A World That May Not Have Anything to Offer

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In Hiroko Oyamada‘s The Hole, the main character, a young woman named Asa, quits her job as her husband gets transferred to the countryside. They end up living right next to his parents, with Asa having nothing other to do than being at home, tending to the household. Slowly and steadily, the world collapses around her. Ultimately, she discovers she’s falling into mysterious holes.

In contrast, Keiko, the main character in Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman, has decided to eschew what she perceives as the trappings of married life, to remain happily dedicated to working in one of the many, many konbini stores in Tokyo, mingling with a small number of social outcasts and young students on their way up the employment ladder. Her family and friends can’t understand what they see as Keiko’s lack of ambition combined with an unwillingness to be a good Japanese citizen.

Natsu, whose life Mieoko Kawakami describes in Breasts and Eggs, is Asa’s and Keiko’s kindred spirit. Initially an inspiring writer and later a published one who is slowly working on her second novel, she observes her sister and niece attempting to deal with what it means to be a woman in Japan. In the end, Natsu decides that she wants some of what also is expected (a baby), but she wants it on her own terms (so she finds a sperm donor).

Sarah Chihaya probably describes the conundrum faced by all of these characters best in her review of Breasts and Eggs: as a woman in Japan (and beyond), how do you live your life when you “may not want anything from a world that may not have anything to offer”? As neoliberal capitalism crushes our societies, more and more people are finding themselves in this position. But women have always been there (as have other groups).

In the latest Global Gender Gap Report, Japan occupies rank 121, making it slightly more equal than Kuwait and slightly less equal than the United Arab Emirates (the United States occupies rank 53, Germany barely made it into the top ten at rank 10).

When, for example, Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, as head of the Tokyo Olympics said that it was annoying that women talked too much in meetings (sadly I’m not making this up, but at least it ended up costing him his job), that was just one of the many, many occasions where Japanese women had and still have to deal with the fact that they’re essentially second-class citizens in their own country.

For her book Good Wife, Wise Mother, Anne-Stine Johnsbråten travelled to Japan to photograph a large number of women and to record their voices (you can find the background of the book’s title here). The book mixes a variety of approaches, which makes for an engaging experience for the viewer (and reader). There are many scenes from daily life, photographed in such an immersive way: as a viewer, you’re right there. The street (or public) scenes are maybe a little bit less surprising than the photographs taken in people’s homes. The intimacy on display there is very touching.

There are many full-length portraits of a large number of women whom the photographer encountered in the streets. For each of them, their name, age, family status, education level, and profession are given. These photographs often feel and look like they arose from brief encounters. But it is exactly this aspect that makes for a genuine experience.

In addition, there are quotes by some of the women who were portrayed. For example, Terumi Someya who works at a grocery store is quoted as saying “I think I have a certain level of freedom. At my workplace, our labor union in quite influential and that enables us to have good welfare plans such as maternity leave. However, I’m not happy about our promotion system after taking a maternity leave.”

For a small number of women, more detailed descriptions of their life situations are provided that at are being re-visited. In 2012, Manami Sawa had big plans for her future. Four years later, the plans are still big. Yet she divorced her husband because she wanted children (her husband presumably did not), and now considers moving to London along with her British boyfriend. Kanako Satozaki was on maternity leave in 2012. In 2016, she’s back at work at a translation agency she co-founded. But there is the issue of taking care of the children. “My husband works a lot,” she is quoted as saying, ” and hasn’t been very involved in the upbringing of the children, nor the housework.”

Part of Good Wife, Wise Mother reminded me of Eva Kroth’s Ansichten von Frauen, first published in 1977 (in Frankfurt/Main, then West Germany). In that book (now out of print, but relatively easily available to buy online), portraits of a large variety of women were paired with their names (first name only, last name abbreviated), ages, professions, and a (very) short quote. This is a very effective device.

For sure there is quite a bit of crosstalk between the 1977 West German women and their sisters in contemporary Japan. There’s much to be said for hearing what people have to say for themselves, and what they express in which manner — whether it’s in the form of direct quotes or in the larger form of the novel.

Even though it uses a very different photographic approach and format — an art book as opposed to a documentary one, Roxana Savin‘s I’ll be late tonight dives into the lives of a group of women to reveal another world that may not have anything to offer: a gated expatriate community in Russia (photographed over the course of eight years).

If as a viewer you didn’t know anything about this background, I suspect a first, sound assumption might be that what is on view is a cult. All the women are photographed in gray, barren locations — as if ornamentations of any sort were to be rejected, for whatever reason. Even where there is a Valentine’s Card on display, whatever pre-manufactured (and possibly strained) sentiment it is designed to deliver is being snuffed out by its environment.

The women don’t even look unhappy. They’re one step further: they look resigned to the situation they found themselves in, their only role being to maintaintidy and completely lifeless surroundings: doing laundry, cleaning up, taking care of the children and of the provider (what an ugly word) who, inevitably, is always absent. There are short phrases here and there, whose sheer utility only amplifies the complete lack of an even minute feeling of ambition. Whatever world there might be outside, it’s an uninviting, literally cold place: there’s snow everywhere.

Ordinarily, the fact that the portraits look a little posed actually works towards the general theme of the book. It is as if the photographic artifice was made to contribute to the overall feeling of control: take your place, and don’t be anything other than who (or maybe what) you’re told to be. What a sad way of having to live life!

As I think should be clear by now, these two seemingly so different contemporary photobooks center on the same thing: on the lives of women who despite this being 2021 are far from achieving the equality that they have been promised for so long.

In a way, there’s a lesson here in terms of how we approach photography itself: many of those distinctions that we make — what some work is or where or how it can or should be seen — are ultimately not very productive.

I could even include the three novels I mentioned at the very beginning. While the characters they present are fictitious, their world is our world. Or rather, their world is the world that women have to live in every day (I’m obviously writing this as a man whose access to that world is in part provided by reading and/or looking at these books).

I can’t help but feel that with our insistence on maintaining differences between documentary photography and art photography, or between non-fiction and fiction, we produce distinctions that are useful in some ways and harmful in others. After all, in how many more ways do we have to be told that gender inequality — and that means everything from worse pay for the same job to a lack of professional opportunities to a lack of basic respect etc. etc. etc. — is real, and it won’t go away by us (and yes, I’m mostly looking at my fellow men here) paying mere lip service to the ideals we’re violating every day?

Good Wife, Wise Mother; photographs by Anne-Stine Johnsbråten; texts by numerous authors; essay by Masako Ishii-Kuntz, 132 pages; Journal Photobooks; 2020

I’ll be late tonight; photographs and text by Roxana Savin; essay by Clare Bottomley; self-published, 2021

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Alles nur künftige Ruinen

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There are two distinct eras in the long career trajectory of Einstürzende Neubauten, a German band whose name and demeanor almost comically reflects stereotypes about the country. There’s the early work, an accumulation of industrial anarcho punk (if you’re curious, this is what this looked and sounded like). And then there’s the later work, which stripped away the punk furor to replace it with surprising tenderness (that at times borders on sullen melancholy) on top of rough layers of banging on buckets or metal.

Even though the band has now caught a case of aging-rock-star syndrome (which has turned them into their own caricature), I’m a big fan of the later period. That later period showcases the experiences of a group of people who tried to bring it all down with their fury, only to realize that nothing is going to be brought down. Instead of capitulating, though, and of possibly switching to the other side, they still maintain their fury, being fully aware of its political impotence.

When I first look at Brad Feuerhelm’s Mondo Decay, I first thought of a song by Einstürzende Neubauten entitled Die Befindlichkeit des Landes. In some ways, this isn’t fair, given that the book comes with its own music in the form of a cassette tape (!). But I’m a visual person: when a book arrives in the mail I’ll look at the book, even if it arrives with a tape. I’ll get to the tape later.

There are a couple of lines in that song that I’ve had in my head ever since I first heard it: “Alles nur künftige Ruinen / Material für die nächste Schicht” (“Everything is but a future ruin / To be recycled for the next layer” — my translation). There also is this line: “und in den Gräbern wird leise rotiert” (“and in their graves they’re turning quietly”). It’s a song that originated during Berlin’s construction boom in the early 2000’s (while it featured on their album Silence is Sexy — one of their very best, I first came across it on the soundtrack for the documentary Berlin Babylon, which of course is not to be confused with the recent and very different Babylon Berlin).

Mondo Decay is a book featuring all those ruins that at some stage were future ones. Not all of the photographs show actual ruins. Yet where a building is still in use, it’s covered by scaffolding or a tarp, or it looks run down and poorly maintained. Here and there, there are signs of the new, but the new is already semi-broken or malfunctioning.

This is, in other words, a book about our times and our world, a world ruled by aggressive neoliberal capitalism that only manages to sustain itself through an endless cycle of consumption, which literally is destroying the planet in more ways than just one. Even when there’s a pandemic, it’s the economy that sits at the center of people’s concerns: money is only pumped into the system to sustain consumption (instead of, say, lifting everybody’s living standards, especially if they’re essential workers).

I already mentioned that the book comes with a cassette tape featuring the eponymous album by a band named Nun Gun (the photographer plays drums on four of the tracks). I’m no music writer, so my description of the sounds as “electro sludge” might not mean anything. But it still might be better than the impossibly wide array of tags on the Bandcamp site. To call the music sludge (btw, I don’t mean this as negative criticism) doesn’t do justice to the faster tracks. But I’m not interested in those. It’s the slower tracks that carry the album, and these make for a good soundtrack for what is on view in the book.

When I first popped the tape into one of my old walkmen, I couldn’t tell whether it was working. There was music, but it sounded like the little machine itself was on its way out (those who are old enough to remember the sounds of a malfunctioning walkman will know what I’m talking about). When I tried another walkman, though, it was even worse (I ended up throwing out two of the three I had accumulated, because they definitely were broken beyond repair). Turns out The Spectre, the first song, does indeed incorporate the sound of broken tape-based machinery. I enjoyed this aspect quite a bit (and it’s a great song).

Brad Feuerhelm, involved as photographer and drummer in this project, is a well-known figure in photoland. His writing regularly appears on American Suburb X and there’s the Nearest Truth photography podcast that’s not that old but already has 170+ episodes. This isn’t Brad’s first photobook, and I suspect it won’t be his last. With my reaction to the book/tape I’m obviously biased because I also do more than merely writing about photography.

But much like Brad (and a number of other of our colleagues), I don’t subscribe to the old-fashioned idea that you can only be — or should only do — one thing. Obviously, in the past, doing one thing (let’s say being a writer) was a lot easier, given you would have found good employment or a steady trickle of well-paid work. Those days are gone, though. So why limit what you do to one thing when you can do a number of them?

At the end of the day, all that matters is that whatever you do, you do it with integrity in mind, aiming for an outcome of the highest possible quality, thus hopefully enriching the conversations in the world of photography. And you do it with a sense of generosity, knowing that nothing arises out of nothing. Brad for sure does that as well, and now you can see and hear his artistic side with Mondo Decay.

Mondo Decay; book: photographs by Brad Feuerhelm; text by Michael Salu; 144 pages; Witty Kiwi; 2021

Mondo Decay; music by Nun Gun; cassette tape; Witty Kiwi; 2021 (also available in digital form on Bandcamp)

I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows

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One of the defining properties of our current era is the fact that the most pressing problems we’re facing are either being ignored by our elected leaders, or they’re merely used as political pawns in their electoral schemes: climate change, the pandemic, the vast inequalities that exist both within our societies and between them, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have become migrants (or refugees) looking for a modicum of safety and comfort elsewhere.

Matters are being made worse by the fact that these crises are not independent from each other. In a nutshell,  migration is caused as a direct or indirect consequence of the actions of those countries that now are their target, whether it’s people escaping from war (initiated or supported, however indirectly, by target countries) or the consequences of global warming (ditto), or whether people simply want a better life than the one available back home.

A number of photographers have picked up the larger topic of migration to make work around it. All of the examples I can think of right now are photographers from any one of the target countries. In principle, there isn’t anything wrong with this approach. These photographers typically have the resources to do the work, but they also have the necessary access to disseminate it. It’s an entirely different matter for those stuck in refugee camps, let alone on their treks across borders, to also document their plight. One example I can think of is provided by the Now You See Me Moria Instagram feed.

Thana Faroq was born and raised in Yemen, a country that has been engulfed in a civil war since 2014 (at some stage Saudi Arabia became involved, largely propped up by US support, which the Biden administration finally withdrew). As a consequence of the war, Faroq was forced into exile in the Netherlands: an incredibly gifted photographic storyteller became part of a larger story. With I Don’t Recognize Me in The Shadows, the photographer now tells that story. There’s a book that you can order here.

One of the reasons why I like photobooks so much is because of all visual media they come closest to being in the presence of another person telling a story. I will watch the occasional documentary film, and there are many good ones. However, they almost inevitably make me feel manipulated: I have no control over how things unfold (it feels weird to pause and rewind), and more often than not the music used is too blatantly emotionally manipulative.

A photobook removes those two aspects. Instead of being a passive recipient, I have to do work: I have to turn pages, I have to decide where to look and whether or not I will read whatever is being made available. And it’s quiet when I look. If I don’t want the quiet, I can pick the sounds that go along the book. In other words, it’s a contemplative experience, in which the thinking about what one is looking at comes along with the looking — instead of only afterwards.

Looking through Shadows, I thought it was one of the books that stressed the points I just made incredibly well. With all of its photographs presented full bleed, it immediately is completely immersive. Events are made to unfold in a number of very smart ways. For example, there are different sections that are visually separate in a simple manner. Both the types of images and whether they’re colour or black and white change.

At some stage, the photographer’s own voice enters directly through the reproduction of handwritten texts on small pieces of paper: journal entries. In these texts, Faroq reflects on a number of things, some mundane, others carrying immense weight. As you go through the book as a viewer/reader, there is a build up of intensity, which finally culminates in portraits of other migrants who were photographed through a glass screen that has water drops on them. Next to these portraits, there also are pieces of paper with handwritten texts. Unlike in the case of the journal entries, these pieces of paper were physically tipped in. Underneath, the name of the person is given.

As in the journal entries, the messages can be mundane or profound — or both. “I am a human being,” one of them says (see picture just below; my own translation from the Dutch original — there is Arab text above that I am unable to read). In many ways, this is the core message of the book, a message that all-too-often is forgotten or ignored when dealing with migrants (just look at the conditions in the Moria camp): we’re dealing with human beings, human beings that have the same hopes, dreams, ideas, aspirations that we all do.

One of the most incredible pieces of writing in the book is presented at the end of the book. Entitled Two Years Later, it’s a reflection by Faroq of what happened, of being stuck in the system in place that “processes” (terrible word, I know) people who are coming from other countries looking for a safe new home.

Produced in the Netherlands, I Don’t Recognize Me in The Shadows uses all the many devices available to good photobook making without going overboard. It’s elegant and engaging but not overdesigned, and it doesn’t scream “I’m an art book”. It’s just perfect.

Very highly recommended — a real landmark publication.

I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows; photographs and texts by Thana Faroq; short texts by a number of migrants; 168 pages; Lecturis; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.7

Bad Ass and Beauty

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Okinawa and Hawaii have a lot in common. They’re both mostly known as sunny vacation spots with gorgeous beaches, and they each played a pivotal role during World War 2. But they’re also both latecomers to the countries they now are part of: previously independent kingdoms with their own rich culture, both archipelagos were annexed in the late 19th Century. Their original culture and language were originally largely dismissed (where not outright banned), and they were forced to adapt to being a very small part of a larger culture they originally didn’t have all that much in common with.

Okinawa has been suffering from occupation ever since the late 19th Century. After Japan lost World War 2, vast military bases were constructed by the United States’ military. It is from these bases that bombing runs were conducted during the Vietnam War, and it is these bases that have been responsible for a very large number of sexual-assault cases (there’s a book about the larger topic).

Many Okinawans have long wanted an end to these bases. There have been demonstrations against them for decades. In fact, a large number of (mainland) Japanese photographers have been flocking to Okinawa to make work around this very topic, famously Shōmei Tōmatsu (at this stage, Chewing Gum and Chocolate is the only book still easily available), but also many others. Especially early on, the vast majority of these photographers were male.

Mao Ishikawa is an Okinawan photographer who is known the aficionados of Japanese photography through Red Flower, the Women of Okinawa. It’s visually compelling work that now has taken on some patina, given the time it was photographed. For the work, Ishikawa became a part of the very scene she photographed: bars frequented by US soldiers.

The reality is that there is a lot more to this series of photographs — and, by extension, to the rest of Ishikawa’s work — than you might imagine if you just were to look at the photographs (in particular if you are a Westerner who is not familiar with the larger back story). A newly published exhibition catalogue entitled Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love (T&M Projects) makes this very clear (it was produced at the occasion of a career retrospective at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum and has English translations for all Japanese texts).

The catalogue starts out with the photographer’s words. Ishikawa was interviewed by curators Fumiaki Kamegai, Sun Hye Cho, and Fumiko Nakamura. Her answers were then transcribed into a long-form text whose sections address biographical details, general events, and details of the various bodies of work.

Of late, there have been discussions in photoland about who should tell whose story. While there is much to be said for an outsider telling someone else’s story, there is just as much — maybe even more — to be said for a member of a community telling the community’s story. The catalogue provides a very compelling example of why that is the case.

As someone from the Okinawan community (speaking the language, which is distinct from Okinawan Japanese), Ishikawa grew up in the shadows of the US military bases. There were frequent interactions with US soldiers: “When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my aunt got engaged to an Italian American guy.” (p.13) A little later, she says: “When I was living with a Black GI, we watched a popular TV drama series called ‘Roots’ […] The drama showed the history of the United States’ mistreatment of Black people […] I was appalled but felt that there was some similarity between Okinawan history and that of Black Americans, comparing the dehumanization of Okinawans by the mainlanders to that of Black people by white Americans.” (p.15)

By chance, the photographer was taken to a bar for Black GIs when she wanted to take photos of US soldiers. Ishikawa connected immediately. “I enjoyed myself a hell of a lot,” she says, “which is why I ended up getting great photos. It’s my life. What’s wrong with the storyteller becoming part of the story?” She would use this approach for many of her series, whether when she visited the family of a man she knew from Okinawa in Philadelphia or photographed the families of former dancers in the Philippines.

There obviously is nothing wrong with the storyteller becoming part of the story — if, as in Ishikawa’s case, it’s done from a position of equals and without the power (or privilege) differential that is present in so many other cases we know from the history of photography. In fact, it is this very idea — a storyteller from a community not only has unique insight but there is actually something at stake for her — that is the driving factor behind the discussions I mentioned earlier.

The fact that Akabanaa (Red Flower) occupies only 15 pages out of a total of almost 400 says a lot about how little this photographer and her work are known in the West (and, possibly, in Japan as well, even though I can’t speak to that). A large variety of material emerges, covering traditional Okinawan theater, a portrait of Okinawan fisherman, the aforementioned Life in Philly and Philippine Dancers, a portrait of survivors of the battle over Okinawa (which includes photographs of former so-called comfort women, for which Ishikawa traveled to South Korea), Okinawa and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and a lot more.

As should be clear by now, Ishikawa’s fearless gutsiness extends beyond her photography: time and again, she tackled difficult topics that for sure must have made her enemies in mainland Japan. I don’t know how Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me was received in mainland Japan. I’m pretty certain that were an American artist to do something similar, conservatives and far-right proponents would be apoplectic over the imagery — imagine Piss Christ on steroids, albeit with a clear political stance.

The Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll might be the highlight of the catalogue (Okinawa is located on the Ryukyu islands). In it, Ishikawa re-narrates the history of her homeland, with regular people acting out a large number of historical events. Each photograph comes with its own extended caption (the English translations at times are a bit wonky, which, however, only adds to the sheer playfulness of it all). There’s so much material that there are three photographs per page. I wish these pictures were larger, even though this would have vastly inflated the book (which already has 408 pages). The image on the cover — a portrait of a family right after the mother gave birth — is just incredible.

As far as I am concerned, Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love is an absolute must-read for anyone seriously interested in contemporary photography. It expands the canon of photographers from Japan with a voice from its Okinawa prefecture, and it shows an artist boldly tackling a large number of important topics in a playful, yet completely serious manner.

“I really don’t care if photography is considered a fine art or not.” Mao Ishikawa says, “For me, photography is just photography.” (p.20) I feel that that’s an approach that we can learn something from: photography not as a craft, but simply as a tool to get at larger messages — without worrying too much about what the collectors or curators might think.

Very highly recommended.

Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love; photographs and texts by Mao Ishikawa; essays by Fumiaki Kamegai, Fumiko Nakamura, SunHye Cho, Isao Nakazato, Greg Dvorak; 408 pages; T&M Projects; 2021