Gary has been making portraits of English teachers in Japan. Each image consists of about 300 individual photos taken with a Nikon D70 and 1872 UK-made lens.
As I think you can tell from the photos, Gary’s technique is pretty laborious, but it really relaxes the subjects and brings out their personalities.
What inspired you to do this project?
The inspiration came from a couple of places. One was HMS Challenger’s documentary portraits of native races taken between 1872 and 1876. The other was my own experience of working as a teacher in Japan and the role of foreigners here. I was also looking to draw parallels between the role of English teachers in Japan and the role of the artist.
You are teacher too. Did that affect your approach?
Before I started teaching, I wouldn’t say I was an overly conversational person, but my experience teaching helped that. It enabled me to conduct interviews with each subject confidently. As it turned out, I could relate a lot to many of their thoughts and views.
Fitting an antique lens to a modern camera sounds like a challenge?
It really wasn’t as much of a challenge as it sounds. I knew that I needed to get distance between the lens and an SLR in order to focus the lens, so bellows and a rail were always going to be necessary. I walked into a camera store in Nippombashi (Osaka) with the lens in one hand and the D70 in the other, and walked out again 30 minutes later with the assembled camera!
I understand that the title Privilege as been quite controversial. Do you think it is a privilege to teach in Japan?
I think it is easy to forget how much of a privilege it really is. I recently came back into contact with people I met at school and they seemed to equate me being in Japan to stardom and success. Given that my first job in Japan was relatively easy to get (though I wasn’t aware of this at the time), that makes it something of an opportunity which I took advantage of although it felt like I had earned it at the time.
The word “privilege” does have connotations of having something undeservedly but I think it depends on what you do with your time here. There are those that come here to earn money, travel and just have fun before they go back and start their careers in their own country. For others, there is no limit to it, and their time here becomes a personal voyage of creating something, making something.
You have written that digital photography is somehow inherently Japanese.
That was part of a paper I wrote on how digital photography could be interpreted as being inherently Japanese. I took the view that appropriation of foreign technology and ideas in Japan was something that had remained consistent throughout the last millennium, from matchlock rifles to video CCDs. Referring to Vilem Flusser’s writings on the electromagnetic photograph and Paul Virilio’s writings on the speed within technology, I looked at the problem of using a technology that had no base, that was essentially floating.
The western view of photography is one that tries to fix things and make things permanent (sculptures in marble being another example). I looked at how an understanding of Japanese aesthetics, such as the appreciation for short-lived cherry blossom, could be helpful to a western view that is still obsessed with possessing and fixing things.
Criticism of the paper was that I was placing a western view in a polar relationship with a Japanese one, and also how could something being borrowed by the Japanese make it Japanese. Some argued that therefore their TV was inherently Spanish because it was assembled there.
I still feel however that Japanese aesthetics has something to offer to appreciation of and respect for digital photography. Virilio’s and Flusser’s writings are a warning of the need to slow down and get perspective on digital media and I think that Japanese aesthetics could help that, despite the companies themselves constantly pushing it forward.