Photographer and artist Takashi Homma has long held an interest in the relationship between humans and the natural world. Over his career, he has mined this rich seam multiple times, but his latest release, “Trails,” is his deepest exploration of this theme to date.
Homma has visited Shiretoko National Park in northeastern Hokkaido every winter for about 10 years. “(Back then) I read an article about the increase of wild deer. They looked very cute, but they were growing in number and they eat local agriculture,” says Homma from the office he uses in Ebisu. The local government’s solution was to encourage hunters to cull the animals.
A little over a decade later, Mack Books published “Trails,” which features photos Homma took in Shiretoko in the middle of the government-approved cullings. The shots feature few deer, living or dead, and instead mostly capture streaks of blood in the snow. Each photograph is a picture of vivid contrast, resembling paint spilled onto a blank canvas.
A topic like deer culling will always have the potential to rile people up, and could easily follow in the steps of something like 2009’s “The Cove,” a documentary film focused on dolphin hunts in the town of Taiji (a production Homma says he was well aware of when starting the project). It’s also an interesting piece to emerge in 2019, when works of art and pop culture are frequently viewed in simplistic, black and white terms. Homma, though, says he has long tried to avoid choosing sides.
“It was my intention to make something that is vague about what I want to say,” he says.
Homma’s work has long touched on the idea of nature meeting with people, such as in parts of his 1998 collection “Tokyo Suburbia.” Yet the spark for “Trails” came in the mid-2000s. “I did a project called ‘Together’ with (American visual artist) Mike Mills, which explored the issue of the relationship between wild animal life and humans, set just outside of Los Angeles.” The series focused on passages that animals used to cross under man-made creations such as freeways.
“After that, I was thinking, ‘Oh I’d like to do something on this issue in Japan,'” Homma says. Then came the article that inspired him to head up to Shiretoko.
According to statistics reported in Hokkaido magazine Kai, sika deer cause around ¥5 billion in damage to the region’s agriculture and forestry industries as well as over 1,600 traffic accidents annually. The population has been growing, and an article in The Japan Times from 2009 points to the elimination of Japanese wolves as being one of the reasons for this increase. As a result, the government encouraged annual culls from November to March in specific areas around the park.
“(They don’t hunt in) the national heritage part of the park, but just outside of it. There are really strict rules saying where you can hunt,” Homma says. By focusing his efforts in this area, he had no problem photographing the culls. The real challenge came when he wanted to connect with the hunters themselves.
“The first time, they just ignored me or asked, ‘What do you want to do? We don’t like newspapers.’ Then I said, ‘No no, I’m not a journalist, I’m an artist.’ Then they said ‘Ah, an artist. OK!,'” says Homma, who eventually developed trust with the hunters, even joining them on hunts lasting from early morning to the evening.
“When I showed them the work, they had no idea what I was doing exactly,” he says. “They would say, ‘There are no deer in these pictures.'”
A topic that came up repeatedly in our interview was that of balancing journalistic ethics with artistic vision. It is an issue Homma says he has wrangled with over his career (to the point where he has a term for what he does, “alternative documentary”), and with “Trails” he initially set out to do something closer to what a photojournalist might. “But it ended up becoming more of an art project.”
As is often the case with Homma’s projects, he released an initial, brochure-sized version of his photos for “Trails” in 2009. He also displayed early photos from the project in museums and galleries. “When I first showed this project in the museum, I didn’t say it was deer blood. People could think about what it was. So lots of people thought that I put some paint there,” he says.
“At this time, my intention was to get people thinking if this is true or not, that something like this could happen.” He has returned to Shiretoko each year since to continue his project, and even made a limited-run documentary focused on hunting that played in a few select theaters and museums.
Despite being so closely involved in the hunts in Shiretoko, Homma doesn’t reveal much about his own personal feelings about the culls. He says hunting deer in the area has become more difficult in recent years, as the payout for hunters isn’t much, while the cost of bullets and guns is high.
“The local hunters … their kids would never want to do this. They’d rather play games or stuff. They aren’t into it,” he says. “The hunting isn’t just about hunting — there is the phase where you search for the deer, and then the actual hunting, but you also have the disembodiment of the deer.”
Homma says his relationship with the hunters is the trickiest part of the project. Getting comfortable with them was important, but he is also worried about getting too close to them. “Recently, when I don’t message them, they actually call me to say they are going to do deer hunting soon.”
For the 2019 book, he contacted the hunters, wanting them to shoot real bullets into photos he took for the release. “When I asked them to do that at first, they declined. But when I told them I’d ask someone from Tokyo to do it, they changed their minds,” he says with a laugh. “I kinda learned how to deal with them. Maybe one phase has finished with this book, but I want to find reasons to visit them again.”