interview with Cyril Costilhes

March 21, 2017

Editor’s note: The following interview was started by Cyril Costilhes. After a few questions were answered japanese Yamanaka Manabu photographer lost patience and wrote us this following message: “Please see attached my Q&A which I answered in an interview… Although we could not find our particular answers in this document we will still present it following the first part as attempted by Cyril.

Dear Yamanaka, thanks for accepting to be interviewed. If you don’t mind, I would like to start with your reply to my interview request. « As I live in a remote island of the Japan sea, I hardly go to the cities, like Tokyo. If you send me your question, I could answer them but I don’t think I like to discuss with other photographers, because I am not interested in their work and activities. »

Cyril Costilhes: That got me interested. Have you always been an outsider? You seem unconnected to any groups or movements, What is your relation to the Japanese photography scene? Your work seems to be more shown and represented in the US and Europe than in your own country. What are the reasons do you think?

Yamanaka Manabu: My debut was at a gallery in New York, so that is why I have strong connections with the United States and Europe. As those countries have a larger art market than Japan has, there is probably more demand for my work. I have almost no connection with the Japanese photography scene nor much contact with other groups. I personally have no intention in that.

C.C: Do you have an art school background?

Y.M: I studied photography in high school and worked under photographers as an assistant. After that I became a photographer, producing my own work while taking commercial photographs. And then one day I decided to be a photo essayist, and that’s been my work until now.

C.C: Deformed flesh, dead embryos, homeless, elderly, abandoned street children, animals cadavers…I’m interested in knowing if there was a key event in your life that shaped this body of work, this in between life and death world you’ve created?

Y.M: My body of work is affected by Buddhist thought and I expressed it through the themes of six series. The respective titles are named after words from Buddhist thought. I won’t describe the details but you cannot decipher Buddhist thought without deeply addressing life and death. I just want you to feel a slice of that through my work. I haven’t experienced such big events in my life, but I always take a lot of time and make sure I’m well-prepared for a shoot.

By not explaining, my work will take on a kind of life of its own, step into the hearts of each of the viewers and take on its own personality.

C.C: When i look at your work i get a sense of isolation, of a man leading a sort of meditative photography quest. Do you live a recluse life?

Y.M: I lived in central Tokyo about 10 years ago. but I yearned to live in countryside and lead a slow life, so I decided to leave Tokyo. I live in a nice, natural environment that allows me time for introspection. In one sense, I lead a reclusive life, but I feel satisfied and fulfilled.

C.C: In the serie « Fugohkan » you’ve photographed decaying dead animals. All your work has been about humans but this specific one. If you could, would you have photographed the decaying of a dead human body instead? Or do animals have a special meaning to you?

Y.M: Yes, it is. The human body is neither beauty nor ugliness, it is just borrowed thing in this world. When the time comes, you should return it to God. I think this applies to all substance in this world.

C.C: In your 30 years photography career you’ve only produced 6 series. Today photographers are rushed to produce constantly to feed the photography system. It seems you never got pressured and worked at your own rhythm. How did you manage to not compromise your vision?!

Y.M: Taking pictures for a living and taking pictures that you want are not same thing in expression. Basically, I think photographs that I want to take need to be free of charge. Monetary value comes later. C.C: Do you have any limits, taboos?

Y.M: I have never been interested in demons or spirit photography. I can’t understand it…

C.C: In the text about the homeless serie “Arakan” you explain that you’ve spent 4 years working on it, collected hundreds of images and selected only 16 photographs. Do you always apply this strict and radical editing process to your work?

Y.M: In preparing for a shoot, I decide upon a theme internally, and then I search for subjects existing in the world that would be incarnate expressions of it. It takes an incredible amount of time to strike upon the best method for the shoot because I’m mostly dealing with very difficult subjects.

C.C: What’s your relation to your own mortality, to your own body decaying? Y.M: I think my work has no relation to my own body’s decaying. But I can say for certain that my various thoughts on eventual death are connected to the work.


Editor’s note:  Following is the interview which Yamanaka Manabu suggested to use to broaden our vision of his work 

X: Your photographs are very conceptual. They have a philosophy that binds them together and gives them meaning in a very poetic way. Why did you choose to express yourself as an artist through photography instead of through written poetry?

Y.M: I believe that seeing is believing. At first I prefer to face subjects than assuming how good or bad subjects are. Experiencing and observing, practical interpretations, adding to my Buddhist concepts during shooting, I would like to capture and record the moment that I feel beautiful with the way of pictures. I am enchanted by photos since I never take pictures without my existence on the scene. On the other hand, paintings and poems are possible to create without my existence on the scene.

X: Buddhist concepts and preoccupations seem to inform each of your works. Are you a practicing Buddhist? What draws you to Buddhism as an artist? If you are a practicing Buddhist, what is it that draws you to create art as a Buddhist?

Y.M: Although, all my work is affected by Buddhism, I am not a practicing Buddhist. However, I always hope that I gain more understanding of Buddhism every time I finish a project. In other words, I show my work as a consequence of my understanding on the theme of the project. Sooner or later I finish one project, I come up with an idea or have some questions, therefore I am looking for subjects to resolve my questions. This is my creative cycle. My questions might be philosophical which has no answer. I think not only Buddhism but also all religion exists as people wish to be free from fear to their mortality. We never get the right answer while we live.

X: If you are a Buddhist, how do you see your relationship with the subjects you photograph in light of your religion?

Y.M: Although almost of all the concepts in themes of my work are rooted in Buddhism concept, actually I am not a practicing Buddhist. I wish to reflect an interesting practical philosophy of Buddha and my developed thought during shooting, through my pictures. One day, when I saw 16 disciples of Buddha on a portrait, I realized they looked like beggars with rags. Since then, I was looking for beggars all over Japan, who gave me the same impressions of these 16 disciples. However, I never met one, who had the same shining as the 16 disciples. I took photographs of several hundreds of beggars in the end, and once they became the subject of my pictures, I found that they started shining as sages. In “Arakan”, my first series of work, I settled for their brightness in a sense of appearance, even though they are not spiritually splendid like disciples. As a matter of fact, if I take a picture, living together with them and sharing their pain, it would be a heartwarming story. However, I would like to stick to my style, in which I pursue only the appearance of subjects and have “a cold eye” to look on subjects as things.

X: Do you see yourself as separate, different from your subjects because you are an artist and belong to another social class? Do you identify with them in any way? If so, how?

Y.M: I try not to think that I am an artist. If I think I am an artist belonging to another world, I cannot control subjects as I want. In the series of “Gyahtei”, what I thought was how I could get a old lady to open her mind to me and take off her clothes. So that I had to be sincere to her, take care of her, become like her real son and be loved by her. It means we should love each other like lovers. I frequently went to see her and at last I caught her heart when I was 35 years-old and she was 95 years-old. Consequently I took 17 old ladies photos but I feel guilty about those women because I intended to be close to them with a plot. However, looking back at that time, I believe I felt a strong identification with the old women for sure.

X: Where do you look for and find subjects to photograph? In Tokyo? Outside the city A particular place? Do you specifically seek out subjects, or do you leave it to chance to present a subject to you when you’re not really seeking it?

Y.M: First of all, I decide a subject for a project and then study and research about the subject. And the next step is planning out picture composition at the same time scouting, casting and thinking about the other details. Finally I start the new project if I convince myself all the above is in place. Usually it is not so easy, so I’m constantly making changes. I always find the appropriate way of shooting after I start.. I believe that there is always a way through a difficult project.

X: You seem to practice asceticism as an artist–for example, when you were preparing to do Dohshi. Do you live ascetically on a daily basis, or do you practice asceticism only when you are ready to do, or are working on, a project? What is your goal when you practice such austerities?

Y.M: I live a simple life style in Tokyo, but don’t take any special steps to live ascetically. I need an eye to judge objectively even though I am in the midst of terribly shocking surroundings. While shooting the Doshi series I experienced things as Buddha might have 2000 years ago. The conditions included no water supply, no electricity and no information system, just a very poor community. After staying there a few months I was touched by the purity of the children. I then started shooting the children and I tried to feel no strong emotion. I chose to keep very emotional distance because I knew I only wanted to take pictures of them.

X: Each series of photos all have subjects that are atypical–each group is outside of mainstream society, either by choice or chance. What compels you to photograph these people?

Y.M: A Buddhist concept, “everything in this world has bodhisattva,” which means bodhisattva transform to human being or thing and come to us to save our suffers. I think that things that people don’t want to look at, give a message to us. The subjects I chose in the past are beggars corpse, old women, handicapped people and refugees. All the subjects are outside of mainstream society, but they give messages to us when we look at them on the life-size pictures. My quest is to seek for splendid beauty among ugliness.

X: Many of your subjects are physically frail, but they seem very cooperative and almost happy to pose for the camera. How much time do you spend with them in order to take what you think are the best photos? For example, what is the story behind Gyahtei?

Y.M: The time for shooting is not so long but you have to observe a subject and understand it. When all conditions are satisfactory, you start shooting. Since we all share the same fate of having to live our lives in the agonizing fear of growing old and dying, I’m driven by a desire to spend the life I have been by capturing on film the physical images of those who have lived full lives. From this way of thinking I started the series of Gyhatei. So I started to know the old woman about a year before shooting this photo. I had taken care of her daily needs, bathing, feeding, reading to her, as well as taking her to the toilet. So we had developed an intimate relationship. She became comfortable being naked in my presence. Through entire projects, I take several years after I decide a theme and finish shooting a project.

X: What elements do you think create a good photograph? An excellent photograph?

Y.M: First of all, you have to define a subject. And then, you have to eliminate things as much as you can, in order to reflect the subject simply and faithfully, This is a basic way of shooting but it is difficult when you execute it. In my case, I start a project after I prepared enough. However, most cases I have to take photos in bad environment and I cannot procedure as I planned it before. This is a big obstacle that I have to conquer, no related with my technique of shooting. Fortunately every time I somehow made it. From those experiences, I think if I could drive out the evil thoughts and try to feel only a subject, I could feel supernatural power and take best shots. I think that being innocent is the key to me.

X: What is the message you are trying to convey through your work?

Y.M: While I certainly have a personal conception of my work, I look forward to seeing it take on broader meaning through exposure to the eyes and interpretation of others. I much prefer that to providing my own perspective to the media or when I’m in different environments and cultures.

X: What are you working on now?

Y.M: I am working on the series of “The Moment to be Human Being.” I cannot explain any further more. Please wait for the completion of the project. I will let you know when the time comes. As to the meaning of “Gyahtei” If I am asked to provide an explanation of the title of my photograph, “Gahtei”,I would prefer to refrain from attempting to explain the meaning of this Buddhist term as I feel that to do so would in some way distract the viewer from the uniqueness of my work. I am not an expert on Buddhist theology and my choice for a title is done merely on personal interpretation after the fact. I take photographs relying on instinct and the five senses. Viewers are asked to consider the title of “Gyahtei” as a kind of magical word like Aladdin’s “Open Sesame” wherein each person can interpret for himself or herself what the title means. By not explaining, my work will take on a kind of life of its own, step into the hearts of each of the viewers and take on its own personality. Of course, I have my own thoughts on it as well…

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