“Treasures” is an exhibition that aims to be life affirming, particularly for those people considered outside the mainstream in terms of physical abilities. However, while issues of social integration are implicit in Harumichi Saito’s work, it’s not polemic. His images concentrate on personal experience and perceptions, and the appreciation of other people who might be considered “atypical” in one way or another. Saito himself is deaf, and photography has been a way for him to engage with music, for example, by utilizing a different sense, he is able to appreciate something that is not directly accessible to him. His images do not present a critical stance toward a society largely unconcerned with the marginalized, so much as invite viewers to share the experience of those living in such different realities.

The social context and aspirations of Saito’s work, which caught the attention of the art world when he received an Excellence Award in the 2010 Canon New Cosmos of Photography competition, are beyond reproach. And in the main gallery space, the complex mosaic-like installation of dozens of images, randomly framed and jumbled together, are impeccably placed in arrangements that confirm the artist’s well-refined sense of composition.

Individually, however, some of the images do not hold up too well. Even though Saito has stated that he often finds photography featuring the disabled either too serious or excessively cheerful, his own tendency toward capturing a “Kodak moment” makes it difficult to feel that Saito is bringing something visually innovative or profound to his subject matter. The inclusion of cute animal photos sometimes adds to this problem; although overall there are enough other, less sentimental, animal pictures to suggest a deeper pantheistic affinity with other creatures for their silent understanding of how to live in the world.

Taken whole, as installations, the work fares better, and there is a clear sense that Saito is not using photography as a platform for social activism, but rather as a medium with which to contemplate existence and consciousness, and that he is exploring photography as a tool of perception and communication. It is not surprising to find that Saito is partial to the work of Wolfgang Tillmans, and though he does not consider his photography strongly influenced by the 1990s king of photographic cool, he shares Tillmans’ interest in seeking out the extraordinary in the everyday. The main space at the Watari Museum of Art (Watari-um ) is also arranged in a similar way to Tillmans’ innovative placing of images above and below the eye-line in arrangements that look deceptively haphazard, but are carefully controlled.

In a smaller room of the museum is the series “My Name is Mine,” an exploration of life without sound. Music stands hold images of venetian blinds that mimic blank music scores. A concertina of free-standing sound-related images runs through the middle of the room. On the main wall are groupings of photos that include two different types of portraits of other deaf subjects in which they are hand signing or standing isolated in bustling crowds. Their family names are falteringly printed between these two depictions.

Another group of photos reveals a fairground steam organ above a sequence of images following a metallic dolphin-shaped balloon as it floats into the sky. The juxtaposition of the different mounting and framing formats effectively creates a photographic a cappella, with the viewer put in Saito’s position of having to imagine sounds, and give voice to those who otherwise might be unheard.

Saito’s show of 160 images, some repeated in a slide show of 200 images, takes up the entire museum, with a series on the top floor that, in comparison with the work on the two floors below, is organized in a more uniform “white cube” fashion. The prints are large, generally the same size, back-mounted in acrylic blocks and hung at eye-level. In terms of content, however, they are very much of the amateur snapshot variety; pictures taken on the fly of children smiling and playing, people’s silhouettes with camera flare from the setting sun and so on.

A key image that helps us understand Saito’s intent in re-purposing the kind of photos that populate family albums and shoeboxes all around the world is one of a black motorcycle fuel tank dotted with colored spots. It looks like a deep-field photo from the Hubble telescope — an incisive representation of the macrocosm in the mundane.

The dissonance between the fine-art gallery presentation, which encourages the viewer to consider each individual image carefully, and the intentionally prosaic nature of this exhibition’s photos is interesting. Saito wants to show us the little miracles we encounter in life everyday if we take the time to notice them; however, he is unfortunately relying on a kind of snapshot photography that has always been more about reinforcing social rituals and traditional family values than visual originality. In the end this tends to deaden, rather than heighten, our sensitivity to the possibilities of life.

“Treasure/Harumichi Saito: Photography” at Watari Museum of Art (Watari-um) runs till March 16; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.watarium.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.