Uma Kinoshita: A Japanese Eye



Uma Kinoshita was born in Kobe but lives and works in Tokyo. After obtaining a Degree in Psychology and Linguistics, studying both in Japan and Germany, she began to work as freelance writer and translator. She approached photography in 2004, after overcoming a personal crisis. She was so fascinated by this means of expression that she began her own journey in the world of photography. Those first shots formed the series “Nora” (2006), followed by “Cinema Japon” (2007), and “Ordinary and Beautiful” (2008-2009). In 2006 she was awarded a Honorable Mention at the 26th Annual Photography  Contest, Photographers’ Journal and Cannon (US); in 2008, she won the Artist Showcase Award, Artful Nude (juried by Kim Weston); the Center for Fine Art Photography (USA); in 2009 she received an Honorable Mention for The International Photography Awards in the category Fine Art Nude Professional (US); and in 2012 she won the Juror Award of Merit, Grand Prix de la Découverte: International Fine Art Photography Award in the category People & Portraits. She has been holding exhibitions in Japan, United States, France, and Italy since 2007, among which we’d like to mention the 2012 personal exhibition “Cinema Japon” during the FEPN – Festival Européen de la Photo de Nu – Arles et les Baux de Provence, Arles (France); the 2013 exhibition at the Fusai-ji Gallery, Murakami, Niigata (Japan); the 2014 collective exhibition with Michele Mattiello, “Conseguenze Vajont- Fukushima”, Villa Breda, Padua (Italy) and Atelier Kirigiris, Fujisawa, Kanagawa (Japan); and the Personal Exhibition “Lost”. Some of Uma Kinoshita’s pictures are part of the Fukushima Museum’s permanent collection.


In August, thanks to a common friend, I had the chance to get in touch with Uma Kinoshita. After a certain number of e-mails and an immediate reciprocal sympathy, she is giving me this interview.


B: Nora is the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, a work that is highly critical of the Victorian society that sees the roles of man and woman well separated. At some point, the protagonist realizes that she has always lived like a “lark” and decides to leave everything behind to “(…) reflect with my brains and clearly realize all things”.  I guess that the choice of this character has not been casual, but it was dictated by a sort of empathic closeness. Do you believe that in a society like the Japanese one it is still difficult to succeed as woman/artist, or now your society is more open?

U: The Japanese society has been changing very rapidly in the past 50 years.  For example, when I was a child, most women, including my mother, stayed at home and took care of children. Roles were clearly divided between men and women. Today, it is natural that women continue to work throughout their lives and pursue their own careers. The social system has also improved in supporting women. As for the domestic life aspect, especially among young people, men and women do house chores together, although I can’t say that they are equally distributed. As for me, I am in between these generations. In my late 20s and early 30s, as I was surrounded by particularly conservative people, I felt trapped, like in a cage, knowing that there would be a world outside, which would be full of excitement (as I expected) and dangers (as people around me warned).  As an artist, as far as these 10 years after I started to take photographs are concerned, I feel no particular difficulties. In Japan, today, there are so many young girl photographers and they are very active!


B: Your two works that followed, “Cinema Japon” (2007) and “Ordinary and Beautiful” (2008-2009), see at the center of your narration by images the frailty, the emotions that arise from “true love”, and the strength with which they reveal themselves; the transience of time that changes the beauty of the body, and at the same time makes it more and more precious as symbol of life. How do you succeed in expressing all this through the simple instant of the camera click?


U: I am very happy if you feel that I have succeeded in expressing just what I meant!  When I was engaged in these projects, I always tried to spend a lot of time with the models.  Sometimes it happened that they came to the studio, but we talked and talked, and I did not take a picture at all.  We talked about our lives, memories, problems, love, body, and so on.  We understood each other well and when I took photographs, they knew what I would like to do and what I would like them to do.  We were both relaxed and happy.  And most people came for shooting many times. I showed pictures from the last sessions and talked again. It was also interesting, and I was pleased to hear them say that they rediscovered themselves by these experiences.  I believe that this kind of intimate interaction added an incredible depth to my photography. If I can add one more thing, it was also nice that I started to take photographs relatively late, at the age of 40, if I say exactly, after experiencing a lot of things in my life.  As you say, photography is completed just through the simple instant of the camera click, but I believe that a lot of things are concentrated in the moment.


B: March 11, 2011 has been the day that scarred Japan and the public opinion worldwide. I’m talking about the Fukushima catastrophe and its consequences. I will make you a question that might sound disturbing from a certain point of view; so I would understand if you don’t want to answer it. According to the Japanese culture, can we consider this disaster a defeat of modernity? And how Nature is uncontrollable and unpredictable even to the man, who tries with all his strength to subjugate it?


U: Your question is not disturbing at all!  This is really what I am concerned about and I would like to answer honestly.  As you know, Japan is hit by natural disasters so often. But as far as natural disasters are concerned, apart from my condolences for the victims, disasters may be inevitable. People can even learn from hard experiences. I know that directly, because my hometown, Kobe, was severely hit by an earthquake 19 years ago. But this time, the biggest problem is that a nuclear power plant accident is involved.  There are still a lot of serious problems, but the current government is always trying to make things seem small.  They say that everything is under control, but it is not true. The mainstream media such as TV and newspapers are also under the influence of the government and so-called “nuclear power village,” which means a close-knit community of law makers, rulers and manufacturers involved in the promotion of nuclear power. The scientists who appear on TV also speak in favor of the government. It is no wonder that ordinary people believe these words. In addition, Japanese people are not critical in general and want to keep everything calm. It is not always bad to be calm, but when it works negatively, it turns out that they won’t see bad things. When I was in Germany, it was about 10 years after Chernobyl, I remember well that people still talked about a lot about the disaster. I feel very sorry that the Japanese do not have such an attitude for this matter. Thanks to the Internet, however, there are other sources which tell us the truth and there are also a lot of people who are really concerned and act accordingly. I want to believe that this move is not negligible and will turn into a big power.


B: For your photographic project, which unfolds from 2011 to 2014 (“Lost in Fukushima” 2012, “Prayer in Stricken Land” 2013, and “In Silence and Sorrow” 2014), you decided to shoot in two specific areas of Fukushima: Minami-Souma, a small sea resort destroyed by the tsunami, the earthquake and the nuclear explosion; and in Katsurao, a mountain village, seriously contaminated by radiations. What led you to track back, step by step, those two tragedies?


U: The most difficult thing in taking pictures of Fukushima is that the situations are very complex and differ widely from area to area. When I visited Fukushima for the first time after the disaster, I was totally at a loss where to start.  I was just overwhelmed by the sight before my eyes.  At first, damages caused by the tsunami and earthquakes were more obvious.  I was so shocked and it took me a long time until I could take the first picture. Since then, I have been taking pictures of the seaside towns including Minami-Souma. I often focus on Minami-Souma, for it has particularly complex situations. The town is intricately divided; in some places, everything was flooded away by the tsunami, in some places, there was no damage at all by the tsunami, but people were forced to evacuate because of the radiations, and in some places, people live just as before. It is still the same today, although the debris has mostly been removed and the land surface has been flattened. On the other hand, the situations in the mountainous areas are totally different. I have been taking pictures not only in Katsurao, but also in other villages such as Iitate and Namie. I cannot forget the time when I went to one of the villages for the first time after people evacuated. I was really scared. I heard just the sound of the winds. Unlike the seaside areas, everything had remained as it was. Literally, people just disappeared. Hit by a different kind of shock, I started to take pictures in these mountain villages, too. These villages are still empty. Without people living there, everything has steadily gone to ruin. Both in seaside areas and mountain areas, the so-called decontamination work has started, but it has just temporary effects. But, the government says that they can return within several years. Old people want to return and wait in small temporary houses, while a lot of young people have decided to move far from their hometown and start a new life. They are of course concerned about the influences of the radiation on the health of their children. In Fukushima, family ties are, or were, really strong and it was natural that three generations lived together. Such relationships have also been destroyed.


B: Yours are not pictures that document an event that happened, but they are the testimony of what happened. Yours are strong, direct pictures, with no filters. They are as they are. They express all their desolation and such a strong feeling of emptiness filled only with silence, and watching them makes you feel totally defenseless. How did you manage to dive in and become one with all this?


U: I am pleased if my pictures make you feel totally defenseless, because it is just how I always feel there. Standing alone in an empty zone, I really feel the fragility or weakness of human existence. I cannot stop myself from feeling eschatological overtones as a result of human arrogance in trying to control the nature by blindly believing in their technologies. I think that Fukushima is one of the biggest turning points in history. Otherwise, this may prove to be just the beginning of a hopeless end. I have a certain kind of irritation and imminent fear. This feeling forces me to continue to take pictures of Fukushima.


B: Do you reckon that projects like yours can raise the awareness of the media and of the involved strong powers to rebuild Fukushima from its ashes and return it to life in the future? Or in time people will forget everything and leave it to a state of total neglect?


U: There are so many volunteers including artists working very actively to help rebuild Fukushima. I am sure that their activities have been encouraging local people. At the same time, however, I feel that a kind of separation has emerged between Fukushima and the other areas. As you say, as a matter of fact, people have started to forget Fukushima. So, I have done several exhibitions in Japan and I am pleased to see that they functioned as a reminder. Having said that, however, what I would like to say is not just “Remember Fukushima.” I would also like to say that it is not a matter of Fukushima alone, but a matter of all the people. We have to think seriously about such big themes as “the nature and human beings,” or better, “human beings in the nature.” But it is difficult to express it just with photographs. I am thinking what kind of role photography can play. I am always struggling.


B: You are the first Japanese photographer to show pictures of Fukushima in Italy. The choice of Italy and the exhibition “Conseguenze. Vajont e Fukushima” at Villa Breda (Padua) and then in Spilimbergo are the result of you meeting Michele Mattiello in 2012, during the Arles photo show. Which similarities did you find in those two events so different and yet so close to each other?


U: First, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude again to Michele Mattiello, the people of Villa Breda, Director Walter Liva and the other staff of CRAF and all those people concerned for giving me such a great opportunity! I attended both exhibitions and had a chance to talk a lot about my photos and Fukushima. When the exhibition was held in Villa Breda, a lot of local people came to see it and enjoyed it together with the villa’s beautiful building and garden.  When it was held in Spilimbergo, as it was a part of Spilimbergo Fotografia held by CRAF, many people of the photographic circle came to see our photos. So there is a difference in the types of the visitors, but all people are still interested in and seriously concerned about Fukushima. I was very moved by the deep compassion of the Italian people!


B: Are you currently working on some new project?


U: I am not good at pursuing several projects together at the same time. So, I will continue my Fukushima project for some more time. But I have one more plan (or dream), that is, during my two trips to Italy this year, I took good pictures, so I hope to visit Italy again and again and make a series about Italy!


B: Domo arigato gozaimasu.


U: Grazie mille!


B.O. © Floz Visions 2014