The Tohoku Earthquake
For one month between April 23rd and May 22nd, the dyed red banners of ‘KYOTOGRAPHIE’ are seen dotted around Japan’s ancient capital city of Kyoto. With the city as the backdrop, the ‘KYOTOGRAPHIE Kyoto International Photography Festival’ is only one of a handful of international photography festivals held in Japan, with many events and exhibitions being held across the city. Works and collections of note are gathered from Japan and all over the world every year with them not only limited to being exhibited in museums and galleries but also homes, places of worship, historical buildings and so forth.
Launched in 2013, the people behind bringing this project to life is the partnership of French photographer Lucille Reyboz and Light Artist Yusuke Nakanishi. So why did they decide to hold a photography festival in Kyoto, a city which neither has any previous connection. As Nakanishi explains, the opportunity to do this came from “disaster”.
“I was approached by Lucille about creating a photographic work based on the Japanese ghost stories of ‘Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things’ by Lafcadio Hearn. Our creative relationship began when she collaborated with my lighting, where we subsequently became partners in our work. It was while creating this work that the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011 struck. Having just about been bought together by the fear that nature brings while working through the world of ‘Kwaidan’, the power of nature had a strong impact upon us and we strongly sensed the danger Tokyo is exposed to.”
With a mix of emotions behind it, the finished piece made its public debut in Paris that same year. It was during this visit to Paris that they stopped by the ‘Rencontres d’Arles’ held in the southern French city of Arles. (www.recontres-arles.com)
“Those in photography from all over the world gather in the streets of Arles. As it was my first time to visit, I was truly taken by surprise by it all. The thing is, there were very few Japanese to speak of.”
The Rencontres d’Arles traces its roots back to 1970 where it began as a small project started up by a small group of young photographers and writers which included photographer Lucien Clergue. The event grew larger in scale over time, allowing photographic culture to take root in France to the point where it has had an influence on many photography festivals and markets. Nearly 50 years since that first event, it has become a mecca for photographers worldwide and a major gateway, a place for photographers to have their portfolio reviewed, debut new works and make agreements.
“I asked myself why with what is happening in photography now concentrated in such a place, there were no Japanese involved. Even though people from other countries have shown interest in what Japan and Japanese photographers are doing, that information does not make it to Arles because there were no Japanese taking part in the festival. For a photography powerhouse like Japan, a country that leads the way in photography culture, you have to ask if that is really a good situation to be in. We strongly believed that Japan could be a place like what I experienced in Arles and should nurture a platform for photography; a cultural focal point and a place to exchange ideas and information. So even for that reason, we wanted to hold a photography festival like the one in Arles.”
A Photography Festival for Change
Following their return to Japan, Nakanishi and Lucille exhibited their collaboration in Kyoto. It was here where the idea that the city could be home to an event similar to Arles came to mind.
“The size of Kyoto is like that of European cities which means it can be easily covered on foot. It’s an economically independent city that remains compact yet retaining its sense of what makes it great. If we left the historical traditional culture as it is, an avant-garde aspect would be conveyed at all times. I convinced myself that this is the place!”
However, though when they went around asking for support, cooperation and use of a venue, there were very few who would allow them a foot in the door to make their case in the early days of the project.
“It’s because this kind of cultural event makes no profit. But we were not in the pursuit of profit but wanting to change the current situation in Japan. Bring change to society and the economy affected by the earthquake, as well as the issue of misrepresented information sent and received from abroad. And above all, change the cultural landscape where a photographer or artist has to live off their own work.”
There is a thinking that prevails in Japan where to be able to live off photography is being a successful commercial photographer. From a specialized field it is very important, but “photography” is far more diverse than that. Nevertheless, the reason why photographers in Japan are unable to live off ‘art’ is that there is no culture to purchase and enjoy photographic works among the general population. But, however much you push it, a photography business cannot take root if there is no groundwork. This is an opinion shared by both them.
“The English word ‘art’ entered the Japanese lexicon following the Meiji restoration in Japan in 1868. As a consequence, it brought new meaning to ‘geijutsu’, the Japanese word for art, redefining it from its original meaning of a way of making a living for an artist to something aimed only at the wealthy to possess. But as seen in Europe, whether an artist is famous or unknown, if the work takes someone’s interest and is within their price range, it is purchased to be displayed and enjoyed. And with it comes a cycle where the artist is supported by the sale of their works. To make this cycle the standard in Japan, the value and possibilities from a photograph should be known by way of a festival. As well as that, we want to let people know the joy of photography is connected to how one lives their lives so “a photograph is something that can be bought to be enjoyed”. Of course this will take some time, but this is our ultimate aim. So we thought to achieve this, in this city of Kyoto, we wanted make the effort to bring a photography festival to life”.
Being Serious Makes Things Happen
After the earthquake, and having made the decision to leave Tokyo, Nakanshi and Lucille saw Kyoto as the perfect city for them. But saying that, taking on this new project in a new city proved to be a difficult road to take for them.
“We came up with the plan in Spring 2012 and the first event was held in 2013, so preparation took exactly one year. It was a truly hectic time and I don’t exactly remember how we achieved it in the end (laughs). However, though we didn’t have a budget to speak of, we had a network to help us in tough moments. Many artists and even some famous writers were willing to offer their services in this yet-to-be developed festival. For the venues, we cycled around the streets of Kyoto entering any places that we thought had potential. We held on with places that would not normally be rented out to us, persisting with them until they relented …… by doing this we were able to provide a substantial program. Of course the charm of Kyoto’s streets were also a major help.”
The only other thing to get the project off the ground was funding. The helping hand that came to these two artists struggling in the situation came in the form of global brands. These luxury brands usually do not support events other than those of their own company, but they were moved by what was proposed with KYOTOGRAPHIE. They were ready to make an exception “if the level of quality promised is attainable”.
“These brands came on-board only 3 to 4 months before our opening. From there, other companies started to offer their services and things began moving forward at a rapid pace. If we didn’t appear to be serious about our event, these companies would not have understood the motivation behind this event. With all we had planned, we strongly felt we had no chance to inspire people if we took all of this too lightly.”
True “Quality” From the Streets of Kyoto
Despite this, twelve exhibition spaces each unlike the other were selected for the very first event from sub-temples and traditional houses in temple grounds to tea-houses and western-style houses. With Kyoto known to have a reputation of being “difficult for strangers” you can only be amazed that they were able to pull off securing these wonderful venues.
“Much can be discovered by just cycling around the streets of Kyoto, with many attractive old buildings appearing out of nowhere. As soon as we fell in love with the building, we immediately set about finding how to contact the owner of the building. We then paid a visit and brought up during conversation that “we are planning on holding this photography festival and would it be possible to use this building as a venue”. Naturally, their first answer is no (laughs).”
There is no shortage of homes in Kyoto that have retained their history for many generations. Nakanishi tells us that care was of the utmost importance for its history not to be damaged in any way by the present day.
“Although, there is a strong sense that lies in Kyoto of challenging new things to create new history. That’s why, we act as the bridge between the artist and the city, asking them “we are thinking of this worthwhile idea, would you like to do it with us”. Even when we are turned down, we persisted and once we get our point across that we want to seriously create something of outstanding quality, the gates slowly opened.”
Also, the “eyes” of the people of Kyoto who can spot quality, had a significant impact according to Nakanishi.
“Kyoto people can definitely recognize quality. Even with the venue already being rented out to us, if we didn’t respect the history of the space and not use that to our advantage, they would put a stop to what we are doing in an instant. Through our efforts, a union between these spaces in Kyoto and the artistic works formed and perhaps established KYOTOGRAPHIE’s own identity in the process.”
To Bring Attention to Society
As with previous years, ‘KYOTOGRAPHIE 2016’ event was able to offer a lineup of original and unique exhibitions. News photographs of refugees taken by ‘Magnum Photos’ were displayed on the surface of wooden boxes and arranged in an old townhouse, close enough to be touched by visitors. In a space that resembled something akin to a completely white womb were portraits of new-born babies, so soon out of the womb that their first sounds are still fresh in the mind. Meanwhile, monochrome works based on the theme of people and nature were set up from the drawing room to the garden of a Zen temple, whilst legendary images that helped redefine fashion through the ages brought color to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.
“With all of the exhibitions, the first thing for both of us is coming up with ideas, where we want “this piece for this venue and exhibit it in this form”. We consult with the creator, a spatial designer or craftsman for it to take shape. From an artist’s standpoint, we are always taking on things which are new and fun for us. That’s why to produce these works every year requires an enormous amount of expenses and many more unaccounted for from the construction of the venues. It sure does break the bank (laughs).
As the curtain went down on ‘KYOTOGRAPHIE 2016’, Nakanishi and the team have begun preparations for the 2017 edition. Though the two of them joke that “we can’t seem to make the time from our day jobs”, the sense of fulfillment they get from the event can be seen by the warm expressions on their faces.
“It would be ridiculous to suggest that we are out to change society, but we do wish for a society where everyone can live happily. We believe that photography has the power to help. It isn’t information rooted in something but a form of media that takes shape in our minds. That is why with KYOTOGRAPHIE, with each event, we make sure to have a program that makes us think about what is going on in the society around us and around the world. We hope to raise and allow people to think about, through a festival like this, subjects not taken up by the educational institutions of Japan or the media. It’s a society we are all living in and building together, so we first have to change the hearts and minds of people one at a time before real change can be achieved. To bring that sort of awareness to people, we want this event to become a place where important messages can be conveyed to them.”
Born in Lyon, France in 1973. Lived in Bamako, Mali as a child. Having started photography in her teens, she focuses on portrait photography across many fields such as magazines, CD covers etc.. Moved to Tokyo in 2007 followed by Kyoto in 2011. Her photo collections include ‘BELLES DE BAMAKO’, ‘SOURCE’ and ‘Impressions du Japon’ written with novelist Keiichiro Hirano
Born in Fukuoka Pref. Japan in 1968. Has provided lighting to many fields including movies, theater, concerts, fashion shows, interiors etc. As well as creating lighting objects such as ‘eatable lights’, has set up light installations at Hara Museum (Tokyo), School Gallery (Paris) and ‘Buits Blanche’ (Kyoto).