After studying photography in 1992, Guy Vinciguerra documented a rapidly changing Perth, before moving onto a period of eight years that involved a fascination with Japan, resulting in twelve separate trips to Tokyo.
Over the past decade, he has dedicated his time to documenting the Silk Road, a project which has led him through China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Earlier this year, Guy exhibited his Silk Road series as part of the core program at the Ballarat Foto Biennale, with an exceptional response.
Metropolis, his upcoming exhibition at Colour Factory, harks back to Vinciguerra’s time spent in Tokyo and draws attention to “the restraints imposed upon us, those we impose on ourselves and the universal absurdity of life”. Vinciguerra spoke with Cathy Marshall about luck, timing, humour and the feeling of never quite being truly accepted by Japanese society.
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Guy, looking at your photographs, it appears there is some very lucky timing going on in them. Do you see a space of interest and wait for an appropriate subject to walk into frame, or are you just a lucky man?
Lucky!! Isn’t there a saying that goes, ‘the harder I work the luckier I get’? I have very little capacity for sitting and waiting. What I do is walk and walk and walk, hoping something interesting crosses my path. For me walking ten to twenty kilometres a day is not unusual.
Guy Vinciguerra, Homeless Man
It’s interesting that you used a Contax G2 to shoot this series, given that a lot of Japanese street photographers use this camera also. Did you own this camera prior to your move to Japan?
In fact about 30% of the Metropolis images were taken on a Nikon SLR camera using auto focus and auto exposure. However, as I work with a 20mm lens and get very close to subject, the shutter release of an SLR is very loud and when people hear the click it changes the dynamics of the situation and of course the image as well.
I like to be invisible and photograph what I observe. In science, anthropology and photography the act of observation changes the subject. In Japan or China, being a foreigner, I can never be invisible. As soon as I lift the camera to my eye everything changes, with people giving me the V sign or high fives. Because of this I very rarely take the camera to the eye. Instead I have developed a technique of shooting from the hip so I can walk by a situation and record it without anyone being the wiser. In Metropolis, ‘Funeral’ and ‘Smoking Area in the Subway’ are examples of this technique.
As many would know, the loud click in an SLR originates from the mirror moving as the shutter is released. I asked photographers more experienced than me about quieter cameras and everyone said use a rangefinder Leica as it is very silent and sharp. I borrowed a Leica M6 and found the manual focus and manual exposure too slow and also unreliable. One of my former TAFE lecturers who knew how close to I got to the subject suggested I look at a recently released camera, namely a Contax G2. I found it much easier to work with than the Leica and slowly fell in love with it. It took three or four years before I put aside the Nikon and used the G2 exclusively
You have a great sense of humour photographically. A giant woman’s feet next to a dwarfed man, a large fish looming over the head of an unassuming security guard etc. Japan often takes itself very seriously (but is simultaneously quite ridiculous); is this an intentional remark on that?
I work very fast and, on the main, I work in the subconscious mode. Images are often reflex actions shot from the hip so I have very little idea what I have until I develop the negatives. There is a quote about ‘the universal absurdity of life’ in the gallery’s (Colour Factory) notes on the exhibition and for me its true. I believe life is absurd, not only in Japan but throughout the whole western world, and is getting even more absurd at breakneck pace. I see the Metropolis folio is pretty dark, so any humour helps to relieve the tension. And yes, there are some very funny juxtapositions that occur in the urban environment, everywhere.
As to whether the Japanese take themselves very seriously or not I cannot say. However, I do know that in public, the Japanese always wear a mask and display very little emotion. There is a Japanese saying, “a nail that sticks out must be hammered in”. Thus one can interpret this proverb as the Japanese culture has little respect for the individual and only cares about the group, the society as a whole; so it may well be true that Japan take itself very seriously.
One’s past no doubt influences one’s future. How has your past influenced Metropolis?
The folio on Metropolis evolved during a very dark period of my life. It was a time where I was stressed out of my mind each and every day. I existed in a dark place and I was skirting around the edges of suicide. Initially, I found the discipline and self-control that is imposed upon the Japanese from birth to be unnatural. That was because up until the age of 25 I had lived in a tight Italian enclave and we Italians are very melodramatic, emotional and undisciplined people. To then find a nation as disciplined as the Japanese was, for me, like being thrown onto the movie set of Fritz Lang’s 1920 movie Metropolis, populated by a nation of automatons.
With each successive trip to Tokyo I understood better that the discipline actually worked. That everything ran with clockwork precision and without the discipline there would be chaos. The fact that a woman or a man could walk around alone late at night and have nothing to fear was refreshing.
So yes, my early experiences, my personal state of mind, the environment of Tokyo and Fritz Lang’s movie all influenced the work substantially.
Guy Vinciguerra, Smoking Area In Subway
There is a feeling of distance between your subjects and yourself, an obvious reflection upon society rather than the comment of one fully immersed. Do you think it’s possible to properly break into Japanese society as a foreigner, even one who has spent a lot of time there?
Perhaps what you describe as distance is the result of being invisible and shooting from the hip thus capturing things as they were? I can assure you that I took many portraits and images that truly engage with the subject but these were not used as they did not fit what I was trying to achieve.
While I have spent a lot of time there, I still feel cannot answer that question with any authority. I do know that the Japanese use the word Gaijin for ‘foreigner’. Whether the word has neutral, negative or positive connotations I cannot be sure. If I had to choose I would say negative. I say this because the Italians use the word ‘straniero’ or foreigner for any person who settles down in a town or city and that is the title with which they are forever identified. I think most well established cultures have a well-developed sense an ethnocentric superiority, which is there for identity and protection of the group.
I made friends with a European man who married a Japanese woman. They had one child, an 18 year old son. The son and I spent a full day together photographing graffiti and other things in Tokyo and Yokohama. We talked about many things but what I remember most was that he said that being half Japanese made his life very, very difficult and very unhappy. So perhaps it is possible to break into Japanese society but impossible to be accepted?
I produced another folio in Japan called Cosplay, which can be viewed at www.vinciguerra.com.au. This is about a very particular type of youth culture that has been influenced by the West and J-Pop, and they are considered outsiders by the bulk of Japanese.
Guy Vinciguerra, Metropolis
Opening December 5th, 6pm-8pm
December 5th – January 25, 2014 (Closed from December 20 – January 6).
409-429 Gore Street, Fitzroy | 03 9419 8756
By Cathy Marshall