Hiroyo Kaneko

As the world-wide corona pandemic brings restrictions on going outside and encourages us to cover our faces with a mask, opportunities to meet others in person and see their faces.That said, expression have dwindled. As people become wary and even suspicious of others due to fears of infection and feelings of isolation and alienation take hold after long periods of being confined to a life indoors, the psychological effects of the pandemic increase day by day. One particular activity that has been severely affected by the limitations of the pandemic is the simple act of singing. The emotions released through songs, the joy that singing and listening bring with them, and the sense of together-ness that singing can evoke may now perhaps be stronger than ever before.

Hiroyo Kaneko (b. 1963) is a Japanese photographer based in Oakland, California. In 2010, she began her portrait series “Appearance,” for which she photographed people of various ages, types and genders from up close as they sing in everyday surroundings such as their homes, local parks, private gardens or while walking down the street. The series was published as a photobook in 2020. Portrait shoots usually involve a mutual interchange in control between the photographer and the model, with the photographer offering instructions and the model offering poses and expressions. The uniqueness of Kaneko’s series, however, lies in her idea of capturing the subjects as they sing – i.e., during an essentially uncontrollable act. Kaneko’s photographs captures her subjects in a state of low self-consciousness, seemingly unaware of their being photographed, as they are immersed in their song and feelings erupt freely.

Dr. Dreame’s Mouth Music
Muema’s House Music

The series’ titular word “appearance” has several meanings: there is the “appearance” of how a person may look, or the “appearance” on a stage, for example. Kaneko’s “Appearance” took inspiration from the concept of “appearance” discussed in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book “The Human Condition,” where it refers to people appearing in communal spaces, interacting with others through language, partaking and showing their presence in society. What appears in Kaneko’s series are not merely the subjects in front of the camera but also Kaneko behind the camera.
Hiroyo Kaneko moved from Japan to the US in 2002 to go to graduate school. As she worked hard to build a new life in a place with a different culture and language, she also experienced isolation and alienation many times. It was seeing a child sing freely and unburdened that helped her discover the courage to express herself and take part in the world – to appear in it – which eventually inspired this series.

During a public conversation (Japanese Only) in a talk with the writer(Mika Kobayashi), Kaneko explained about her subjects singing in front of her camera:

“From the moment I took the photos, I sensed a strength in the models’ act of revealing their feelings and making themselves vulnerable to me like that. And while “vulnerability” sits close to “weakness,” on the contrary there is a strength in the act of opening and revealing oneself.”

A person making an appearance in the world through the act of singing does not only expose themselves to the gaze of others, they also create a space where their expelled breath reverberates as voice. Kaneko’s photographs of people captured in the act of singing show the diversity of each individual subject while also revealing the universal human aspect that we are all equally vulnerable when we open up and express our feelings.

In the current circumstances, with most people’s faces constantly covered due to the corona pandemic, the act of revealing one’s face is considered vulnerable and against social consideration. It is not certain for how much longer this state will last and how it may change; as people continue living lives that presuppose a certain distance to other people, the forms in which we show our presence and our participation in society, as well as the implications, are likely going to change.

The series “Appearance,” which affirms and regards the open vulnerability of people making an appearance in society as strength, may suggest an attitude for us to acknowledge and accept each others’ individual weaknesses in an age where the corona pandemic has laid bare our vulnerabilities.

Mika Kobayashi

Photography researcher

Active in many fields including conducting lectures and workshops on Japanese and international photography, planning exhibitions and contributing to magazines.

Share on social media