IMA magazine released its first issue in 2012 and has quickly grown into a globally respected venue for discovering new emerging photographers. The magazine’s impeccable aesthetics and consistently compelling stories have garnered a following worldwide. Editorial Director Mutsuko Ota, who has been in the driver’s seat since IMA’s infancy, is one of the expert critics for the LensCulture Critics’ Choice 2020. Below, we talk with her about her editorial background, IMA’s mission, and the questions she asks herself every time she views new photography.

LC: You started your career on the editorial side of fashion magazines such as Marie Claire and Esquire—do you think this experience impacts the way you view the contemporary photography you work with at IMA magazine?

MO: Yes, I started my career at fashion magazines—but for years I was in charge of contemporary art, not fashion. This experience definitely taught me how to look at art photography more objectively. It is often said that there is no bridge between contemporary art and photography in Japan, but I could look at photography as a contemporary art as a result of my previous work experience.

Also, as opposed to Western editions, the Japanese editions of Marie Claire and Esquire attached much more importance to cultural content. Believe it or not, they often released special issues that featured only topics such as literature, photography and art.

Furthermore, in Japan, celebrated photographers such as Homma Takashi, Rinko Kawauchi and Suzuki Risaku create their own works in parallel with editorial work. This is a cultural tradition that was inherited from Nobuyoshi Araki and Daidō Moriyama. Thus, even for a fashion magazine, there were a lot of connections between art photographers and their commissioned projects.

LC: Can you tell us how IMA came to be? As Editorial Director, would you like to see the magazine grow in a particular direction?

MO: I often thought during my previous career that directing an art magazine would be a dream. I knocked on many doors with a business proposal for a new magazine, and subsequently my business partner and I got the idea approved by amana inc [a Japanese advertising company]. Its owner wanted a magazine that would specialize in art photography. That is IMA’s birth story.

LC: You released your first English edition of IMA in 2016. What influenced your decision to release an English version of the magazine? Photography is said to be a “universal language”―yet text can make a big difference. Can you say more?

MO: There is a very simple reason: there were requests from IMA readers abroad who said that they would love to read the text in English. There is also a bigger mission: we would like young Japanese talent to become promoted and gain publicity in both domestic and foreign markets. There are not many Japanese artists who handle their own publicity. In addition, information about (and acknowledgment of) Japanese photography is not great abroad. It isn’t properly appreciated in the broad history of photography.

But as you say, photography is a form of global expression. IMA aims to reveal the meaning, context and story behind a work in order to convey its essence. Thus, our texts are composed not only by photo critics, but also experts from many different fields: movie directors, novelists, neuroscientists and fashion designers. We want our readers to enjoy the work; we also want each of them to know how to “look at” photography. That is our big challenge for the future.

LC: Can you name a couple of photographers you’ve discovered recently who stand out as producing innovative, compelling work? What about their work makes it persuasive? Do they share any qualities that make them appealing to you as an editor?

MO: We are in an era of significant change. The world and medium are transforming simultaneously. But a few practitioners have stood out recently. One, Fumi Ishino, creates highly contextualized works through his unique approach: he aims to visualize our chaotic contemporary moment. He also takes different paths to finish a series so that his photographic expression continually grows. Each new series always surprises me.

Another, Kazuma Obara, has great insights into human nature and our collective history. He has a unique method that mixes journalistic and fictional elements through meticulous research and practice.

LC: IMA is dedicated to publishing work by up-and-coming photographers―so, do you have any words of wisdom for “emerging” photographers who are looking to break into the world of contemporary photography? Whether for those entering Critics’ Choice 2020 or for people trying to catch your eye in the crowded marketplace of photography?

MO: Is the concept inevitable for this particular artist?

Is the expression genuinely something I’ve never seen before?

Does the work have meaning in its conceptualization, and does it also link to society, the world and its people?

Does the work connote power and break stereotypes?

Does the work have elements that can move people?

I always ask myself those questions when looking at photography. I look forward to finding new artists who create such work.

—Mutsuko Ota, interviewed by Coralie Kraft