Yumi Goto wears many hats—she is a prolific independent curator, editor, consultant, researcher, educator and publisher currently based in Tokyo. She is the co-founder and curator of the Reminders Photography Stronghold, a gallery space in Tokyo that is home to a variety of photography-related endeavors, including exhibitions, workshops, a photobook publishing house, a juried grant and a dedicated photobook library. Goto frequently collaborates with artists who work in areas plagued by conflict, human rights abuses, and natural disasters.
LensCulture was honored that Goto agreed to be a member of the jury for the Magnum Photography Awards 2017. We spoke with her about the foundation of an artist’s commitment to their work, the value of local storytelling, and the critical research that can push a project to the next level—
LC: When working with photographers, you often ask, “Why are you so committed to the subject matter in your photographs?” What kind of responses are you looking for—what can that connection look like?
YG: I like asking that question because I want to understand the photographer’s level of commitment to the subject matter. That commitment will mean a real caring for the issue, and it means they have done their research on the background. If we’re talking about a photographer who lives inside of the circumstances they’re photographing, their connection is obvious: they care because it is their story that they’re expressing. But if it’s a photographer who’s coming from the outside, I want to know that they are as committed as the person who lives through it every day.
LC: On a similar note, there are many photojournalists who travel to countries outside of their own to capture atrocities around the world. When you’ve talked to photojournalists who work outside their home country, what do you find motivates them?
YG: Generally, the photographers I work with have a real understanding of wherever it is they are working. Everyone is motivated by very different things, of course, but fundamentally, many are motivated by finding their own particular interpretation of what they’re shooting. The work I find most interesting is when the photographer creates a signature or stamp using their point of view, leaving an impression on the subject.
LC: Turning that question about commitment on its head: why is your work—especially working with projects and artists that transcend borders—important for you? Was there a moment in your life when you thought, “This is what I want to focus on?”
YG: I was in Cambodia in the 1990s helping my husband Masaru and there were no digital cameras or internet to speak of. Most of the photographers documenting the area were foreign. One local photographer, a Cambodian, didn’t have very high-tech equipment or a lot of technical skill, but I noticed that he knew the subject intimately, since he was someone who had experienced the issues firsthand. Meanwhile, people coming from the outside had a harder time understanding the issues beyond the surface. That is when I started helping local people become visual storytellers.
Sometimes, photographers—through their own experiences—gain an empathy for the subject and can tell a story as well as anyone. But working internationally, I have gained a real appreciation for local storytelling. I brought my appreciation back to Japan, where I now help Japanese photographers tell their stories.
Some of the projects I have worked on touched on larger issues—human rights abuses or natural disasters—but I always try to focus on the personal sides of these stories. I find that focusing on smaller narratives helps add depth to these vast topics. The individual has a special power to speak volumes about overwhelming subjects.
LC: Looking back, was there a specific project or endeavor that helped “launch” your career?
YG: It’s difficult to say if there was one project…I think it was a collection of smaller things that built up to where I am now. My career really started to come together while I was living in Bangkok. I was working on a lot of different projects beyond the work I was doing with Masaru.
While there, I began meeting and talking with different photo experts—a rare occupation in Japan—as well as many photographers. As I began helping photographers edit down their work, the positive results began to follow. Before I knew it, it had become a career.
In particular, the experience I gained while producing PDFX12 helped me gain real momentum—as an online project, it helped me start to reach a more international audience. PDFX12 also gave me the opportunity to collaborate with international talents who were not yet well-known on the world stage.
Today, besides individual works, I am pursuing an ongoing project on the search for truth in photography. It is said that photography is the medium that captures the truth, but that’s not exactly accurate. The photograph might represent the perspective of the photographer, or their understanding or interpretation, which then in turn affect the “truth” the image conveys.
My current book workshops are an extension of this idea: bookmaking is an excellent format for self-examination and confronting the (subjective) truth of a topic.
LC: What kind of work are you most excited to see in our Magnum Awards?
YG: Of course, I’m especially excited to see storytelling. I’m also always looking for photographers who work in layers, who are able to take apart the mechanism—deconstruct it. Especially if some of the photos are coming from a new and unique angle. That’s what I’m most interested in discovering here.
LC: What’s some advice you find yourself giving to emerging photographers again and again that you wish you could tell everyone at once?
YG: Emerging photographers shouldn’t repeat what others have done. Some stories have been so thoroughly covered that it’s important to differentiate yourself and approach a new topic or an ongoing issue with a fresh angle.
Also, do your research. If you really know and understand the topic, you are much more likely to find a particular angle on it and stand out. Research also helps overcome any assumptions you might have that will get in the way of telling the story. Once you’re there, I encourage people to follow their instincts and forget their assumptions.
—Yumi Goto, interviewed by Coralie Kraft