In a time of crisis, organizers of the eighth annual Kyotographie International Photography Festival say art can serve as a way to bring people together.
For nearly a decade, Kyotographie has featured the works of photographers both local and international, from critically-acclaimed artists to emerging young talent, in historic heritage sites and venues scattered across Japan’s ancient capital. Unlike previous editions of the event, however, this year’s festival, which is currently underway until Oct. 18, is being held in spaces such as private businesses and public locations due to the original locations becoming unavailable after organizers postponed the festival from April to September. The result is an art event fully reliant on and supported by the local community.
Another major change to the event is that Kyotographie now has its first-ever permanent space at Delta, a cafe, gallery and hotel, located just a few blocks away under the Demachi Masugata shopping arcade.
“Vision,” the theme of this year’s exhibition, is a rebuttal to the relentless, inescapable cycle of social, political and environmental turmoil in today’s world, according to co-founders and co-directors Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi.
“With what’s happening around us — the politics, climate change, all the issues in the world — we wanted to invite our audience to create a more long-term vision together,” says Reyboz.
“We chose this theme before the crisis,” Nakanishi adds. “But because of COVID-19, it took on a whole new meaning.”
From the self-portraits of Mari Katayama’s “home again” and the somber yet heartwarming photographs by Atsushi Fukushima in “Bento is Ready,” to the introspective visual commentary by Omar Victor Diop and the pioneering work of Marie Liesse to create “tactile photos” for the blind and visually impaired, this year’s Kyotographie explores ideas that reflect change in an unpredictable world.
Displayed outside on panels near the Kamogawa Delta is a series of photographs by Fusayoshi Kai, who has spent four decades chronicling life along the Kamo River — the cultural backbone of the city. He documented strolling elders, freewheeling youths, lovers lying in the grass, children splashing in the water and even a stray cat fed by locals.
Kai was once the proud owner of a bar and cafe, but a fire in 2015 burned down the latter, destroying more than 80 percent of his film negatives — including several cameras — along with it. What survived serves as a priceless record of Kyoto’s history.
Now things have changed, Kai says.
“Everything is too pretty,” he says with a laugh. “There are benches lining the pathways, no homeless people sleeping under the bridges, no stray cats looking for food — it should’ve stayed the way it was, in its natural form.”
During our conversation, Kai becomes distracted by passersby looking at his photographs, many of whom are groups of elderly locals who point at places and people they recognize. Kai excuses himself to introduce himself and chat.
“He’s always like this,” his curator, Sachiko Hamada, says during one interlude.
In fact, Hamada continues, during his career as a photographer, Kai has never bought a camera himself — all of them have been gifted by friends, family and girlfriends.
Hamada grins and points at the battered but evidently functional Nikon DSLR in the hands of Kai, who is now taking a group photo in front of the display.
“That one used to be mine,” she says.
On the other side of the city, inside the former site of Junpu Elementary School, is “KG+” — a satellite event created in 2013 to highlight new talent from Japan and abroad.
Among the 10 works chosen this year are “Gaze” by Chan Kai Chun, a collection of monochrome portraits of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists; “Touchable Future” by Toshie Kusamoto, a series of playful photographs that follow the life of a young boy in Miyagi Prefecture as the region recovers from the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011; and “The Beautiful Kakashi World” by Chika Usui, a collection of intriguing miniature scenes created after Usui happened upon a dwindling rural Japanese village occupied by scarecrows.
On display at Kenninji temple — said to be the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto — is “Leading Light” by Ryosuke Toyama, a collection of photographs that chronicle the maturation of young Japanese artisans.
In 2008, a then 28-year-old Toyama traveled around the country and photographed 20 craftspeople, only to realize that their conversations only skimmed the surface of what it meant to inherit generations of skills and knowledge to create traditional art.
This left Toyama wanting, so he asked each person to write a letter addressed to themselves 10 years in the future. They sealed the letters and the photographer vowed to return.
And he did. In 2018, he reunited with the craftspeople and asked them to read the letter from their younger selves. As they reflected on the letter’s contents, Toyama took their portraits once again.
In doing so, he not only captured the growth of the newest generation of Japan’s artisans, he sparked his own transformation as a photographer and artist.
During his first visit, Toyama had used a medium format film camera — a machine built by a person he had never met in a factory he had never seen before, he says — to photograph craftsmen who had continued their ancestors’ legacies by creating art with their own hands.
The discrepancy, he says, forced him to reflect on his own craft.
In the 10 years leading up to his second visit, Toyama renewed his understanding of the long and meandering history of photography, both as an artistic medium and a vector for self-expression.
When he returned in 2018, he instead used an ambrotype — a technique invented in the mid-19th century that uses glass wet plates — to capture his subjects. The portraits appear transparent, like transient souls, in the soft light of the temple where they remain on display, hanging above samples of the handiwork of their subjects.
“Time is life, and life is time,” says Toyama, who turns 40 this year. “I still have much to learn about photography. In some ways, this project will never be complete.”
Kyotographie runs through Oct. 18 at various locations around Kyoto. For more information, visit www.kyotographie.jp.