30 Years, 30 Stories: Photo Finish


2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

What lessons did your time abroad teach you? For our sixth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 1989-90 alum Conrad Louis-Charles (originally posted in our September 2013 newsletter), and discover how the life skills he learned in Japan continue to impact his professional photography career today.

Sadly, Conrad Louis-Charles passed away before the completion of this project. Conrad’s JCMU story will forever serve as a reminder of how study abroad can transform your life.

Making the jump from Michigan to Shiga

After taking a few anthropology classes with Professor Liza Cerroni-Long at Eastern Michigan University, she became my mentor, guiding me with my photography and interests in cultural anthropology. One of her areas of specialty is Japanese culture, and after hearing about the inaugural JCMU program, she felt it would be beneficial and interesting for me to apply.

I am so happy I did!

I decided to go to the first JCMU program in Hikone because I knew it would broaden my experiences and benefit me personally, as a student, and as a photographer. I was very curious and wanted to learn about Japan and its culture.

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Discovering Japanese culture and art

After getting a grasp of the language, being able to communicate in Japanese helped me to understand the culture much better. There are many layers to this new and exciting world I was experiencing, so speaking the language helped me to understand the nuances of Japanese society.

There are so many things I could talk about from my studies and year in Japan. One particular memory sticks with me though. I had a hard time learning the language in the beginning. As such, when I was finally able to converse with an elderly Japanese woman I was photographing in the countryside, I felt pure joy. The way we communicated and interacted was a very heartwarming experience. She was so kind and patient as we spoke while I photographed her.

Studying in Japan (and extending my stay after I finished the program) impacted me profoundly, especially as an artist. I enjoyed going to many galleries and museums to study the works of master artists. The sense and use of design and composition influenced my photographic sensibilities quite deeply.

What my time in Shiga taught me

Much of what I learned in Japan continues to impact how I live my day-to-day life. The key lessons that influenced me in Japan were politeness, respect, punctuality, humility, and simplicity:

  • Politeness – Going to a store, market, or restaurant in Japan, one is greeted and welcomed and very polite. Traveling around the country, people were quite polite and helpful.
  • Respect – Respect for the elderly, teachers, and parents is so important in Japan. I learned a much deeper sense of what it means to respect others.
  • Punctuality – Being on time means arriving a few minutes early and this shows respect to the person being met with.
  • Humility – Being humble is so important in Japanese culture, business, and etiquette and this has influenced me until today and especially when traveling to new cultures.
  • Simplicity – This had a deep impact on my art and photography approach and process. The beauty of many aspects of Japan and art is its minimalism, use of space, and aesthetics. It’s fascinating to see a country like Japan blends simplicity and complexity. Walking through a Japanese garden was a lesson in and of itself for this reason.

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Now, I’m based in Philadelphia and have been a professional photographer for over 20 years. My focus is mainly documentary and travel photography. It’s been a way to explore the world and experience many cultures. There are several countries and places I enjoy photographing. I’ve traveled to complete photo assignments and book projects in Brazil, Antartica, Haiti, Singapore, Dominican Republic and many more.

I’d advise future JCMU students to be humble and go with an open mind. Japan was an amazing cultural and profound personal experience for me and arriving in Japan with an open mind (and heart) allowed me to experience Japanese culture on a deeper level.

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