For more than four decades, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Taro Yamasaki has focused on telling the personal stories of the subjects he meets and shoots in hopes of improving the lives of the people he meets and those who read about them.
Yamasaki's in-depth human interest assignments have taken him to nearly every state in the country, as well as several countries, where he has raised awareness about human trafficking, migrant workers, refugees and victims of wars in Bosnia, Nicaragua, Rwanda and the Middle East, AIDS, orphanages and other topics.
The son of architect Minoru Yamasaki, Taro first got interested in photography when his brother made a darkroom in his mother's Bloomfield Township home while he was attending Cranbrook Schools. He later studied photojournalism at the University of Michigan, but left in his senior year to live in New York City to pursue work in photography.
"It was April of my senior year when I decided, ‘I don't need a degree to be a photographer,’" he said. "I packed everything in my car in Ann Arbor and moved to New York. I had everything in my car, and when I got there, I parked below my sister's loft in Manhattan."
When he came out of his sister's loft 10 minutes later, Yamasaki discovered all his belongings had been stolen from his car. He later used $2,000 from his mother's homeowner's insurance to find an apartment and get set up in the city. To get by, Yamasaki took different part-time jobs, including work as a kindergarten teacher's assistant on the Lower East Side, and later a taxi driver after moving to Denver.
"I had many part-time jobs back then... I had so many different jobs dealing with so many different kinds of people, that helps with the kind of photojournalism I've done," he said. "It's a very personal photojournalism."
A few years after moving back to Michigan, Yamasaki was hired as a staff photographer by the Detroit Free Press. In 1981, he produced a photo series for the paper documenting life inside Jackson Prison, spending several days talking with and photographing prisoners without the direct supervision of guards. The series earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Offers for freelance work soon followed, and Yamasaki decided to leave the paper in 1984 in favor of a freelance career.
Among Yamasaki's work were three cover stories about 13-year-old Ryan White, who was ostracized from Kokomo, Indiana, after contracting AIDS. The stories reached 35 million people, and are credited with helping improve White's quality of life and raising awareness of people living with AIDS.
Previously living in Birmingham since 1990, Yamasaki and his wife left the city in 2005 for more majestic views and a slower work pace on the Leelanau Peninsula, where he now spends more time with family and personal projects.
Recently, Yamasaki has volunteered his talents to raise awareness and stop modern slavery in the form of sex, debt and labor trafficking. The project stems from his pro bono work with a New York City attorney he began working with in 2011 to help save families of undocumented World Trade Center workers killed on 9/11 from deportation.
"When you do the stories that I've done, you want to effect change. It's always in a minor way," he said. "It's a matter of opening people's eyes and making them feel something for someone they never even thought about before."
Photo: Seth Yamasaki