Toyokazu Nagano: Dad's pictures of the kids that others do want to see

by Mai Hasebe and Emily Balistrieri

Staff Writers

In 2008, Toyokazu Nagano, like proud parents do, started taking pictures of his daughters: eating breakfast, playing outdoors — slices of everyday life. However, for each candid and touching image he took, he was vexed by missing another perfect moment, so he decided to take some of the “moment-making” into his own hands.

He also joined Flickr, and soon his creatively composed photographs, from the all-natural to the elaborately staged, began to be passed around art and design blogs. His younger daughter’s prop-driven antics on a “magic” farm road are especially eye-catching, and most recently, his “Kiss Me Please Project” has been melting hearts around the Net.

Nagano, who doesn’t hesitate to take his self-portrait while sitting on a toilet and wearing a mask shaped like a camera, applied his unique sense of humor to our interview questions as well.

.An early candid shot of Nagano
An early candid shot of Nagano’s daughters, Kanna and Miu (right). | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

Did you originally take photos to document your children growing up, or did you mean to take them as works of art?

I started taking pictures in 2008 because I saw my friend taking some with a DSLR camera and just thought it was cool. Before that I hadn’t had any particular interest in photography. Then my friend gave me a used DSLR camera and I started taking pictures. It was right at the time my second daughter, Kanna, was born, so my two daughters made handy subjects and I photographed their daily lives.

Taking a step back and observing my children’s everyday lives through the finder, I found a lot of mini bits of “good news” you would usually ignore — really insignificant things — and the photos I took of those moments were unexpectedly popular with my family.

Having tasted success, no matter where we went or what we were doing, I would always be one step removed from my family with my camera at the ready — like a hunter aiming at his prey. This was the birth of our family’s official photographer, known as “Father.”

Later, in 2010, I got a Pentax 67 medium-format camera. It’s a camera where everything, including the focus and shutter speed has to be set manually. While aligning all these settings, I would miss perfect photo ops happening right before my eyes. … I was supposed to have just triumphantly set sail as the family’s official photographer, but I had already hit this ridiculously huge wall.

Then it occurred to me, “If I can’t nail the moment, I could just take their picture when they’re not moving!” This overly positive outlook changed my course as the official family photographer in a big way. Instead of pictures where I captured a wondrous moment or lovely daily-life scene, shots with creative elements that make you burst out laughing in spite of their triviality, became my, and our children’s, (family photo) standard.

Another thing that changed in a big way was my relationship with my daughters. They work so hard to take my intense acting direction. Now we have a parent-child bond stronger than blood. (Laughs)

Toyokazu Nagano's daughters Miu (right) and Kanna in 'Tandem' (2011) from the 'Magic Road' series'  Toyokazu Nagano
Toyokazu Nagano’s daughters Miu (right) and Kanna in “Tandem” (2011) from the “Magic Road” series (2013). | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

There are a lot of pictures that were taken near a field. Was there a reason for that?

The series in front of a field is called “Magic Road.” It’s a collection of portraits I’m taking, even now, of my second daughter. Its theme is: “What’s the simplest way to make people laugh?”

I didn’t want the background to have too much meaning, so I take them on a totally nondescript farm road that runs in front of our house.

I received a message from a foreigner who had seen the portraits, saying, “This farm road is no mere farm road. It’s a road with the power to make people smile, to make them happy. It must be a magic road!” and I’ve called the series “Magic Road” ever since. It marks the start of me taking pictures with creative (artistic, jokey) elements added in.

.“Firefighter” (2012) | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

Do you take overseas fans into account when choosing what jokes to incorporate into your photos?

Broadly speaking, my only criterion is whether it’s funny or not.

I believe laughter has a depth and universality that transcends generations. And laughter has the effect of livening things up instantaneously. It also has the power to make people happy. Laughter is a communicative shortcut, and I think it applies to communication between family members as well.

“If you can make ’em laugh, everything’s OK!” is also one of my theories on “familyhood,” as a father. Actually, the emotional bonds, solidarity and unity of a family (and surely of lovers, and the fellowship of friends, co-workers, etc. as well) come from watching, listening to and reading the same things and laughing together. I think those connections must be born of simple things like that.

So, I don’t want to get just my family to laugh, but the other people who see the photos I upload, too. I want others to savor, as I do myself, the wonderfulness of the instantaneous connection and solidarity of laughing together.

.Kanna again in
Kanna again in “Kiss Me Please Project #3” (2013). | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

How did you come up with the idea for the “Kiss Me Please” series?

There’s a verse in a certain Japanese singer’s song that says, “A kiss and everything is fixed, I think? Just about everything.” The biggest impetus was me sympathizing with those lyrics.

Globally speaking, there are many conflicts and feuds between countries and ethnic groups. Closer to home, there are lovers’ quarrels, a married couple’s arguments, scuffles between siblings. If we have time to fight and wrangle like this, we should just kiss (instead)! If we did that, wouldn’t all our complicated troubles end up being less important than we thought? Wouldn’t everything simply solve itself? That’s the concept that got me started on the “Kiss Me Please Project” and taking pictures of my daughter (Kanna) kissing various things.

“20121007” (2013), which was chosen for this year’s Kyoto Photo Awards. | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

What was the occasion for making the room in “20121007”? Did you have your children pose?

It’s a photo version of a picture diary. Over summer vacation in elementary school one homework project assigned without fail was a picture diary. We’d cram a bunch of fun things that happened in a day into one drawing, right? Sometimes we’d make them super dramatic.

The title “20121007” means Oct. 7, 2012. That was the first day we went camping as a family. I took all the fun things that happened on that first camping trip — cooking meals together, gazing at the stars, pitching our tent, sleeping inside it in sleeping bags — and crammed them with all my might into a reproduction in the kids’ room, which I then captured with my camera.

Right now there’s only “20131007” and “20120729” (a reproduction of a fun day at the beach), but, I’m thinking I’d like to take pictures of memories for the other 10 months — for example, cherry blossoms in April, playing in the snow in December — and create a unique calendar just for our family.

Do you have any advice for parents who want to take creative pictures of their kids?

Sometimes I get emails that say, “How can I take pictures like you, Mr. Nagano?” or “My kids won’t smile for me.” I always reply, “Don’t force them.” Even adults can’t smile that great if someone says, “Smile for the camera!” All the more so for kids. On days I can’t get the expression I have in mind, I give up on the spot — there’s no forcing it — and try again another day. (Although sometimes I can finagle it out of them with some candy. [Laughs]) Otherwise, working with kids from the preparation stages, so that both the kids and I enjoy taking the photos is about it, I guess.

“Will You Marry Me?” (2011) | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

What’s the most memorable photo you’ve taken so far?

Each photo has its own place in my heart, and they’re all treasures to me. I can’t help but look forward to seeing how the kids will react when they get bigger and, as adults, see the pictures. I mean, just imagine: A wedding reception full of these photos, all our friends and relatives bursting out laughing at them, the nervous laughter of the groom, the embarrassed smile of the bride.

I mentioned this earlier, but I believe laughter has the power to instantly make people happy. For the bride, it’ll be a happy day either way, but filled with laughter it will be even happier. For the father of the bride, it would be a lonesome day, but if it’s full of laughter it won’t be lonesome at all.

Yes, these pictures might seem unconnected at a glance, but they’re all part of my mission as a father with two daughters! I get all fired up about this on my own, but it’s grand preparation for the mega project that is the true motive of this super-dad: to choreograph their big day (wedding)! The fact that I gave taking photos maximum priority over playing with them when they said, “Play with us!” will be OK along with everything else if I can make them laugh in the end.

“future!” (2012)  | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

When you look at your children, what kind of adults do you think they’ll become?

Lately my eldest daughter has been copying me when I’m drawing and taking pictures with my old camera, so it might be the case that she has a creative streak.

My second daughter, perhaps because she’s got used to having her picture taken, or because she gets a thrill from it, has been saying, “I want to be an idol!” (laughs) If she becomes an idol, I’ll work hard not as her father, but as her official photographer (Laughs).

As their dad, I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of adults they’ll become. That’s why I want to make sure I capture the two of them, in picture form, as they are now.

.The man behind the camera: A self-portrait.
The man behind the camera: a self-portrait. | © TOYOKAZU NAGANO

In your self-portrait collection “Road to my dream” you say you want to be the photographer for the idol group Girls Generation. Is there any other kind of photography you’d like to do?

On (school) field trips, or for graduation albums, classes each have a group photo taken, right? But (in those) everyone stands in rows looking at the lens with a serious face. If they’re going to go to all that trouble, I want to add a creative element to such group photos — make them ones they’ll remember their whole lives. I guess I want to be a “commemorative group photographer.”

See more photos on The Japan Times website. Nagano’s Flickr photostream:

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