Hiroh Kikai was born in Yamagata, Japan in 1945. He began to take photographs when the influential editor Shoji Yamagishi showed him photographs by Diane Arbus in 1969. The Hasselblad camera that he bought at the time is the camera that he still uses today. He became a freelance photographer in 1984. Living close to Asakusa in Tokyo, he often spent time there and the area became the location for a series of portraits that he has been shooting for over 30 years. Kikai’s other photographic subjects include working and residential neighborhoods in and near Tokyo, and street scenes in India and Turkey. His latest book, Asakusa Portraits, was published in 2008 by Steidl and the International Center of Photography.
Marc Feustel is a curator, publisher, critic and author living in Paris. What follows are excerpts of an interview he conducted with Hiroh Kikai in 2008.
Marc Feustel: You have had an atypical experience as a photographer.
For many years you had to juggle photography with earning a living. Do
you think this had a significant impact on your approach to photography
and the subjects that you chose to photograph?
Hiroh Kikai: Well, in the beginning I did not intend to pursue a creative
career, let alone a career in photography. For me photography was simply
a more attractive hobby than literature or painting. But as it turned
out, I had some talent, and after having photographed for some time, I
began to really enjoy myself.
Photography was not only enjoyable, but
it was also absolutely modern. Everyone could participate, it was magical!
And it has to be said that this new form of expression fascinated people:
photographers had a halo of prestige and conveyed an image of strength.
In addition to being at the cutting edge of technology, photography was
the most expressive medium of communication: everyone wanted to become
a photographer. I began to photograph not because I thought I could make
a living from it, but because I was irresistibly drawn to the medium.
Also I did not see myself working for a photographic publication. You
have to remember that at the time editors paid their staff a pittance
while expecting a colossal amount of work from them. On little more than
300,000 Yen for a monthly salary, you could not expect to go very far.
I decided to follow my own path, and kept away from these circles. You
know what they say: little by little, a bird builds its own nest. I was
determined to not waste my talent and for me, joining one of these photography
publications would have been the best way to waste my time and energy:
I prefer to be free to do as I choose.
So I started off by taking several
manual labor jobs: truck driver, dock worker… and I was able to
survive on half of my salary. I was aware of the fact that I lacked photographic
experience. I was still immersed in my philosophy studies at the time,
and I began to think about the following concept: the essential thing
was not the camera but the act of looking. You had to look again and again
until you could feel the essence of everything that was around you.
concept was good, but I needed some way of putting it into practice. At
first I thought about taking a job on a tuna fishing boat. The sea seemed
like it would be photogenic. This was the 1970s, conceptual art was the
trend, and even if there was no specific subject, any old picture could
suddenly be held up as a work of genius. I quickly understood that this
was a bit lightweight as an artistic approach. But beyond any of this,
it seemed important to me to have a change of scenery and to see new things
if I wanted to evolve. I decided to take the tuna fishing job and I got
MF: Your biography states that you “had a happy childhood,
from the age of 11 or so preferring to play alone in the nature that surrounded
the village”. When I look at your career it seems that you have
continued along this path as a photographer.
HK: It is true that I am a bit of a loose cannon amongst contemporary
photographers and I have always preferred working alone. People may think
this is driven by nostalgia or by misanthropy: in our society people that
choose to work in this way are often the victims of prejudice. It is therefore
a difficult way of life, but I think it can be a hugely valuable one.
I feel that today we devote more and more time and energy to superficial
things. I am referring to the way that people live, particularly in contemporary
Japan: saturated with information, with an ever-growing list of things
that we need and do not have. All of this acts like a screen, blocking
out the true nature of things from our atrophied gaze. In what sense are
we still living fully? I wonder, amidst this profound confusion, how we
can know what is real and what is fake? What is it that will make us judge
someone as superior? I don’t think it is nostalgia, but it is true
that I have felt, and continue to feel, that there is something lacking,
a metaphysical void in our society and what it should be aiming for.
When I took photographs
in India, I did not want to convey some eternal vision of “Mother
India”, but simply the way of life of some people that I met over
there; for me these photographs radiate intensity because they show a
way of life devoid of all artifice, a way of life concerned with the fundamental
things. I felt the same thing in Turkey.
MF: You have said that “Writing is a task that [you]’ve
never enjoyed”. This surprised me as your captions seem to be very
important components of your Asakusa portraits.
HK: Philosophy begins with the art of using words and language.
At least, this is what my professor taught me, so therefore I am familiar
with the act of writing, or at least of articulating ideas in an intelligible
However the idea of writing has always more or less paralyzed me. With
this kind of complex, I would never have expected to be able to come out
with anything at all, but against all odds, I wrote the texts for my books
India and Gassan. I suppose that being immersed in the world of my childhood
must have inspired me.
To answer your question, these captions and these photographs
are exactly the same thing. At least, they come from the same approach.
For me they are intrinsically linked and both create an intense expressiveness.
Photography and writing are part of the same battle for me: both involve
making something intelligible which is not necessarily so. Both of them
formalize an obvious fact that is not always visible, acting like a magnifying
glass or, if you prefer a musical metaphor, transposing the ordinary from
a minor to a major key.
In the case of this process of transformation
and formalization, even that which we considered as trivial or unimportant
becomes vital and likely to encourage reflection. When one constantly
questions reality, and that is what a photographer does, one becomes aware
that everything is linked: immobility and movement, positive and negative,
the important and the futile… these apparently opposite notions
in fact complete each other, in a process that is brought out by the act
of capturing an image.
Writing is based on the same principle, as are
all forms of expression that in a general sense attempt to capture reality
and to transcend its chaos. One then becomes aware of the link that exists
between objects and concepts that everything seems to oppose but which
in fact only exist because their opposite does. My approach as a photographer
is based on these considerations; if there is something that I have learned
from all of those years as a student of philosophy, it is this.
MF: You have spoken about the role of time in your photographs.
For me all of your photographs have a very peculiar sense of time, even
those that bear the hallmarks of modern society such as your Tokyo Labyrinth
series: it is hard to say whether we are looking at the past, the present,
the future or some mixture of the three.
HK: Of course I aim for the formal aspect of my work to capture
reality as closely as possible, which means that I aspire to a resolutely
modern — but all-encompassing — form, in the sense that it takes
account of both the past and the present. I do not think particularly
of capturing the “present moment” or the “essence of
the Japanese soul” when I take my photographs.
What outweighs all
of these considerations is the act of photographing the human. Indeed,
when I am shooting in Asakusa, I don't think about any of this at all.
If Asakusa was suddenly swept away, I would just be a man in the cosmos
photographing other men in the cosmos… in truth I attach very little
importance to topography. Once again I prefer to adopt an all-encompassing
vision: the place where I am located is simply an extension of my own
roof and I am here for one thing only: to create.
Of course, if we limit
ourselves to a strictly formal point of view, New York for example is
an ideal backdrop for street photography, but form cannot replace substance.
If I do not have a person that emanates some kind of life force or experience
in front of my lens, the alchemy will not work and in the end all that
will remain is a slick image with no soul. Topographic considerations
are for architectural photography.
Finally, as for the choice of Asakusa,
once again, it is not the place that matters (in fact I started shooting
there because it was not far from my home), it is the people. It is not
the fact that these people are Japanese but the fact that their face and
their body tells a story, whether they are Japanese, French, English or
Martian… the most important thing is that when I arrive I can say
to myself “Ah, there are lots of people today, I should be able
to find something good.”
MF: There is undeniably a very universal quality to your
work. In this series of interviews I have spoken with many of your contemporaries
and I have been interested in what being Japanese means to them in their
work. I have received some very different responses. What does this idea
of being a “Japanese photographer” mean to you? Do you consider
yourself as a Japanese photographer with the cultural heritage that that
entails or do you consider yourself simply as a photographer?
HK: To be completely honest with you, I must admit that I never
look at the work of other photographers. I am always concerned that I
will be destabilized by the fact that some of them are much better than
I am. If a photographer cannot look at this work objectively, then he
is not a true photographer. A photographer must constantly put himself
into perspective because photography is not an innate language. It is
not because I spend 24 hours running through the streets looking for photogenic
models to pose for my camera that I will get good results.
I remember a time when Andrzej Wajda came to my studio
to see some of my photographs. He asked me: “Are these people all
Japanese?”, and then would say “they almost look like Westerners
here!”. But for me, they were first and foremost human beings. And
if he saw a resemblance between Japanese and Polish people, and more generally
Europeans, it is because today, beyond our respective grievances, stories
and wounds, globalization—and the homogenization of our societies
that it leads to—means that we all fundamentally have the same conditions
For this reason, when I shoot a portrait it is of no interest
to me to say that this person is in a certain location. Perhaps my approach
is wrong. Perhaps some people need this kind of information to appreciate
a photograph and to be able to relate to this stranger suspended on this
glossy paper. What can I say to this? Nothing really. Particularly given
that it is this process of relating that makes a good photograph. On one
hand we have the image, on the other the viewer. If the viewer relates
to the image, feels integrated into what he is looking at, then a dialogue
is established between the two parties and, in some way, the photographer
is also taking part in this silent conversation.
This is the case for
the photographs that I took in India as well as my portraits taken in
Asakusa. For a split second, the photographer recedes into the background
and becomes a pure silhouette, in perfect osmosis with his subject. The
gaze of the viewer comes afterwards, and determines decisively the beauty
and the success of a photograph. If there is interaction then the image
works. It is alive. You can observe the same thing in theatre.
add that this notion of “seeing” is far less obvious than
it seems. Looking is within everyone’s grasp. Seeing is difficult.
There is a difference between being passively stuffed with images, as
is the case today, and being active in the process of apprehending an
image. We look with our eyes, our heart and our reason. Seeing, truly
seeing, is all of these things.
To see more images by Hiroh Kikai, see the book review of his Asakura Portraits in Lens Culture.
InterviewHiroh Kikai talks about photographyAfter working in near obscurity for 30 years, Hiroh Kikai has emerged as a modern-day master portrait maker, patiently documenting eccentric people who pass through an old neighborhood in Tokyo that used to be the city’s entertainment district. He’s in the same league with Diane Arbus...View Images
Hiroh Kikai talks about photography
After working in near obscurity for 30 years, Hiroh Kikai has emerged as a modern-day master portrait maker, patiently documenting eccentric people who pass through an old neighborhood in Tokyo that used to be the city’s entertainment district. He’s in the same league with Diane Arbus...
Hiroh Kikai talks about photography
After working in near obscurity for 30 years, Hiroh Kikai has emerged as a modern-day master portrait maker, patiently documenting eccentric people who pass through an old neighborhood in Tokyo that used to be the city’s entertainment district. He’s in the same league with Diane Arbus and August Sander. He speaks eloquently about his photographic practice in this great interview by Marc Feustel.
A performer of butoh dance, 2001© Hiroh Kikai / Courtesy of Studio Equis
Chandpur, Bangladesh, 1991 © Hiroh Kikai / Courtesy of Studio Equis
A young man who powders his hands, 2002 © Hiroh Kikai / Courtesy of Studio Equis
Khulna, Bangladesh, 1991 © Hiroh Kikai / Courtesy of Studio Equis
Tokyo, 1982 © Hiroh Kikai / Courtesy of Studio Equis
A man watching the horse races on his portable television set, 1999 © Hiroh Kikai / Courtesy of Studio Equis
A nineteen-year-old punk, 1986 © Hiroh Kikai
A man who dresses his cat in lace, 1991 © Hiroh Kikai
A clerk who was letting her hair grow long, 1987 © Hiroh Kikai
A girl in a long skirt, 1986 © Hiroh Kikai
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