Another world

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There’s something fascinating about how similar Japan and Germany are. In the late 19th century, both countries emerged out of a suspended state to try to catch up with the countries they perceived as their peers. This process involved trying to reconcile modernity with their own cherished and in part deeply flawed national and cultural identities. In the end, both countries failed miserably, inflicting enormous pain on their neighbours through wars and genocide.

Completely crushed in World War 2, both countries were given another chance (an unearned gift), only to emerge as economic power houses that, alas, have never quite figured out what it means to be a normal sovereign country. Starting in the 1980s, their paths started to diverge. Germany embraced neoliberal capitalism to the fullest, transforming itself into the mini-US it is now. Japan instead went through an extreme really-good-boom-and-really-bad-bust cycle, after which its ruling class doubled down on investing money to fuel the economy even as the country’s birth rate imploded.

But there remains a deeply fascinating similarity between the two countries. Deeply insecure about their own national merit, both are engaged in a fight between outside cultural values and their own, native ones. The latter contain so much fiction that it’s hard to see real differences between Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess, and a Disney character, or Richard Wagner’s Ring opera cycle and any one of the various Marvel franchises produced in Hollywood (except that the music is a lot more tedious and the acting is a lot worse in the operas). But to Japanese and German people, the differences feel very important.

Much like in any other country, the fight over Japanese or German national identities involves symbols (or signs if you’re into semiotics). For me, as someone who grew up in West Germany, I can see this struggle much more clearly in Japan than in Germany. In a rather basic sense, many elements of Japan’s visual culture make me look at least twice because they and their context are unfamiliar to me.

The huge pitfall for a Westerner of course is to immediately fall into the traps of orientalism and/or othering. If you look at things in a realistic fashion, though, a country like Japan that seems “strange” to a Westerner in fact is a lot less strange than many Western countries. As an aside, I just listened to a podcast in which two linguists, both fluent in Japanese and with years of experience living there, discuss “weird” experiences they had in Japan. At some stage, one of them says that it’s actually a lot more likely to meet a weird person in the US than in Japan.

As someone not from Japan, you don’t want to make any assumptions about what you encounter. You want to try to take things at face value. In fact, you wan to do that in any foreign country. If you do that, you will be able to see beyond what a tourist might see. Furthermore, you will start picking up on that struggle over national identity and symbols. It is that struggle that plays out in Kenta Nakamura‘s exuberant and brilliant Ginga ni umeru (Release into the Galaxy).

The book combines staged/set up photographs (mostly portraits) with snapshots in a wild mix that might ruffle some feathers both in Japan and in the West, albeit probably often for different reasons. The opening sequence alone makes it clear what will be unfolding in the book’s pages. The first spread pairs a photograph of a elderly woman dressed in a Cinderella costume enjoying some food with a photograph of a young child whose mostly blue possessions have been arranged around him.

The second spread shows two women who both wear one of those red-blue glasses used for 3D movies or pictures (see picture above; these glasses recur throughout the book). On the left, a young mother is holding her child. On the right, the woman is wearing a very formal looking white kimono while sitting on a couch (as far as I know, it’s a bridal garment).

The third spread has a brightly lit photograph of a cow’s udder against a pair of metal poles in water at what looks like sunset. This then is followed by a photograph of a dried and flattened squid against a portrait of an older Japanese man wearing a double-breasted suit.

Obviously, you would have to see the book to understand how it works. But maybe you can sense from the descriptions above that some of its meaning is created from using the contrasts between two opposing photographs, often done in a way that’s very much on the nose. In fact, a lot of the pictures are in the on-the-nose category with their bright colours, lit by flash. A lot of what you see has been visually exaggerated. But it works because many of the people posing do so in the most deadpan fashion, implying that what you perceive as weird — that’s you, the viewer, putting it on them.

There are a number of photographs from a funeral in the book, including what looks like a selfie of the photographer with the same dead relative who is later seen in her casket (following Japanese tradition, there are flowers arranged around her). The selfie itself comes with a huge emoji over the deceased person’s face (remember, the word emoji is Japanese). This might not be the most tasteful picture (then again, Masahisa Fukase took a funeral selfie, too). Yet in the context of the book, it doesn’t stick out too much. Nakamura treats everything as being worthy of satire, to poke holes into conventions, traditions, new ways of living, and the importance people place on themselves.

Even as the edit of the book is slightly uneven — there are some pictures that don’t contribute much to it, Ginga ni umeru is the most surprising and fun photobook I’ve seen in a while. The world of photography is so serious about so much. When it’s not serious it’s often too obvious and punching down (usually employing classism to do so). In contrast, this particular book does all the right things. It doesn’t distinguish between high and low culture or traditional and pop culture.

As a viewer one can’t help but connect with many of those who happen to find themselves in front of Kenta Nakamura’s camera. I don’t know why that older woman is wearing a Cinderella costume. I don’t know why the woman on the cover (who is seen again later) owns a pet turtle (that might or might not be alive). But it seems like everything is trying to make do in a society that’s filled with a a strange mix of customs.

If you manage to pull yourself back from the society you’re embedded in, you might find some of the same strangeness in the customs of your own culture. That is, I think, what you will want to keep in mind after you’ve looked at this book. You will have to avoid the easy conclusion that “Japan is a weird country”. It is not. It might look weird (and Nakamura dials this up 11) because as outsiders, we’re not familiar with what a Japanese person would take for granted. But in some fashion, every country looks weird to outsiders. You simply can’t focus on the weirdness — because it’s mostly your projection.

Seen that way, once you’ve enjoyed Ginga ni umeru you might want to start looking into how all of the same contradictions play out wherever you might be located.

Highly recommended.

Ginga ni umeru; photographs by Kenta Nakamura; 136 pages; GAP4 Publishing; 2022

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This Almost Empty Road

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I can’t say that I’m an expert in the area that Timothy Snyder described in his book Bloodlands. What I know I know from the book. If you look through the Wikipedia page, towards the bottom, the reception of the book is discussed. Some of Snyder’s points were highly contested, and part of the protest appeared to have included accusations of bias towards some of the states that occupy the region.

The latter would in part be only logical, at least as far as I understand it, given that what we see as clear-cut borders on our contemporary maps do in fact not neatly separate people quite as clearly as we might be tempted to think. Before the borders in Central and Eastern Europe were re-drawn, many of the countries in the area had sizeable minorities, with often rich local cultures that often intermingled.

Even as after World War 2 large numbers of people were literally made to move, a process that was violent and that destroyed the livelihoods of many, many people, physically moving people will not eradicate cultures, connections, and conflicts that had been established over the course of centuries. It will also not eradicate memories of oppression and mass murder at the hands of those who committed them, Germany and Russia.

As far as I understand it, there is a strong sense of solidarity between the countries that now occupy the area Snyder covered in his book. At the time of this writing, this solidarity manifests itself very strongly in the support Ukraine receives from countries such as Poland or the Baltic Republics. I don’t think in the West, people understand the reasons for that support. Even the word solidarity seems not strong enough. There is a shared history that includes culture just as much as being violently oppressed.

As far as I can tell, the above forms the basis for Monika Orpik‘s Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. I’m not trying to be coy here with my use of “as far as I can tell”. It’s very much possible that, say, Polish viewers and readers will find much easier access to the book than I did (I would have to ask people). And the book does include a number of clues what it tries to center on. But they are very difficult to find for someone who is not familiar with the location.

Let’s back up a bit. In a nutshell, the book contains a large number of photographs in a very bucolic setting. There are hints here and there that the location is somewhere in Eastern Europe: there are the occasional post-Soviet markers such as interiors of buildings, Christian-Orthodox crosses (that possibly are more widely known beyond the area now, given that so many of them are in the news from grave sites in Ukraine), or a group of priests.

I quite enjoy the overall mood that is established by these photographs. I get a feeling of a hinterland, a place that somehow has been left behind a bit. It’s not a neoliberal look at it, pointing a finger at what’s lacking, though. It’s simply observant of the land and its natural beauty.

There are three large blocks of text in English and a language that uses a Cyrillic alphabet (it’s not Russian, given that there are a few characters used that don’t exist in Russian). You’ll have to read both texts to figure out that the country in question is Belarus. The text conveys the voices of people from there talking about their experiences with the violent dictatorship in their home country. There also are four grids of similar images plus a short sequence of dark photographs of a pair of hands. What these are intended to communicate I don’t understand.

I think that one of the biggest challenges for any photographer when making a book is to realize that their audience often does not know everything you want to tell them, yet. The photobook is this curious thing where you have to slowly build up what you’re trying to get at; someone who only knows the pictures — and nothing else — will have to be able to figure it out. The inclusion of text does not change this challenge radically (unless you use text that explains what you’re after, in which case the whole thing becomes something entirely different).

Looking through Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road and thinking about what I started this article with had me think that I might simply not be a member of the book’s target audience. Maybe its target audience is exclusively located in Eastern Central Europe. My sense is that the book’s makers took a lot of information for granted, information that I simply have no access to.

And the book does make it very hard to figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s trying to be mysterious on purpose (I wouldn’t know, and in any case, it would be unfair to make this claim). But I will say that a Western audience, in fact any audience really that’s not familiar with the region and its culture and politics, will find it difficult to access the book and to find the intended meaning beyond the landscapes.

For example, outsiders are unlikely to know what OMON is (it’s the vicious riot police you see in Belarus and Russia). If you use a specific term like this in a book (you find it in the first text), you want to include a note for an audience not familiar with it. I know that this seems like a small detail, but it’s one out of many in the book.

In general, in your photobook, you want to avoid two extremes: giving too much information and giving too little. If you give too much information, access to the book will be sharply reduced to something prefabricated. If you give too little information, people are simply not going to understand what you’re trying to get at.

In the latter case, the general sentiment that I often hear about this falls along the lines of “I want this to be mysterious”. Being mysterious is good — if a sense of mystery is the overall idea. But an audience will still have to understand that. This might be the hardest aspect of photobook making.

That said, obviously not every book needs to be made for an audience outside of the region where it was photographed. I suspect that the book will resonate with people in the area. At the same time, especially in light of many Westerners being indifferent about Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine (just one of the many aspects of the region that’s not understood well — if at all), it’s exactly Western audiences that would benefit most from learning more about the region.

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road; photographs and transcribed interviews by Monika Orpik; 124 pages; Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT); 2022

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1912 – 1949 – 1978

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“I picked out these portraits from an archive of approximately 600,000 photographs,” Cai Dongdong writes in the short introduction to Left, Right. “The portraits on the right-hand page of the book were taken during the Republic of China government from 1912 to 1949; those on the left-hand page were taken after the founding of the People’s Republic of China until China’s reform and opening up, from 1949 to 1978.”

The photographs all show women, whether alone or in groups. The pairings were done based on ages, clothes, gestures, and poses (the amount of work going into whittling down 600,000 photographs into these pairings is hardly imaginable). The result is fascinating and bewildering in a number of ways.

To begin with, if there were differences in available photographic materials, they are not apparent (at least to this pair of untrained eyes). There is, in other words, no stark contrast between the two photographs, where the more recent one would look considerably more modern (such as if, for example, you paired a tintype portrait with a silver-gelatin print). While this fact might (or might not) be of interest for photography historians, for a non-specialist viewer the artifice of photography itself does not force itself in between the two pictures.

In any pair of photographs, the viewer will inevitably create connections between them, regardless of how cognizant they are of the fact that they’re doing it. When two photographs look very similar, the this-looks-like-that game will be played. Much like in one of those old-fashioned visual games you used to find in old cross-word-puzzle magazines where two images were presented, with a given number of differences to be identified, the closer two photographs look, the more even small differences become apparent.

However, when looking at portraits, this game changes, given that when we look at a picture of a person, we think that we look at the person her or himself. There always is that jump to the human face and to imagining something about the person. Two more or less random strangers (or groups of strangers) that look very similar set off any number of thoughts in a viewer’s head. That’s the game being played in Left, Right.

Of course, there is the added complication (if we want to use that word) that the two time periods in question refer to two starkly different political regimes in China. There also is the added fact that up until World War 2, colonial powers and occupiers played huge and typically very malignant roles in the country, whether it was European powers or, later, Japan with its gruesome colonial puppet state (and associated mass atrocities).

None of that is apparent in the pictures, though. Or maybe almost none. If you look carefully, you can detect a few “Mao uniforms”. But the photographs were matched to be visually similar, so the corresponding dress from the earlier period is very similar. This is a nifty device that cuts out easy and shallow interpretations of the historical periods based on the pictures at hand (if you prefer such comparisons, you will have to look at different historical material).

Instead, things always boil down to the individual herself. It’s very easy to forget this, but ordinary people have almost always led mostly ordinary lives in any period of history of any given country. There might have been the occasional very drastic period where that was not the case. For the most past, these tend to be very short lived, though, providing exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, even in such periods, history still tends to get written on a large scale, a scale that glosses over the individual.

Left, Right focuses on the individual. It focuses on the fact that once you eliminate surface layers — types of clothing, say, you get to realize that across different historical periods, people have mostly lived very similar lives, focusing on their loved ones and trying to assert themselves in the tiny societal bubbles they lived in. This possibly is our only chance to learn something from history, which, after all, is unfolding right in front of our own eyes: we have to realize that it’s individuals, human beings like us, who make history.

Anyone interested in book making might want to pick up a copy as well. The book uses traditional Asian binding, and its pages are very thin sheets of paper that are folded onto themselves. Given that the book centers on China, this is an obvious, yet very good choice. I’m personally a fan of books made this way: I enjoy how they feel even more like an object than regular books. This particular example is incredibly well made, down to the creation of information on the spine and the added back and front covers.


Left, Right; archival photographs edited by Cai Dongdong; 144 pages; La Maison de Z; 2022

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Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

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