Not Niigata. Ahorn Magazine – Interview by Daniel Augschöll and Anya Jasbär
First of all, how did the Not Niigata project start? We know that the ‘European Eyes on Japan Festival’ commissioned the project. Were you previously involved in Japanese culture before the work was commissioned? Did you already have an idea about the photo project when you started the journey?
The curator of the “European Eyes on Japan” series, Mikiko Kikuta, saw a show of my HIGLEY work and called me to see if I would be interested in going to Niigata, a region of Japan where she recognized a certain similarity to Higley, AZ; a place with a strong history of agriculture struggling with the encroachment of globalization and the changes it brings. I had never been to Japan before and initially set out, not to do the same work as in HIGLEY, which would be impossible as HIGLEY is a very personal work about my family, but to take a look at the rice industry. As is often the case, when I got there I found a place much different from what I was expecting and reacted accordingly; basically throwing all of my plans out the window.
In the preface of the book you say that the work is about “not understanding Niigata”. Everything, every photograph, under this light, seems to represent a “No-Where”. You were able to collect stories about Niigata, but what did you see in these photographs about the real Niigata and what is, on the other side, the fictional part of the story you built?
The term “No-Where” is an important one for me when I think of my photographs on a formal level. It is a combination of a certain lighting, film, paper etc that tends to lend a bit of a stage-like quality to the images. I think this is very important for my work to lift the subject/landscape out of its normal context, almost as if all of the images were made in one shooting, in one studio, with one lighting set up. This type of work is anything but objective. It is a very subjective way of working but has disguised itself as “documentary” through its style. There is no smoke or mirrors, but who and what I choose to photograph, and more importantly, who and what I DON’T photograph, or decide to leave outside the frame, is very important. It is a very egoistic way of working. I’m not there to tell the story of Niigata, though that is what is expected of me as a photographer. The title alludes to my skepticism of this assumption that my camera will tell the truth about a place. I found myself trying to make my HIGLEY images in this place that was very foreign to me and I realized I would and could never understand a culture through photographing it, so I made that interesting cultural gap my subject.
There is a feeling that connects the books you’ve made in these last years: Higley, Baghdad Suite, and now Not Niigata. The city is always a place where we have to think intensely about what is happening around us. We have to stop, look at that photographs, and think about what those cities are, what they represent. In Higley we can see the new side, development of the American Southwest. In Baghdad Suite we ‘re trying to believe that one day the phoenix will be born again and rise from the ashes. And what is Niigata? The atmosphere seems quite meditative.
It is for sure that my work in Niigata can’t be as complete and rounded as a series like HIGLEY which took years to make in a place that was once my home. NOT NIIGATA would have been worked to death and probably been useless if I had traveled there time and time again as I did in Higley, AZ. NOT NIIGATA is all about the brief encounter as a traveler, passing through, always lost and illiterate. I think the feeling you mention is one of slowing down the pace with which we usually move through such places. When I decide to set up the camera, it is a slow process and there are no snap-shots to speak of. I am the first to admit that my photographs seldom jump out and grab ones attention right away; they seem even a bit boring at first, so thanks for using the word meditative, that sounds nicer! With the camera, I have the excuse to slow down and stare at something mundane, which in the case of Niigata, is often simultaneously something exotic.
Robert Adams once said that he has to be familiar with a place in order to work there; what are your thoughts about that? How was your experience of photographing a place you have never been before?
This is a great question as it addresses the very issue that I am interested in with this series. Adams is right about finding familiarity in a place in order to work there, but familiarity is not to be confused with understanding. Niigata was very familiar to me; the landscape, the urban sprawl, the rural chaos, the clash of tradition with progress, it contains all of the elements which usually draw me to a place to photograph. I’m sure Adams never claimed to understand Denver, for example, but he surely felt a certain familiarity with the environment, light, landscape and people. My premise is that photography alone can’t lead to understanding, or render truth if you will, about a place or a culture, though that is often its role. I knew I would only be in Japan for a short visit so instead of struggling to get a handle on this place, my idea was to make images in moments that felt both familiarly strange yet strangely familiar.
In some photographs there are clear signs of the western culture, and in other ones the traditional life surrounds everything. There is a gap between the old and the new generation. How are, in your opinion, these two aspects of the same place living together?
That was one of the most interesting aspects of Japan for me, the fact that traditions dating back for thousands of years could survive in one of the most high-tech cultures in the world. As often the case, I think it comes down to religion. The Buddhist and Shinto religions seem to have embraced change and progress much better than Christianity, specifically Catholicism in Europe which strived to stamp out that which was before. It must also be said that I was in a very rural area. In the big cities, especially Tokyo, its not so visible on the streets.
How did you approach people for your portraits? Were you faced with some strange reactions from the persons you encountered?
Usually I am quite successful about approaching people for portraits. I think it is a result of me being very honest and direct and seldom have a camera in my hands when I do it. In Japan I had the advantage of being more or less a tourist and it was made easier through a letter I had with me form the curatorial office. I couldn’t read it myself but I have the feeling it looked very formal and important, it seemed to gain respect and legitimize my endeavor. The bigger problem is on the editing side of the portraits. I throw so many portraits out because there is such a small window hich determines if a portrait works or not; its obviously a cooperation, both parties having to be there in the moment. It was a strong moment for me when I had the privilege of photographing the 102-year-old woman. We, in the western world, have such a different relationship to the elderly. In Japan it is absolutely celebrated and at first it was awkward for me as we obviously couldn’t communicate with language, but she somehow let me know it was fine.
Did you start the project with the idea of making a book, or was that something you weren’t thinking about at the beginning?
I suppose I always think in books, but when starting out I made no expectations about this one. I knew something would go to print as the “European Eyes on Japan” prints a beautiful small catalogue, but the fact that I could make another large monograph is due solely to the support and trust from Klaus Kehrer and everyone at the Kehrer Publishing house. When he saw the work, he also immediately felt it to be the perfect follow-up to HIGLEY. For that I am grateful as it is my favorite medium for looking at photographs and sending them out into the world.