Haunted and drawn to the photograph time and again, I write what is seen and unseen, estimating the truth, in an attempt to infer both past and future. It is difficult not to have a visceral reaction to the downcast white mask of a burdened young girl, her uniform with its pleated skirt and blouse like a sailor, the carefully tied bow, black braids tight yet curving across her chest, as if in concert to hold her heart or protect her breasts. This is not a defiant daughter, her arms meekly behind her back, resigned, like a prisoner, blending on one side into another room beyond the man, beyond the curtain...as if with one step she could walk towards what might be a window of freedom. Chastised and ashamed, her eyes gaze at something we cannot see. A mere glimpse of her neck disappears if you squint your eyes. The flare of her skirt on the other side shows the beginning of adolescent female hips. Perhaps there have been harsh words; perhaps nothing was said. Either way, the emotional tension and distance shout something is very wrong here.
In diagonal balance, from right to left and back again, her white is as incomplete as the bold kanji, on cloth which seems to deliberately block our view, yet simultaneously reaching out a broad stroke that almost beckons to the girl who would rather not be the dominant focus of the photograph. A long thin triangle between the curtain squares also points to the girl. In the grey space between her and the man, grooves in the concrete wall connect the two in three places. This is not a happy moment. The weight of all the layers and the lack of color are both essential to convey an uncomfortable relationship, a powerful image. I can only surmise.
The man's age is accentuated by years of wrinkles, a perpetual and disapproving mouth, his neck the ultimate betrayer of life, proud and stubborn above a starched shirt collar. His suit, whose visible pocket remains stitched closed by an unknown tailor or factory, has a shoulder seam that suggests it was not fitted correctly. The man's arms, though barely shown, seem to be held behind his back, much like the girl's. He has not buttoned the jacket with care, allowing what looks an awkward, checkered tie to escape, marring his profile, as if what cannot be said in words, shows a possible opening for the girl. But her thoughts are elsewhere, sad.
Perhaps he is wearing a hat and glasses. Perhaps not. Perhaps he is blind or so lost in his own past, the girl is just an annoyance, not even a reminder of his wife, who died in childbirth, leaving him to raise this girl who can never be the one child he would have been proud of, a son. They are equally trapped and yet forever entwined, forever frozen in black and white.
(note: I showed the photograph to a German Lutheran sister, who had been a missionary in Japan for many years. She said the partially seen kanji indicated "water for refreshment.")