Miho Kajioka, an alternative process photographer based in Japan, creates beautiful small black and white photographs in her darkroom that resemble the types of images you’d find in archives or flea markets. The same nostalgic aura of times past surround her work with mystery.
After studying abroad in the US, and then working as a journalist in Japan, Miho eventually found her way back to art. Her work is haunting and timeless, drawing you in with the subjects she photographs, such as the destructive power of nature, simple joyful moments shared at playgrounds, or the surreal repercussions of the Fukushima incident. These contrasting scenes come together to form a beautiful body of work that has engaged and fascinated people around the world. Our photographer Julia Kao met with Miho in Tokyo for a stroll and photoshoot, capturing parts of the city that inspire her. Read on to find out more about how she was drawn back into the art world, and what she is working on now.
You initially studied painting before being drawn away to photography, and eventually graduating with a fine arts degree. Then you worked as a journalist, director, and producer, before again returning to photography. Were you hesitant to pursue photography, and work as an artist? Do you currently work as a photographer full-time?
When I came back to Japan after living and studied art in US and Canada for 8 years, I had such a romantic idea about Japan. Many people in the North America were very interested in Japanese culture, especially in California, and for that I got a lot of questions about Japan, and Zen, Wabi-Sabi, Japanese movies, arts, literature etc. However I was just 18 years old and didn’t really know enough about them to explain. So I had to study about Japan, and I got very interested in Japanese culture. So most of my art works when I was living in US and Canada were about Japan. Then I came back to Japan and I didn’t know what I should create anymore. I never tried to become a journalist, but somehow I was lead in that direction, and I felt that it was a right direction to pursue. Then, after more than 10 years not pursuing art, the disaster, earthquake, tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear accident happened in 2011. It seemed to me that it was the time to go back to art again.
I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I am an artist using photographic images. I really don’t know much about the photographic technique. I always enjoy mixing mediums and photographic images are one of them. Therefore, I am not a full-time photographer, and also I still work as a journalist once in a while.
How does your current work compare to the images and video you created as a journalist? Has your process changed, or is it influenced by your previous work?
When I work for TV news and documentary, I work as a producer or fixer, not as a cameraman. My task is researching, arranging shootings, and translating the interview. I learn a lot and get inspirations from the job, and I often use that in my art.
As a journalist you covered the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, after which you decided to return to photography. You then started to visit Fukushima, and photograph scenes from the aftermath. How has tragedy affected your work?
When I was standing in the middle of the rubble, just a week after the disaster to cover the story for Brazilian TV, I realized that it was the human eyes that have filters to decide what is happy and what is not. From nature’s point of view, the earth moved, then the water came to the land, and the tsunami happened which took a lot of peoples’ lives. We call it ’disaster’ but for nature, it is just one of their activities. Probably this made me realize that examining and analyzing things are not what I am good at. No matter what happened, there is beauty and that is something I get inspired by.
You mention in your statement that the 2011 earthquake and tsunami reconnected you to photography. After witnessing tragedy of this scale, why did you decide it was the right time for you to return to photography?
I can’t really explain it. It was just so obvious for me to follow that feeling. I felt so right to do so. It didn’t seem there was any other way.
This time seems to be incredibly significant to you, and to your work. Four years on, do you still feel like you’re inspired by and interested in exploring these themes? How has your worked evolved since this event?
After the disaster and since I returned to making art, this theme has been my main subject. However I feel that I have produced certain works about this subject, so now, I am moving to my new project, which is close to what I used to do when I was living in the North America.
Your project Layers arose from your new perspective after the 2011 disaster, when you “started to see different layers in almost everything”. Can you give us some examples? How did you go about capturing the contrast and relationships between these layers?
First of all, I changed the title of the project to “And, where did the peacocks go?” after showing this project to many people and hearing their feedbacks.
Anyway, the layers I mentioned have various kind of facts and ambience. I mean, many people ask me “So, how is the situation in Fukushima?” but I can’t find one clear word to describe that. Tokyo was chosen as the host city for 2020 Olympic games, some evacuees have started to return home, and many farmers and fishermen have started to work again. On the other hand, others have started to move away – towards the west – to be further from the Fukushima plants. Seasons come and go, people fall in love, kids play. They are all part of what is going on in Japan and they overlap with each other without being unified.
It seems like the characteristics of wabi-sabi (emptiness, rustic elegance, imperfection, and the believe that objects gain value with use and age) are reflected very well in your work. Your technique hails back to the 1800s, and it would be easy to mistake your work for archival photographs from over a hundred years ago. Has wabi-sabi played a role in how and what you photograph? Has this aesthetic always been something you value?
I think I had that aesthetic from my childhood, without knowing it. When I started to study painting in SF, I found myself hating the hospital kind of bright white color of the canvas. Also ‘warm tone’ colored photo paper wasn’t warm enough for me. I didn’t know why I couldn’t stand that, but I guess it was from my background as a Japanese and it was the spirits of wabi-sabi. In my garden, there is a hydrangea tree and in June, they had very bright blue flowers. It was beautiful but didn’t attract me that much. Now that they are drying and their colors are fading, they attract my eyes a lot.
You mentioned to Julia that you feel disconnected from Japanese culture. Can you elaborate on this? Do you feel like your art and the techniques you use help you connect to Japanese art and culture?
In the US, I was in the strange position; I was Japanese but didn’t know enough about Japanese culture, surrounded by many non-Japanese people who admired Japanese culture so much. So I studied my own country and culture in foreign countries. I think I romanticized Japan, so that is why I had a big culture shock when I came back to Japan. Now, I am calmer about that and am on the process of enjoying seeing different kinds of Japanese art, including artisan’s works. I think I still have the ‘foreigner’s eyes’ about Japanese culture. I am starting to collaborate with Japanese traditional artisans to display my works and that is something I would like to continue.
Tell us about your process – do you plan your shoots? Or do you carry a camera with you everywhere you go? What is the most exciting part of the process for you?
I carry my camera almost everywhere. When I see something interesting, I take photos. It is like gathering materials. The fun parts are the printing process in my darkroom.
You’ve taken part in many exhibitions around the world – how do people generally react to your work? What do you hope that the viewer will take away with them?
Many people are not used to seeing small black and white photos like mine, so they ask me if they are ’found images’ that I got in antique shops or flea markets. Well, they are all taken by me with my camera and printed by me. However, I don’t expect viewers to receive any particular messages from my works, so I don’t mind those kinds of comments. Actually I am rather happy if they can interpret my works in their own ways and sometimes I get surprised and touched by what they read from my works. So I would like to make it as open as possible so that viewers have enough space to imagine.
Are you working on or about to start a new project? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am starting new projects, and this time I am using colors and different mediums. I also am starting my new project with time passage, which I am planning to make into a book soon. Right now, I am in an island of Norway for an artist residency program, and here I am inspired by their amazing nature surrounding us. Especially three things here attract me a lot; moss, sheep, and thistledown.
Be sure to check out Miho’s upcoming exhibitions:
28 September – 14 November at Twenty 14 Contemporary
1 – 6 October at Fabvulae Cra 5 No 69 -26. The exhibition will be a part of ARTBO. Hours: 11:00 – 19:00.
17 – 28 November, Renaissance Photography Prize 2015 Exhibition at Getty Images Gallery, 46 Eastcastle Street, London, W1W 8DX.
Reception and awards ceremony: 18 November, 18:30 – 22:00. Get your tickets for the Renaissance Photography Prize Exhibition here.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIA KAO.