Dolphin slaughter in Taiji

Driving a pod to slaughter

What is it?

Taiji is a small town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, inconsequential except for its notoriety as the site of the regular and highly controversial slaughter of large numbers of dolphins. Endorsed by the Japanese government, details of the slaughter are systematically concealed by local authorities, so much so that the producers of 2009 documentary, The Cove, were forced to use guerrilla techniques to get cameras close to the slaughter site. Taiji continues to be the focus of international activist groups, Save Japan Dolphins and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who hope to end the slaughter as well as the international trade in aquarium dolphins that fuels it.

Taiji first came to our attention when we saw The Cove in the 2010 Milano Film Festival, so it was with surprise that we immediately recognised the infamous site as the subject of a recent exhibition at Obscura Gallery by Melbourne photographer, Georgia Laughton. We attended the exhibition opening as guests of Samantha Cuffe, a talented glass artist we have discussed previously here.

We conducted the following interview with Georgia over recent weeks, gaining insight into her thoughts, experiences and ambitions for her work.

Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Georgia. Can you start by explaining what lead you to becoming involved with documenting the dolphin slaughter in Taiji?

Ever since I can remember I have been concerned about the state of the planet, and especially the state of the ocean. I became interested in animal rights when I was shown my first copy of a magazine by Animal Liberation at the age of 14, so the path that led me to be in Taiji is easy for me to track. I had been an on-shore volunteer with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society since 2008. At the time I went to Japan I was volunteering and working as the Melbourne volunteer coordinator, so was very aware of what was happening in Taiji (and many other parts of the world) every year.

The decision to actually go over to Taiji was made very quickly one day in November 2010. I was reading the daily update over what was happening there, and a pod of pilot whales had been slaughtered that day. About 4 of them had been killed. That slaughter just got to me, and I decided I wanted to go over to document and photograph it myself in order to help spread awareness over the issue.

Why did you select the photos included in the exhibition? What attracted you to document those in particular?

The images were selected to form a collection which tells the story of both events which happen to the dolphins in Taiji – and which I saw – dolphins being captured for a life in captivity and dolphins being driven into the cove to be slaughtered. I wanted to document both captivity and slaughter, rather than just focus on one or the other, as both industries are linked.

What about access? Some of the photos appear to have been shot under the cover of foliage. Were you able to take all the photos you wanted?

Access was difficult – obviously the fishermen wish to keep their actions hidden as much as possible, so they try to cover up all they can with tarps. This did make obtaining some of the images difficult – it was possible to shoot down into the Cove for some, however it was difficult to get past the foliage and to pass barriers. Areas are blocked off with Do Not Tresspass signs on the barriers (written in both English and Japanese).

Dragging a dolphin

The one image of the dolphin being dragged in alive by its rostuem was taken when I was hiding on top of the cliff top – hiding from the fishermen who comb through the area to try and make sure clear images of their actions cannot be taken. A few minutes after that image was taken the police did come along and asked me to move – a request I happily obeyed.

Were there others you wished you could have captured but couldn’t?

There were images which I wanted to take which just weren’t possible. It was not possible to photograph the Fishery Union Building where they process the dolphin meat and where, each morning, the fishermen huddle around a fire and cook and eat dolphin. Due to the tarps, it was not possible to photograph the slaughter either. I could hear it happening, I could see the blood coming out in the water, however I could not see the actions.

Do the gruesome images of the method of slaughter need to be photographed? Would it add to the series of the images? I don’t know. Part of me likes the fact I do not have the horrific images of extreme cruelty.

I also had the conflict of photographing the Whale Museum, where many dolphins are kept in captivity. I did not wish for any of my money to go and support this business nor did I wish to add to their attendence numbers. This did mean I do not have any photographs of how the dolphins live their life in captivity, apart from when they are in their sea pens being trained.

Dolphin base

One particular image I do wish I had captured was the day prior to my departure from Taiji. It was the end of the slaughter season and the fishermen had been busy cleaning down the slaughterhouse and taking down all the tarps and nets. As the final boat of fishermen sailed past, they bowed to us – an image I will always kick myself for not having my camera out!

We felt upon viewing the exhibition that it would have benefited from insight into the slaughter’s broader political / economic context. Have you considered juxtaposing your photos of Taiji against others of dolphin aquariums around the world, or even Japanese supermarkets that sell dolphin meat?

Yes, I did think about showing images of the meat, and whilst I would love to have photographed the fishermen’s fire barrel over which they cook dolphin in the mornings, I made the decision not to include the images I had of the dolphin meat all packaged up into little bags for sale in the nearby towns. I wanted to focus on the events of the capture, the slaughter and how they actually happen. I wanted the viewer to be taken through the slaughter only up to the point the bodies are taken out of the Cove and covered up by tarps, with fishermen sitting upon them.

The only image I wanted after this is the final one, at night, where a light is kept on to illuminate the killing Cove while the rest of the area sits in darkness.

Killing Cove at Night

What do you hope your exhibition will achieve?

I am mainly hoping to raise awareness of the issue and hopefully spark some new thinking. There are so many issues of animal cruelty and others facing our oceans. It would be wonderful if a small seed has been planted into peoples’ minds which might make them look further into some of these issues and hopefully change their actions (a small change for the better is better than no change at all) and help support some of the many organisations which are working to fix some of these problems. I hope that if faced with the choice between going to a dolphinarium or not, that people who have seen the exhibition and remember the images will choose not to contribute any money towards maintaining the captivity industry.

And what do you think it will take for Japan to cease harvesting dolphins?

Sadly, in my opinion I think it will take a lot for Japan to stop harvesting dolphins. It has been proven that dolphin meat is highly toxic – to me the most basic of facts which should shut down the slaughter – yet the Japanese public is largely ignorant of the relevant health issues. The dolphin slaughter is hidden from them, yet in order for it to stop they need to get behind the urge for change. I think there also needs to be a world-wide ban on dolphins living in captivity. If no dolphins are being sold for captivity, where the bulk of income comes from, then the slaughter will also cease.

Many organisations are working in various ways towards ending the slaughter and I would like to believe it will come to an end. The excuse of tradition is often used as a reason for it to continue, but if we look back in history, we see the end of many cruel traditions. It is simply not a tradition that makes sense in modern times.

After the slaughter

So what next? Do you have further plans to visit Taiji or other sites of animal cruelty around the world?

I would like to venture back to Japan at some time in the future, however for now I wish to focus on animal cruelty which is happening here in Australia. Unfortunately there are many different areas of abuse of animals and the oceans happening here, from the unregulated kangaroo meat industry to the gas hub in the Kimberley.

Thanks for the insight, Georgia, and all the best with future projects.


Both the documentary, The Cove, and Laughton’s exhibition have left an impression on us. Understanding the context of the dolphin industry, and what happens in the hidden shadows to introduce dolphins into captivity, have forever poisoned dolphinariums for us. In captivity, dolphins are often kept in small, barren tanks. In the wild, dolphins will swim up to 100km in a day, the only place our children will ever see them.

Blow Job


What is it?

A photographic series by Lithuanian artist and former architect, Tadas Černiauskas, who invited a hundred friends and strangers to his studio during Design Week in Vilnius last Friday where he blasted their faces with gale-force air currents and captured the hilarious, creepy and downright unnerving results.

In spectacular modern fashion, this photographic shoot has exploded across the digital world, appearing in countless photography and design blogs within days.

What do we think?

Aside from the cheeky name, this series offers nothing more and nothing less than simple, honest pleasure. We giggled uncontrollably at the overwhelming amount of skin attached to the front of participants’ faces, the unexpected flexibility of their noses and the grotesquery of their gums. Černiauskas himself told the Huffington Post that “this series doesn’t have any hidden meanings. It was meant to give some good laughter to the viewers and participants. It turned out to be better than I expected and that is why I like what I do today – every day is full of pleasant surprises.”

Kudos to a simple idea executed with bizarre aplomb.

Mr. Ed

Davy Jones

The Salt project

What is it?

A photographic exhibition arising out of a series of expeditions to the usually-dry Lake Eyre at the heart of Australia by Sydney artist, Murray Fredericks. The exhibition documents 16 solo journeys undertaken between 2003 and 2010. “Immersed in pure space, Fredericks camped alone in the centre of the lake photographing a landscape without landscape for up to five weeks at a time. The solitude, simplicity and repetition of the days created an approach that was integral to the production of the images.”

Salt has showed in numerous public and private galleries in Australia and around the world, most recently at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.

What do we think?

Fredericks derives his committed, immersive philosophy of photography from the five years immediately after his undergraduate degree, which he spent travelling in the Middle East and Himalaya. The experience of these powerful locations continues to provide the basis for his search into the timeless essence of a place beyond its socially-constructed value.

Iridium, this extraordinary time-lapse video produced as part of the Salt project, reveals Lake Eyre as a place even flatter, larger, more open and more magnificent than we city-bound folk could ever imagine it to be. From horizon to horizon to horizon, it is empty.

Yet, Fredericks’ cinematography possesses a relentless energy, exploring the ever-changing relationship between land and sky. The land is inundated and the sky is placid, shades of blue seen nowhere else in the world; the land is parched and the sky is furious, churning with the electrical charge of a coming storm; the land is hidden and the sky is mystical, the Milky Way wrapping the Earth.

Clouds do not limp across the sky, they boil or froth or burn. The sun does not rise apologetically through smog or ozone haze, it explodes across the land. A star field sweeps smoothly and silently, shedding intermittent light through fairy-floss cirrus clouds onto an inundated Lake Eyre as pristine as glass. The contrast in pace between stars, clouds and rare wildlife reveals the fragility of Fredericks’ journey and the unimaginable sizes of planet and galaxy it inhabits.

Twirl photography

Original photo: Hill House by Mihaly Slocombe

Original photo: Basser House by Mihaly Slocombe

What is it?

An interesting photography manipulation technique for Photoshop learned via The Artist Makena and Digital Darkroom Techniques:

  1. Start with any photo
  2. Filter > Pixelate > Mezzotint > Medium lines
  3. Filter > Blur > Radial blur (slider = 100, blur method = zoom, quality = best)
  4. Repeat step 3 up to 5 times, as desired
  5. Duplicate layer
  6. Remain on original layer. Filter > Distort > Twirl (angle value = +80 or as desired)
  7. Select new layer. Filter > Distort > Twirl (angle value = -80 or opposite of step 6 angle value)
  8. Alter new layer’s blending mode to lighten
  9. Merge layers
  10. Finish

An unusual engagement

What is it?

A photography shoot by Amanda Rynda of newly engaged couple, Juliana Sunmi Park and Benjamin Jinsuk Lee. The Los Angeles shoot overlooks the traditional but bland engagement storyline of boy-meets-girl for an infinitely more compelling narrative.

What do we think?

Somehow, despite their ghoulish appearance and intensely monomaniacal disposition, western culture is in love with zombies. They are everywhere – they have infiltrated mainstream film, literature, gaming, architectural competitions and against all odds, even wedding photography.

Rynda’s photos have a beautifully nostalgic feel, evoking the perfect engagement picnic as well as the 60s era when zombies were first introduced to the world. She has a practiced eye for composition, story-telling and humour. Our particular favourite (not shown in this abridged version – see the full story here) is the photo of Lee gallantly pushing his newly-minted fiancee out of the way of the charging zombie. What better way for a gentleman to show his love for a lady?

Zombies, we salute you.

Photo weaving

What is it?

First seen on My Modern Met, here, this is a project by Swiss-based photographer, Corinne Vionnet, that explores the complex associations between tourism and visual culture by superimposing tourists’ photos of significant landmarks one over the other. The result is a fascinating collage series of elusive yet immediately identifiable monuments and places that exist somewhere between photography, drawing and oil painting.

Vionnet has sifted through online photo-sharing sites, selecting between 200 and 300 photos each of landmarks like Big Ben, Mecca, the Alhambra, Disneyland and the Colosseum. She chooses a central point of reference to link the layered photos, like the Ka’aba at Mecca for instance, or the portrait of Mao in the Forbidden City, and leaves the rest of the collage to chance. Though the photos are taken from similar vantage points, changes in lighting, visitor attendance and perspective all leave their mark on the final image. Surrounding landscape is like mist and people are ghosts, together creating a strong contrast against the sharp central reference point.

What do we think?

This contrast between centre and periphery imbues the works with a perhaps unintended quality, revealing the dual processes that went into their making. Whilst the repetitive, careless tourist snapshot and Vionnet’s unique, highly-crafted assembly could not derive from more different processes, the gaze of both are fixed firmly on the same point, a connection that elaborates on the rich and profoundly reciprocal relationship between place and tourism.

Vionnet’s work is grounded in the endlessly repetitive process of travel, in the identical small journeys made by hundreds of millions of travellers every year. However, through her intervention, the individual journeys somehow overcome their similitude to reveal the collective cultural power of the places we visit.

MAXXI Museum

What is it?

The MAXXI National Museum of Art from the 21st Century is a recently completed and much lauded project by Zaha Hadid in Rome. So far, it has won the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize and, just last month, the 2010 World Architecture Festival World Building of the Year award, both prestigious and well-contested accolades.

What do we think?

The relationship architectural photography has to architecture is a complex one, never more so than in our information-saturated epoch. Digital photographic media, coupled with an ever-growing number of international awards programs, competitions and architectural websites, provide vast diffusion of the world’s best buildings. It no longer matters that Australia is so geographically isolated, we simply open up, log on or browse and we have these buildings at our fingertips.

Or do we? A photo is not the real thing, after all, merely a two-dimensional representation of space, structure, time and light. During our recent travels, this is a fact we have discovered to be not only true but a powerful indication of the fundamental quality of a building.

We have visited Bilbao, Lisbon, Barcelona and Tokyo and seen work by Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog + de Meuron and Toyo Ito. We have discovered that Calatrava and Ito produce sublime architecture that, despite prior knowledge, still manages to surprise and excite. And we have discovered that Gehry and Herzog + De Meuron produce work that generally looks better on the page than it is in the flesh, surely the most condemning praise one can offer an architect.

So what of the MAXXI Museum – into which category does it fall?

Aerial photos of the museum reveal a complex series of forms sliding along and around the existing building on site, which together with elaborately striated roof planes emphasises the movement of visitors and the general public around and through the site. Yet from ground level, none of this dynamism is apparent. Almost every part of the building visible from surrounding streets is blank concrete, generating a surprisingly static and unwelcoming urban response.

The top floor, cantilevering over the entry courtyard, proffers the only view into and out of the exhibition spaces by way of full height glazing to its end wall. Hadid has indicated in no uncertain terms, through form, programme and detailing, that this is an important window. But what is its purpose? Sure it looks out over Rome, but not from a great height and hardly across a breathtaking view – there is not a Pantheon, Colosseum or Trevi Fountain in sight. The view is intimate, at a height that is level with surrounding buildings – pleasant but hardly equal to the expectation with which the armature of the architecture has filled us. It’s a curious anticlimax that feels like it was designed to please whilst inside someone’s 3D modelling software, with only a weak acknowledgement of its context.

The rest of the museum proves to be equally underwhelming. This is not a beautifully detailed project: plasterboard is left strangely unfinished in parts, with sloppy paintwork and exposed stopping bead channels; the pale concrete floor was a poor choice, with prodigious scuffing after barely more then 6 months of use; and the black-painted steel stairs, its programmatic heart, have handrails with mismatched steelwork and, worst of all, translucent white panelling to their soffits that display a bewildering quantity of dirt and grime collected from visitors’ shoes through the open grating treads.

What did we learn?

Dare we say that we feel somewhat cheated? Hadid is celebrated as an architect with an excellent understanding of urbanism and the role a building plays in the wider city context. Yet urbanism does not happen from the air, especially not in Rome, where buildings are generally betwen 5 and 8 storeys. So why does the MAXXI Museum present a blank face to the world?

Why also is the existing building on site, around which the new structure so elaborately wraps, closed to the street? Approaching the site from Via Guido Reni, we were momentarily confused – did we come on a day when the museum was shut? It is understandable that Hadid sought to establish a new entry for the museum, but why then go to so much effort to have the new flank and embellish the old?

Perhaps it is our fault, simply a case of unreasonably high expectations. We have after all known about this project for years, have read about it across every media format and most recently watched as the judges at the World Architecture Festival drooled over it.

Or then again, perhaps our expectations were justified – Zaha Hadid is one of the most famous architects in the world, has won almost every prize there is to win, and works exclusively on high profile projects with what we can only imagine are stratospheric budgets. This should have been an extraordinary building. Thus it is even more disappointing to discover that it is primarily an indulgent exercise in form making.

The MAXXI Museum looks nice in photos, but fails to insipire in the flesh.