Interview: Kosuke Okahara
An Interview with Kosuke Okahara by James Bugg & Kristian Haggblom.
Exploring the sensitive and serious issue of self harm-within Japanese culture, Kosuke Okahara's long term project Ibasyo is an extremely effective and nuanced documentation of the human struggle to find a place within the world. In this interview with James Bugg and Kristian Häggblom, Okahara discusses the reasons behind his project, the process of creating a traveling/performative artist's book, and how he continues to focus on the idea of finding 'ibasyo' in contemporary Japanese society
James Bugg: Kosuke, your work Ibasyo takes on the very serious issue of self harm, focusing on the way it affects the lives of Japanese women. You seem to approach this subject matter with a great deal of sincerity and commitment. Could you share a little bit about this project and how it started?
Kosuke Okahara: In 2004, I was traveling abroad to find stories to investigate photographically and I had never really tried to photograph in Japan. It struck me that there are not many in-depth long-term stories being done in Japan, especially about sensitive subjects that are not discussed openly, and I began to think about what it means to be a Japanese photographer. I knew there were some critical issues in Japan that needed to be documented and discussed, for example, suicide figures have been at a global high at over 30,000 per year since 1998. But even for a Japanese, most things related to critical human issues were hard to see because of the Japanese ‘culture of shame’ which is sometimes erroneously seen as the stereotyped notion of calm and tranquil Japanese behavior. This way of life, where privacy and decency are the norm makes many issues hidden, and incredibly difficult to visualise and subsequently discuss.
I felt I should make an effort to express how I feel about the society that I grew up in, and of one that I will always be a part of.
"All of the ladies had difficult experiences that denied their existence so I wondered whether someone else could tell them: “I recognise you are there, and you are important.” This sounds a little patronizing but I wanted them to feel their own ‘ibasyo’. "
There were some ideas that came to my mind, however, I could not find a strong reason to commit and convince myself to move forward with these projects. For me, the topic had to be something essential that I feel an intimate relationship with, not superficial. This meant that I had to go through a very difficult and patient process to get access in a society that is notorious for being private and closed. I still strongly believe that if the access is more difficult, there tends to be more critical human related issues.
One day, I met a girl who was a student from the same college I graduated from and we soon became good friends and spent a lot of time together. One night she mentioned that she had been suffering from self-injury for many years and she could not feel ‘Ibasyo’ – a Japanese term that I translate to: a physical and emotional place where a person can exist, a location or state of mind where one can be comfortable and at peace. The feelings that this word and concept conveyed touched me, since I had the same feeling in my childhood. Her words resonated strongly with me as my father is an alcoholic and there was always violence in my family and, inevitably, I was always afraid of being at home. Sometimes I even felt that I should not have been born. As an only child there was no safe haven for me.
I started doing some research on self-injury because these were feelings that I felt deep down inside of me. To be honest, I was also one who harmed myself before due to depression, though I did not know anything about other people and their pain. This was – and still is – hidden and taboo in Japanese society where things are seen as meticulously perfect and tidy.
I started to find some websites where people were posting about their anxieties and sometimes photographs of their self-inflicted scars. I posted a thread about the project I had in mind with my contact information and astonishingly more than 20 young people emailed or called me immediately telling me that they wanted to share their stories. But many of them were living with their family, and most of their families did not allow me to photograph them. I realised that some families didn’t even know that their children were struggling with self-injury. Through making contacts and research, I eventually found six ladies who allowed me to be a part of their life. In some cases, it took me over a year of communication before I was accepted into their lives and felt comfortable photographing them.
JB: The work will be published by Kousakusha in the coming months, however six books have already undergone a journey. What responses have you had and what do the participating ladies think of the travelling books?
KO: The idea came to mind after I failed many times to publish this work as a book. I knew documentary in general is not really welcomed by publishers in Japan. Every time I showed the photographs people would often say “oh this is too hard”, or “oh this is too difficult to sell.” I also applied for book prizes in order to get this book published and I was a finalist in a few prizes but was never successful enough to actually go to print.
After so many failures I questioned myself if just publishing it as a book is enough, as I wanted to create serious discussion around this important issue. Then I started to reconsider what the project is in its essence. First of all, the project is about telling the story of the ladies, but at the same time, I also remembered what the they had said to me. Importantly, all of them stated that they want to see themselves through someone else’s eyes in order to understand who they are. Also, throughout the project photography for me was the process to recognise people or things in front of me. I never wanted to use photography to deny something in front of me. All of the ladies had difficult experiences that denied their existence so I wondered whether someone else could tell them: “I recognise you are there, and you are important.” This sounds a little patronizing but I wanted them to feel their own ‘ibasyo’.
When I thought about the idea of a traveling book, I felt this sounded a little pretentious, but I said to myself: I should just do it. So I made six books with images and blank pages were people could write comments and I then asked six people from within my circle of friends from around the world who I considered ‘good human beings’ to engage with the publication and further circulate the book once they felt comfortable with passing it on.
At first I was a little worried that maybe people would not care, but I was also touched when people I respected agreed to engage with the project. Over 300 people participated in the book exchange over three-and-half-years. Sometimes it was a book collector who simply wanted to see the books, sometimes it was a photographer who actually had difficult experiences (psychologically) in their life, sometimes it was a mother of a child who was self-harming, sometimes it was a person who was suffering from self-harm. For me, it was very surprising in many positive ways. These books were then returned to the participating subjects so they could read the comments left by viewers from around the world and feel how the books had aged and been physically handled and thought about.
But once again, when I went to see publishers 99% of them simply said: “this is difficult to sell.” This means people are not willing to pay for a copy of the book. I would explain that my book was never for sale, no one can own it, yet many people have paid the postage to get it to the next person which is sometimes worth as much as a decent priced photobook. It had literally travelled the world.
There are actually some book collectors who asked me to sell the six copies for really big amounts of money but I had to explain that the original six were not a book to be owned and/or collected. They all understood. The book as an object has around 90 photographs but it became something much more than this, it generated thoughts and care while travelling the globe.
I also asked each participant to shoot a selfie if they were comfortable with this so that I could share the images on Facebook where the ladies were able to see who and where their images and stories where being seen and heard. Overall, the six ladies were very surprised that so many people actually borrowed the book and wrote messages to them.
"For the Ibasyo project the pictures of the lady that are not included are really really important. She is probably the one who grew up in the most healthy situation in terms of her family life. But I still believe that it is important to think of the subjects first. Their existence should not be used for the sake of ‘telling the story’ and hence her images were not used."
JB: Can you talk about how the tangibility of the photobook and how the format relates to the work?
KO: his project could be done online by using social media platforms and simply sharing messages, etc. But I felt it was important to be something physical because, I believe, after all these years of advancement of communication there is no single way of communication better than physically meeting each other. When you actually hold something physically it has a real feeling which you cannot calculate or get otherwise. The books are covered with very light colored textile that have a sign of trace. When you buy a new book you don’t appreciate it’s tactility as much and it was important that ladies can actually see or feel that this book traveled through many people’s hands. This is something real and not cyberspace. Feeling effort is something intangible but the effort or trace people can leave as a sign on the book is tangible.
JB: It is evident through your photographs that your proximity to these ladies became incredibly close throughout the project. You have mentioned through an email that you have consulted them every step throughout the process. How did you build such strong relationships and can you talk about the importance this had to the project?
KO: First of all, I asked them from the start if it was okay to show the work – and of course images of them – in different forms, including: exhibitions, book format, magazines, etc. So it was important to me to make sure they understood the outcomes and granted me permission. I was quite careful especially because their lives change as time goes by. I also had to consider that at some stage they might no longer be able to accept being shown and their stories being shared because of life changes. Over a period of working on this project for 14 years only one lady objected to the project.
When I asked them if it was still possible to publish Ibasyo as a book five of the participants where fine with this idea. In fact, they were somewhat relieved or excited because I kept telling them that would publish a book, and they kept asking about when it would actually happen – it took this much time! I appreciated the fact that they had no problem with the publication, especially since their lives are quite different now. And I also appreciated that they trusted me.
One lady I actually lost contact with and I eventually reached her father and his only repeated response was “…nothing happened, sorry.” He didn’t even want to listen to me. It was a little strange to me because this father was quite nice and open but suddenly shut himself down. So I decided not to publish the story in the book as I could not reach her directly. She was the youngest, when I started photographing her she was 14-years-old and now she is around 27. I really hope she is alive and doing well.
For me, the story of Minamata by W. Eugene Smith (and his wife) is very insightful and influential. Particularly, the picture A mother bathes her child, who severely disabled due to mercury poisoning that has been seen internationally many times and finally the mother said she wants her daughter not to be seen anymore. Since then the picture has never been published nor shown (except for online). This is something very very human. I am not such a great or big photographer but I think it is important to think what we should do with the pictures we photograph.
For the Ibasyo project the pictures of the lady that are not included are really really important. She is probably the one who grew up in the most healthy situation in terms of her family life. But I still believe that it is important to think of the subjects first. Their existence should not be used for the sake of ‘telling the story’ and hence her images were not used.
JB: Ibasyo deals with a subject matter that is incredibly raw and confronting, your photographs seem to meet this with a great deal of softness. Glowing white light and varying amounts of motion blur depict scenes of trauma. Was this something that you brought to the work intentionally or something that came naturally?
KO: It’s hard to explain but for me the important thing whenever I photograph is to recognise who my subjects are. That's all I think when I photograph. Since I am simply using the situation I am in, I just try to use the elements that are available in that moment to express what exists. Maybe sometimes light, sometimes simply dark, etc.
JB: Dealing with such serious subject matter clearly isn’t something foreign for you. With projects such as Fukushima Fragments, and more recently Night after night, you confront incredibly serious issues. What draws you to these types of stories and how do you go about addressing these topics?
KO: I am always interested in the concept of ‘ibasyo.’ As I mentioned above, ‘ibasyo’ is where one can feel ease or one can feel they exist – it could be also related to the French term ‘raison d’etre’. For example, if you are laid off by the company you are working for and suddenly people do not recognise you as the person you used to be, this can be a loss of ‘ibasyo’ because ones identity is largely shaped and attached to the position you had in the workplace and larger society. It’s not about you losing your salary but you losing a part of yourself. These are my ongoing concerns.
JB: Do you think you will continue to shoot these types of projects in the future?
O: I think my interest will always be associated with ‘ibasyo’ and how people exist.
JB: Any clue as to what's next for you Okahara-san?
O: I have been shooting a project in Koza, Okinawa and I hope to continue shooting this work for the next couple of years.