English teacher in Japan portraits

I blogged about this back in April, but the exhibition has just opened at the correspondent’s club so here are some more photos and a short interview with the photographer Gary McLeod.

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.


Information about exhibiting at the FCCJ.

7 Responses to “English teacher in Japan portraits”

  1. Steven says:

    This is an interesting project with lots of potential. But to be honest I am not so impressed by these three examples. There is a lot of wasted space in the frame. A boring background and having the models pose the same way takes away from any personality the photographer might have discovered in interviews. Maybe I need to see more photos to get it… Some of the pasting seems sloppy as well (in particular look at the tie in the 5th image).

    A side note, Tony. I think you are doing a good job of promoting the photo exhibitions at the FCCJ. But when a non-member goes to see the exhibition, it is an odd experience to say the least. The photos are arranged around and behind members who are eating and drinking. And a non-member cannot even order a drink at the bar on such a hot day. I was fortunate to receive a free glass of water from a young, kind female bartender. But I did not feel so welcome to stay and actually view the exhibition. This is all fine for a FCCJ member audience, but you seem to be inviting the public as well.

  2. tony says:

    Hi Steven. I’m not going to comment on your first set of points other to say that I’m a fan of the photos. Perhaps Gary will comment on why he did the photos the way he did?

    As for the FCCJ, the club is a private member’s club, but also a venue for press conferences, events and exhibitions. It’s always treading the line between exclusivity and openness. The exhibitions are open to the general public but unfortunately non-members can’t order in the bars and restuarants. A good reason to join the club!

    The disadvantage of showing photos in the Main Bar and the Sushi Bar is, as you say, that people are eating and drinking there. The advantage is that many of the club’s 2000 members will see each exhibition multiple times. We also get many more people coming in for press conferences and as guests of members.

  3. Gary McLeod says:

    Hi Steven,

    Thank you for your comment about my works. I think I should probably stress that these photographs were not made with the intention of being aesthetic objects. They were intended as informative images and the method of placing them against a simple background is a nod to Victorian methods of using photography as a means of cataloging.

    With regards to the imperfections in the montage, they are actually intentional. Having trained under a digital commercial photographer, I am fully aware of the need for a perfect image but I believe that the age of digital manipulation has caught up with us and the cracks need to be shown. Like it or not, people suspect manipulation of an image using Photoshop. I am frequently asked how I achieve the “effect” in Photoshop and people are surprised when I tell them that each image is layered, albeit on a screen, by hand. I only use Photoshop as a digital piece of paper upon which I place other digital bits of paper that have images attached to them. I believe in transparency (particularly regarding the image and the technology used to make it) and a perfect image doesn’t offer much but suspicion.

    I should also note that I do not see myself as a photographer but rather an artist using the medium of photography and my agenda is therefore quite different. My work is grounded in Vilem Flusser’s call for a “philosophy of photography” and I see my responsibility as being to question the medium and the apparatus used to produce it.

    I hope that goes some way to relieving your concerns.

    Kindest regards


  4. William says:

    I don’t want to see an exhibition if everyone is eating and drinking around me without me being able to partake. I also don’t want to pay 300,000yen to join or 11,000yen per month for a guest membership for writers and journalists when I am not one, just to be able to order a coke at the bar. This is silly. Will the photos be shown in some other venue (more suitable for the general public) soon?

  5. Gary McLeod says:

    Hi William,

    The photographs will also be shown as part of an installation at Zuishoji Art Projects in September. Details of that exhibition can be found here: http://www.tokyoartbeat.com/event/2009/0299.en

    Although the images will be presented in a slightly different way, I hope that you will still find it of interest and hope to see you there.


  6. Steven says:

    Hi Gary,

    Thank you for your response. Some of my comments might have been a bit harsh so I did go to your web site (which is very nice by the way) to see more examples. Your project comes off much better as a whole rather than by the few images that have been offered as samples. The things that really stick out and seem interesting are the slightly different positions of the hands and facial expressions. Here we can see some personality. I also tend to like the background with the wooden strip. Victorian or not I like to see different textures used in the space within the frame. Are your exhibited pieces finished/smooth prints or are they the actual pieces pasted together? Again, seeing that kind of texture seems more appealing.

    It is interesting that you use the phrase cataloging. Yesterday I was reading Newsweek on-line and they had a piece about mug shots of the mid 19th century and how they were used to catalog possible criminals. Now such a catalog seems to have turned into art. The photos come from Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots by Mark Michaelson (editor) and Steven Kasher (editor), (New York: Steidl/ Steven Kasher Gallery, 2006). The Newsweek url is http://www.newsweek.com/id/209842

    One final question, if I may. You have explained how you see your work as art. How is it anthropology? Thanks.



  7. Gary McLeod says:

    Hi Steven,

    Thank you for sending me that link. I found the images very interesting. I like the use of the mirror which may well have been to reduce material costs.

    I share the same sentiments about the background with the wooden strip. Aesthetically, they are somehow more invigorating. Regarding the prints at the FCCJ, they are smooth prints but the paper itself bleeds nicely. Enough so that people have mentioned that the pictures share a quality with paintings.

    About your final question, it very much depends on someone’s view of art but many would agree that art always dips into various fields. These works do qualify as visual research which is why they come under anthropology. However, I am not one for pigeon-holing art as any one thing and I believe that it isn’t possible with art in the contemporary sense. In all honesty, the tension between art and social science is part of what makes these photographs interesting. Would you agree? Some might say that the body of work is slippery when trying to define it but then again, how would you describe an english teacher in Japan?



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