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In April 2018, the legendary Kodoji Photographers’ Bar in Tokyo’s Golden Gai—a maze of dimly lit alleys, ramshackle buildings, tiny bars and restaurants in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district—hosted an exhibition by Sydney-based photographer Meg Hewitt. Kodoji has been a hub for both emerging and acclaimed Japanese photographers like Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki since the 1960s, and rarely shows the work of non-Japanese. But Hewitt’s body of work Tokyo is Yours struck a chord, described by Moriyama himself as ‘dangerous’.1
Tokyo is Yours (2015–17) marks Hewitt’s response to a prevailing sense of disquiet that emerged in Japan in the wake of the ‘triple disaster’ that hit northern Honshu in March 2011. As a result of the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, almost 20,000 people lost their lives, 138,000 buildings were destroyed and economic losses were estimated between 22 trillion and 70 trillion yen ($626 billion). The disaster led to a process of deep reflection and uncertainty in Japan, which Hewitt sought to represent in her photographs. The title of her series comes from a graffiti tag that has appeared throughout Tokyo in recent years declaring in English ‘Tokyo is Yours’. Reflecting the openness of Hewitt’s work, this phrase has at least two possible interpretations—part gift to Tokyo’s inhabitants and part confident reclamation of the city after the disaster.
Hewitt took her photographs during seven short-term trips to Japan between 2015 and 2017. Spending up to twelve hours a day walking through Tokyo, she pictured small details that captured her attention and the people that she met. Being unable to speak or read Japanese, or understand the conversations of passers-by, ultimately gave Hewitt a sense of freedom and creativity in the city. ‘I suppose being in a country like Japan—where I don’t understand most of the language—leads me to question things on a more basic level’, she observed. ‘Humanity plays out in front of me, and I seek meaning separate from words. I like to pick up the manga at the corner store and flick through, interpreting the story from the pictures alone.’2 The people and scenes that she encountered were likewise interpreted as symbols, archetypes, metaphors and potential stories.3 Hewitt comments: ‘When making the work, I looked for fantasy, the absurd and metaphor in reality. Through the photographs, I explore the layers between things, as well as memories, human connection, fear and escapism.’4
From the thousands of black and white photographs that Hewitt took during her walks, she selected eighty-six for publication in her photobook Tokyo is Yours (2017). Her appreciation for the absurd is evident in several photographs in the book. One image focuses on a little girl looking up towards a scuba diver who cleans an exterior window of the aging Katsuura Undersea Observatory, while another shows a flock of worn concrete cranes standing at the end of a Kyoto street near an abandoned house. The zoo is a location for other photographs. An image of a pair of pigtailed schoolgirls looking down on a big-cat display, uses dramatic perspective to create a sense of theatricality; the shadowy twin forms of the schoolgirls strangely seem more menacing than the prowling tiger. Many of the photographs are tightly framed so their original context is not apparent, allowing them to generate new meaning in relation to the other images. By often taking photographs at night with a flash, Hewitt also uses light to isolate her subjects and absorb extraneous details into the black background. Shooting in film allows her to further accentuate the contrast in the development process to produce an evocative, gritty, noir aesthetic.
As in William Klein’s classic photobook Tokyo (1964), the overall feeling is as important as the individual images in Tokyo is Yours. Paths, ladders, stairs and walkways leading to destinations unknown, a mass of electricity pylons and eerie suburban streets at night are interspersed with tranquil landscapes and images of young love. Sequenced and layered in the pages of the book—to be read with the spine on the left by English-speaking audiences or from the opposite direction by Japanese audiences—these photographs together build a sense of spatial and psychological compression and an underlying desire for escape.
The 2011 nuclear meltdown made Tokyo’s vulnerability starkly apparent. Reflecting that Japan had come within a ‘paper-thin margin’ of a nuclear disaster, the former Prime Minister Naoto Kan remarked: ‘From a very early stage I had a very high concern for Tokyo. I was forming ideas for a Tokyo evacuation plan in my head’.5 Hewitt’s book alludes to this narrowly averted catastrophe, and the impossibility of escape. A photograph of a building where a maze of cracks has been crudely patched acknowledges this danger quite directly. Acting as a metaphor rather than a reflection of reality, such a shoddy and highly visible building repair is rarely seen in Tokyo. By pairing this photograph with one of a bar owner squeezing through the impossibly small doorway of her establishment, Hewitt emphasises the psychological dimension of the desire for escape. Shot from behind, only the woman’s back, shoulder and half of one leg and arm are visible, as though she is disappearing into another world. As well as heightening narrative intensity, the close physical proximity between Hewitt’s lens and her subjects fosters visual intimacy. At times Hewitt’s connection with her subjects is clearly evident, as in the photograph of the man who held up each of his eight cats to Hewitt’s camera, one after the other. But it is also apparent in the care that Hewitt takes when working. This emphasis upon personal connection may be informed by Hewitt’s admiration for the work of Masahisa Fukase, known for his deeply personal photographs of love and loss.6Whereas this Japanese photographer’s focus was on his wife and family, Hewitt’s abiding relationship is with Tokyo, its inhabitants and its post-2011 tensions.
When exhibiting these photographs, Hewitt prints them at often dramatically different scales and installs them in a way that hints at other open-ended narratives—grouping, overlaying or displacing photographs to imply the interaction of different characters, objects, scenarios and places, and suggest different atmospheres or feelings.7 At Kodoji, a frieze of smaller photographs was assembled above the bar, while an enormous photograph of an owl in a minimal concrete enclosure fills a side wall. These exhibition and publication strategies have resonated with international audiences within and beyond Japan. Hewitt exhibited Tokyo is Yours as part of the fringe Voies Off programme run in parallel to Les Rencontres d’Arles in France (2017), in Sydney (2017), Canberra (2016) and in regional Victoria at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale Fringe (2017), and her work has been covered in the British Journal of Photography.8 As well as being exhibited at Kodoji, some photographs were shown in the group exhibition Punctum in 2016 at Place M photography gallery in Tokyo, and the book won gold at the 2017 Tokyo International Foto Awards.
The openness of Hewitt’s work is no doubt critical to the interest that it has generated. To be meaningful cross-culturally, photographs need to transcend simplistic binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Such a dualistic logic has long pervaded the history of foreign photographs of beguiling and ‘exotic’ Japan. However, Hewitt steadfastly avoids these well-worn clichés, and focuses instead on the people and places in front of her, and the emotions and desires that connect the photographer, her subjects and their audiences.
Meg Hewitt, Tokyo is Yours. Installation view. Flinders Street Gallery, Surry Hills, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.
Meg Hewitt, Two schoolgirls with a tiger, Tokyo 2015. Image courtesy the artist.
1. Meg Hewitt, interview with Melissa Miles, 24 January 2018. Thanks to Robin Gerster for his suggestions and thoughtful contributions to an earlier draft of this text.
2. Meg Hewitt, ‘Tokyo Is Yours: Seeking Sense Through Street Photography’, Lens Culture, 2017, https://www.lensculture.com/articles/meg-hewitt-tokyo-is-yours-seeking-sense-through-street-photography (accessed 25 January, 2018).
3. Meg Hewitt, interview with Melissa Miles, op. cit.; Meg Hewitt, ‘Tokyo Is Yours: Seeking Sense Through Street Photography’, ibid.
4. Meg Hewitt, ‘Tokyo is Yours’, Lens Culture, 2016. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/meg-hewitt-tokyo-is-yours (accessed 25 January, 2018).
5. Andrew Gilligan, ‘Fukushima: Tokyo Was on the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, Admits Former Prime Minister’, The Telegraph, 4 March 2016.
6. Meg Hewitt, interview with Melissa Miles, op. cit.
8. Susanna D’Aliesio, ‘Arles 2017: Tokyo Is Yours by Meg Hewitt’, British Journal of Photography, 6 July 2017). http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/07/photobook-tokyo-is-yours-by-meg-hewitt/#closeContactFormCust00 (accessed 2 February 2018)
Research for this article was funded by the Australian Research Council (DP140100039) for a project in partnership with Robin Gerster. Their book Pacific Exposures: Photography and the Australia-Japan Relationship is forthcoming.