In The Day You Were Born, I Wasn’t Born Yet, Kai Yokoyama retraces his family history with a solemn and thoughtful emotional resonance. Yokoyama mixes his old family photographs with his own Covid-isolation pictures as a means to sink into old family lore and search for answers to the question: “How did we get here?”

Within his self-made photographs, Yokoyama conveys dark and lonely landscapes, bringing the viewer along for a solitary walk through an unnamed place that holds a feeling of a chill, setting in just after the sun goes down. His family album pictures, dating as far back as a 1935 photograph of his grandparent’s arranged marriage, perform as flashbacks that provide hints of reason and legacy that have led up to the emotional and brooding pictures of the current day. The Day You Were Born, I Wasn’t Born Yet becomes an invitation for the viewer’s own meditations on how our lives and selves are deeply shaped by family lineage, how we are products of the histories that come before us, and how we may cope with conditions that exist beyond our control.

Family Photo. My mother’s family photo. She says, “This uncle did a lot of bad things in the Pacific War.” My grandfather is not in this picture. My mother sits on the knees of my grandmother, who wears glasses. © Kai Yokoyama
Grandparents. My grandparents had an arranged marriage in 1935. © Kai Yokoyama
Mother. My mother is the first daughter her father had after he returned from the Pacific War. © Kai Yokoyama
Damon. When my mother asked her father about the war, he was always angry and said, “Don’t ask me that.” © Kai Yokoyama
Dawn. I was born at dawn. The day was a month earlier than my scheduled date. © Kai Yokoyama
Koi. My grandfather became deaf after he came back from the Pacific War. © Kai Yokoyama
Hands. Little is known about where my grandfather was and what he did during the war in 1944-1945. He didn’t tell his family anything about it. © Kai Yokoyama
Flowers. Nov. 5, 1961 I got my period today. I’m worried because it’s a little brownish and different than usual. Maybe I’m not a virgin. I’ve been having a lot of downward spirals lately. I can’t wait to grow up, get married, and have a baby. I’m beginning to understand what sex is all about. I hate being an adult. I don’t want to be an adult. © Kai Yokoyama
Name tag. I was separated from my parents for a little while in the neonatal intensive care unit, wearing this name tag with my mother’s name on my ankle. © Kai Yokoyama
“The current of the flowing river never ceases, yet the waters never remain the same. In places where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, burst and vanish while others form in their place, never for a moment still. People in the world and their dwellings are the same.” - Hojoki by Kamo no Chomei © Kai Yokoyama

Interview with the artist

In this interview for LensCulture, Kai Yokoyama speaks with Gregory Eddi Jones about connecting with the past through the present, weaving different material into one project and making work during the pandemic.

Gregory Eddi Jones: To start with Kai, I’m always interested in hearing about the journeys that photographers have taken to arrive at the present day. Could you tell us a bit about your background as a photographer?

Kai Yokoyama: I studied architecture before changing my major to photography. When I was an architecture student, I traveled abroad and was exposed to different cultures, which helped me to become the person I am today. After that, I studied photography at a college and worked as an assistant before becoming a freelancer.

GEJ: I want to talk a bit about your really beautiful project, The Day You Were Born, I Wasn’t Born Yet, which seems to work as a reflection on family and the passage of time. Can you talk a bit about your family history and what inspired you to start this work?

KY: I started this project because I was afraid that a pandemic might kill me or my family. It was very scary, but at the same time it made me very grateful for the life I have. My ancestors became connected to me. I had no idea at the time that I would be able to create this work.

I asked my mother and other relatives to show me photos of my grandparents. They were pictures that I had never seen before, and they were so beautiful that I felt strongly about them, especially those of my grandfather. I think it has something to do with the fact that I have always been told that I look like my grandfather. I felt joy that I had inherited his life, and that I was alive here, and that this was a miraculous connection between the present and the future, between the countless pasts that may not have happened, and what actually did happen.

GEJ: That’s such a beautiful sentiment, Kai. And it reminds me at the most fundamental level that photography is such a powerful tool to not only connect with the past, but perhaps even to send messages to the future as well. Have you thought about how this project might carry on through the next generation of your family?

KY: Oh, that’s a good question. Actually, during the pandemic, before I thought about my connection to the past—that is, my grandparents and parents—I thought about my children, who I don’t actually have yet. What that really means is that I thought that my life and my genes might end with me. I don’t have any children yet. It made me feel very emotional and I still remember how sad I was.

In fact, I have a vague idea that I would like to make a work about this in the near future. Since I saw the connection to my past in this work, I thought it might be possible to connect it to the future as well. That’s the powerful tool of photography you describe, isn’t it?

GEJ: Have you shown this work to your family? How have they reacted to it?

KY: I showed it to my parents, and they were surprised and happy to see their photos being published in so many places. They don’t really have an opinion on my work, probably out of respect for me. However, if they remember something more about memories of their grandparents, they tell me about it.

GEJ: I always enjoy seeing photographic projects that utilize different forms of photographs within them. This project is a mix of old family photographs and new pictures that you created, and your images seem so incredibly emotionally-driven that they really define the mood of the series. I really read this project as a kind of personal search for meaning, or even a kind of closure… is it accurate to describe it that way?

KY: While I was working on this project, there was a specific moment when I thought it might become a piece of work. When the pandemic started and I had to stay home, I took countless photos of the light in the windows of this building across the street. This photo and the one of my grandparents suddenly connected one day. This was something I had not expected at all. I was truly surprised and moved by this connection. After I found the connection, I used it as a starting point to try to connect the present with the past.

Yes, this is entirely my own story. But I think it also applies to everyone in the world, because everyone has their own history, their own ancestors. As I said, I was curious about where I came from. I am also very interested in where I will go from here.

GEJ: Can you talk a little about your strategies of creating a sense of narrative from the different kinds of pictures in this project? I tend to think that most photo projects naturally have a kind of fragmentation to them, small pieces of a larger whole. It often seems like the richest stories are found between the pictures, rather than inside them. Would you agree?

KY: I also believe that the story is found in the space between the photos. To express this, I tried to connect photographs with my emotions. When I made this work, I took a large number of photographs over a certain period of time, along with the feelings that came from my intuition. During that time, I rarely looked at the photos I took. Then the emotions would subside a bit. Then I stopped taking pictures and started looking at them. A thought occurred to me: what is this picture of? It was a very mysterious feeling, and even the act of looking back at the photos I had taken was a way of connecting with the past.

GEJ: Lastly, what’s coming up for you over the next year?

KY: My plans for next year are to participate in Yumi Goto’s workshop in Tokyo, and to make a photobook of this work. It was actually scheduled for next month, but it has been postponed until next year. So, I would like to wait until then and try to improve my current work.

See all of this year’s Critics’ Choice winners