Interview: Keiko Nomura
Deep Roots and New Beginnings
Aug 24, 2016
Interviewed by Tomo Kosuga
Text: Tomo Kosuga
Photography: Shingo Wakagi
Translation: Yuka Katagiri
Keiko Nomura’s work may first appear as dramatic documentary photography inspired by the motifs of the sky, ocean and women. However, through her publications, she continues to share her personal journey: a form of pilgrimage back to her roots with sensitivity and grace. Based in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, where her great-grandparents were born and raised, she tries to capture invisible images of her ancestors using the same motifs.
“When you follow your instinct to go back to your roots, it can lead to a new beginning.”
- Let’s begin by talking about your first publication, Deep South (1999), which was about Okinawa.
- Back then I was fascinated by Asian countries such as Vietnam. Through countless visits, I realized that taking photographs of things that look good doesn’t give me the images I want. That’s why I decided to go to a place where I had personal ties, and that was Okinawa.
- What brought you to that realization?
- I was born in Kobe. I received the Konica New Generation Photographer’s Grand Prix in 1997 and moved to Tokyo in the following year. Japanese photography had its heyday in the late 1990s and there were a lot of emerging photographers working in Tokyo, such as Masafumi Sanai, Yurie Nagashima and Katsumi Omori. They were the first to ditch black-and-white snapshots, which had been the mainstream in Japanese photography, in search for new and unique ways of expression. I was significantly influenced by that time period.
- Why did you think you had a special tie to Okinawa?
- My mother’s grandparents came from Okinawa so I went there. I rented a room in Koza*, which used to be located in the central part of the island of Okinawa. For about two years, I worked in Tokyo to save up some money and went to live in Koza until the money ran out. The photographs for the book Deep South published by Little More were taken during that time.
- *Koza was once a busy and vibrant city in the center of Okinawa island. It was merged into the neighboring municipality of Misato in 1974 and is now a part of Okinawa city.
- You said you had a special tie to Okinawa, but you are from Kobe. I don’t think you felt a strong connection to the place as you grew up. How come you were able to tap into that feeling to add depth to your work?
- It took me a long time to be able to do that. I started with taking snapshots in black and white, but I stopped because it didn’t feel right. Okinawa had already been photographed by so many great photographers such as Shomei Tomatsu and Shinya Fujiwara and also there was a bunch of brilliant local photographers. I thought long and hard about what I could do and decided on taking photographs of my generation in Okinawa as I saw it. I looked for models on the streets of Koza, who were a similar age to me and that sparked my inspiration. I started taking serious photography, not snapshots, within a small area with a two kilometer radius.
- Looking at photographs from Deep South, I can tell that they were well thought out and carefully taken unlike street photography that features chance encounters.
- The stereotypical images of Okinawa are of clear sky and beautiful ocean, and the atmosphere is always bright and relaxed. But there was something about the Okinawa I saw — I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but something felt very unsettling about it. I came to understand the place through taking photographs. It worked and when the book was published, I had good responses from people from mainland Japan. They said they’ve never seen Okinawa like that and even asked me whether my models were really from Okinawa.
- You mixed with the local people, but you were a photographer from mainland Japan, exposing them to the curious gaze of the outside world. Did you feel an emotional distance separating you and the local people?
- I made sure to get to know them well before taking photographs. I mingled with them and tried to be one of them. When I went drinking with them, I tried not to get too wasted. I always had a camera with me and took photographs whenever I had a chance. You have a special tie to the places you have come from. When you follow your instinct to go back to your roots, it can lead to a new beginning. And this can turn out to be something good, something that makes you feel that it was bound to happen and was destined to happen that way. And this happened with my photography.
“Indeed, there may be no answer to life and death. It was then I got into exploring that sort of thing in my photography.”
- You established your style of photography through taking photographs of young people from places that had a special meaning to you. Six years after your first publication, you published your second book, Bloody Moon. The difference with your previous book is that it contains female portraits among other photographs, which seem to signify something beyond themselves. The title also sounds very feminine.
- It took me six years to make the second book because I had lost my inspiration. To my disappointment, Koza developed rapidly and the atmosphere I had once loved was gone. And my friends and I became older and settled down. I missed the enthusiasm and creative energy we had once felt. I also stopped doing part-time jobs and became a professional photographer.
- Looking back, I think it was time for me to change the way I photographed in order to stay in touch with the emotion which has always been real and familiar to me. Even after a good deal of thinking, I couldn’t make up my mind. I went to Hawaii which was a special place in my heart, and frequently visited Taiwan and South India. I was taking photographs of my daily life and the places I lived, but the more I tried, the more I failed. But it was then I realized that I could develop my identity as a photographer by focusing on creating portraits of women who are like myself. Since Bloody Moon, I continued to work on portraits of women.
- After a further three years, you published Soul Blue in 2012. It was a move away from your previous work, filled with female portraits and photographs of the sky and the ocean in subdued tones. It also captured the death of your mother. A story had begun to unfold in the place of your own which became more and more about you.
- My mother passed away about when Red Water came out. When I was shooting for the book, I knew she was not going to make it for much longer. I never knew how I’d feel just before and after she died. My father’s death followed shortly thereafter. I lost my family and a place to go back to. My parents’ home and existence had disappeared into the dust, but their photographs remained. I started to think more about human existence since then.
- Your existence, death, and all your encounters are a big mystery. I think everything is coincidence; having been born to my parents; becoming friends with and taking photographs of female models; and having been born in Japan. Everything had to happen exactly as it did. I believe that everything is predetermined by destiny. And I use photography to emphasize this view.
- In your previous publications, Deep South, Bloody Moon and Red Water, the colour red featured heavily. And in Soul Blue, your work began to be interspersed with myriad shades of blue.
- That is probably because I started to notice the existence of water. Water is constantly in a cycle between the atmosphere and the surface of Earth, though it is invisible to our eyes. I found a relief in this cycle. Then, I thought about human existence. Death doesn’t mean everything will be lost. Just being alive is not enough. Indeed, there may be no answer to life and death. It was then I got into exploring that sort of thing in my photography.
- What strikes me about your work is that it is alive with the mysteries of photography, which cannot be put into words. Psychologist, Hayao Kawai wrote in his work, Fairy Tales and the Japanese Psyche, that when famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung asked members of a primitive tribe of Mount Elgon in East Africa whether their god was the sun, they replied that they felt the god’s presence when the sun rose. I believe that this is similar to what we can learn from photography. It also explains a unique characteristic of photography; it reveals what cannot be expressed in language. I think the same can be said about your work.
- I’m glad to hear that. In Western culture, a lot of things are polarized into two opposite categories, such as this and other realms, life and death, nature and humans, and etc. However, such boundaries are not clear in Japanese culture. In ancient Japanese religious thought, everything was considered to be deities; a stone is a god; a spring is a god; the ocean is a god; our ancestors are gods; and anything, be it a tree, a mountain, rain or an animal is a god. In summer, we celebrate obon, an annual Buddhist festival to commemorate the dead, during which the spirits of our ancestors return to their homes on earth. We know that we are not going to stay in heaven forever after death. Both in mainland Japan and Okinawa, we have a view on reality that is complex, chaotic and multi-layered. I suppose this sensitivity is conveyed in my work.
- It’s been 16 years between your first publication and your latest, Soul Blue. What are you going to do next? Finally, could you tell us about the theme you are currently working on?
- For the past year, I have been shooting mountains in Shinshu (the old name for Nagano Prefecture.) I want to throw myself into something bigger than what I had ever experienced. I had been working on the theme of water for a long time, and then I found an ideal place, Shinshu, where the environment is harsh yet rich; they have fire festivals; hunting is still part of their cultural identity; and the location is convenient.
- Anyhow, I still take photographs of women. I began to feel that I could not pursue my own photographic vision without continuing to photograph women. At the moment, I’m mostly taking pictures of pregnant women. I’m doing it both in Shinshu and in Tokyo.
- Tomo Kosuga
- Tomo Kosuga has been working in a wide range of roles related to photography, including art producer, editor, writer, and curator/producer of exhibitions and commercial events. He is also the director of the Masahisa Fukase Archives which was established to preserve and promote the work of the Japanese photographer. Kosuga focuses on writing and publishing articles about contemporary Japanese photography in domestic magazines and web media. He is the founder and director of the photography platform, TSK (currently in Japanese only.)
- Shingo Wakagi
- After graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York where he majored in photography, Wakagi has explored his career in a wide range of fields such as magazines and advertisements. He has published 17 photebooks including “TAKUJI”, “Youngtree”, ”Let’s go for a drive” and “Time & Portraits”.
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