AAPI Heritage Month: Dai Sugano

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Dai Sugano is an Emmy Award-winning photojournalist and senior multimedia editor at the San Jose Mercury News. He covers a wide range of assignments which have included: rising economic inequality in China; “Cost of Dying,” a series on end-of-life care issues in the U.S.; poverty in India; Hmong refugees who have immigrated to the U.S.; California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall; and “Torn Apart,” a 30-minute documentary on a Bay Area family divided by immigration rules.In 2008, “Uprooted,” which looks at displacement of a group of mobile home residents in Sunnyvale, won a national Emmy Award in New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming: Documentaries. His other work have been nominated for an Emmy Award and a Pulitzer Prize in photography; and have received awards from EPpy, Best of the West, NPPA and other international and national photojournalism organizations.

Dai Sugano

How long have you been in photojournalism?

I have been a photojournalist since 2002 at the San Jose Mercury News.

How and why did you decide to become a photojournalist?

I found my passion for photography when I moved to Seattle from Japan as an international student back in 1995. I grew up in Japan’s city of steel, Muroran, a port city where the main industries are steel, oil refinery, cement factories and shipyards. I wasn’t influenced by much art while growing up. When I moved to Seattle, I immediately got hooked on photography. I was moved by how beautiful the city was. But more importantly, I think it was the first time I truly felt the joy of creating something myself, instead of playing video games or enjoying things made by other people. There also is a social aspect to photojournalism that attracted me very much. My dad was a social worker for deaf and hearing-impaired children in Japan. I watched my father dedicate his life to making those children’s lives better, and it made me want to contribute to society as well. To me, photojournalism is my way of serving people and communities – with my camera.

What do you love most about photography?

Photography has enriched my life.  I think the best thing about photography has less to do with the actual taking of photographs and more to do with the ability to see the elements that make good photographs. Whether it’s lighting, composition, color or a decisive moment, you have to be able to see the elements before you take the picture. Two photographers could be shooting side by side and walk away with very different images. One image might not be better than the other, but they would be different, and that’s always fascinating. The moment happens fast and it passes quickly, whether you are ready or not, and it never happens again.

How has being an AAPI helped/hurt your photojournalism career?

Being an Asian photographer, I think I have wider and deeper knowledge of issues surrounding Asian communities in America. I have cultural and historical sensibilities that help me in reporting and photographing Asian subjects, events and issues. Working in the culturally diverse Bay Area, I’ve never been held back by being Asian.

What advice did you wish someone gave you when you were starting out?

You have unique perspectives that you can utilize in your reporting – through writing, photography and editing. Journalists get discouraged when they’re told “that story has been done before,” but you need to remember that it has not been reported by you. Identify things about which you have deeper knowledge than your peers do. Know your potential in bringing something new and unique.


India’s rising prosperity is a remarkable story. Millions of people have been lifted from poverty in recent years. But the new glitter of India’s cities cannot hide the grim reality that remains daily life for hundreds of millions of its citizens. Pictured are residents of a slum in Mumbai in 2008. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


Images from an Emmy nominated 30-min-documentary, Torn Apart.  (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


Images from an Emmy winning 25-min-documentary, Uprooted. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


Thirty-five-year-old slum dweller Fatima Bi takes apart batteries to sell as recycling material on September 15, 2008, in Mumbai, India.  She earns about $1.50 a day by selling recyclable parts of batteries. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


A TV image and neon lights reflected on Sanlitun Bar Street blend on a bar window on April 5, 2011 in Beijing, China. (Dai Sugano | The San Jose Mercury News)


Eight-year-old orphan Vu Thi Hoang Lam sits by other orphans during dinner on April 16 at the Linh Xuan Children’s Nourishment and Supportive Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on April 16, 2011.  Nearly 120 young residents at Linh Xuan, from infants to teens, have HIV. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


Young tourists in cowboy hats pass by Chinese Army guards in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China on April 8, 2011. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


Of Santa Clara County's 56 homicides this year, 10 involved domestic violence with an additional five related suicides, the highest toll since 2003. A portrait of Regina Dunn, whose daughter Melanie Ashley Dunn was the victim of a domestic violence homicide in San Jose in 2011.  Photographed on Dec. 26, 2011.

Of Santa Clara County’s 56 homicides this year, 10 involved domestic violence with an additional five related suicides, the highest toll since 2003. A portrait of Regina Dunn, whose daughter Melanie Ashley Dunn was the victim of a domestic violence homicide in San Jose in 2011. Photographed on Dec. 26, 2011. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


During Recall Race, California governor Gray Davis looks up as former President Bill Clinton answers questions to media during their visit to Olvera Street in Los Angeles  Sunday September 14 2003. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)


A couple of birds fly through a street in San Francisco. (Dai Sugano)A couple of birds fly through a street in San Francisco. (Dai Sugano | San Jose Mercury News)