon, a one-room gallery in Tokyo, through June 19. They will also appear at the Osaka Nikon Salon in Umeda, Osaka, August 9-22.
Having been to the show, I can report that the photos are not as gruesome as I had feared. Nor are they as educational as I would have liked.
One of the first pictures shows a cow walking up a ramp into the building, but after that the real focus is on people. We see them doing a variety of jobs: removing skin, cutting up meat, loading trucks, cleaning the facilities, and cooking lunch for their fellow workers. One of them is seen at the end of the day washing and sharpening an array of knives. Another stands at a workbench, doing something to a cow’s severed head. It all looks like hard work, but most of the people we see are going about it matter-of-factly.
There are plenty of details to wonder about. What is that guy doing to the head on the table? What is the purpose of the various tools we see? Why are things done in the way we see them being done? Unfortunately, there is no text accompanying the photos, so we are left to wonder.
The most memorable person – in part because he is seen in several photos – is the man who kills the cattle by putting a gun to their heads and firing what appears to be a metal rod into their skulls.
In one image, he is standing on left side of the photo, holding his arm out toward a cow on the right. The photo was taken an instant after he pulled the trigger, with the muscles in his forearm tensed and the cow’s body reacting to being shot. Its leg muscles have contracted in such a way that all four of its hooves have left the floor. Looking at it, I couldn’t help thinking about Eddie Adams’ 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning photo, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon.” I’m not suggesting the scenes are morally equivalent, but the similarity in terms of action and composition was inescapable.
Another photo of the same man at the slaughterhouse shows him standing alone and looking rather unsure of himself with the gun hanging in his hand by his side. His job appears to be the least physically demanding of any we are shown, but it is probably the hardest of all.