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[Vol.13] The Restaurant Menu

Mr. Hisao Saito and Mr. Iki Morita of the non-profit organization The Darkroom International visited Ireland in July to confer with Dara McGrath, the European Eyes on Japan/Japan Today vol. 7 photographer who worked with their organization on a workshop. Saito reports below.

Hisao Saito

The Darkroom International

On this visit to Ireland I took with me my own theme, one that never leaves my mind in running a photography NPO: Image Education and Photographic Art. This is because I was tremendously excited to have the opportunity to see for myself where photography stands in Europe in terms of art and in terms of culture, and how familiar it is to the people of Europe.

As a member of the image education committee at the Nihon Shashin Kyoukai, I am involved in the production of a pamphlet on photography for primary school students. The pamphlet has a sidebar called “Where Photographs Get Used” that presents the different sorts of places where photographs are used. This was one more thing that had me always looking out for photographs in the cities of Ireland. Two things: There were many fewer photos than in Japan, and the ones that I did see were splendid. Restaurant menus in Ireland use hardly any photographs, whereas restaurant menus in Japan can be nothing but. Of course, it’s the menus in Japan that are easier to figure out, which led to the following conversation with the distinguished gentleman accompanying me.

“Even if we can read through these [entirely text-based] menus and understand what they´re offering, don´t you agree that whenever we go somewhere different we have to imagine all over again what color the food will be, what shape it will be, what size it will be?”

“Indeed. Just a simple menu can be a tremendous pleasure . . .”

This exchange helped me to realize something.

Almost all of the photographs that you see in Japanese cities are information. Not to make a blanket statement, but Japanese people perhaps feel more at ease with information gained from images.

Here are the sort of questions that Japanese people tend to ask:

“Where did you take this photograph? What was your aperture? What film did you use? What make of camera?”

Every one of these questions is looking for information. Now, I think it goes without saying that what they should really be asking of a work of photography is something more like, “What made you think of taking this picture?”

Something you will often see in Japanese bookstores is a tight line of photography magazines with titles like “Photography for Beginners” or “How to Take Beautiful Photographs” or “How to Photograph Flowers” or “Portraits for Beginners”. And of course it’s people who are interested in photography who are crowded around these shelves. They all seem to be wondering whether their approach is the correct one or what everybody else is thinking, trying to make sure that they´re all on the same page. Almost all of these, in other words, are informational journals or how-to books. Japanese people reflexively find it comfortable for everyone to hold a common image, due to the photographs available to them, of what is denoted by, for example, the menu at a restaurant.

People who say they like photography each have their own relationship with it, and these are highly varied: some people frame photographs as though collecting ones that they like, others cut out things they find attractive, others maintain records of children and families. None of these is to be rejected, each one is a marvelous way to use photography. And Japanese people are highly skilled in the uses to which they put photography, perhaps even the most highly skilled in the world.

We held meetings with three different photographers on this trip. What came up time and again was the topic of the differences in art education between Japan and Europe. In Japan art has been taught as knowledge. (This is at least true of the days when I was a student.) In other words, it is enough to be able to answer Da Vinci when someone asks you who painted the Mona Lisa. The question that gets asked in Europe, however, is “What does the Mona Lisa do for you?” This difference is simply too vast . . .

If Japanese have been instructed in art as knowledge, it is then possible to appreciate why it is informational journals and how-to books that are found on the shelves in the photography sections of their bookshops. Setting aside questions of whether this a good thing or a bad one, Japanese people are thus able to quickly put that information into practice and to master it. A vicious circle has set it because publications that concentrate on the latest camera technologies in particular are liable to prioritize technology and knowledge and apt to loose sight of the purposes of photography in itself.

I think the most important thing you could say to anyone holding a camera, whether artist or amateur, is “Be aware that it is a means of self-expression that you hold in your hand.”

I believe that on this trip I sensed in the artists and curators, of course, and also in the city streets and the passers-by something lacking in Japanese people today. I feel that what I sensed is art, culture and education.

No two people will ever imagine the same thing, even in something as simple as the image they form of an item on a text-based restaurant menu. A hundred people will imagine it in a hundred different ways. And it may be precisely this in which art consists. I think that what art education in Japan needs today is not art as knowledge, but the soul of imagination and expressivity.

Each and every one of the artists that I met in Ireland was brimming with self-confidence and took pride in expressing himself differently from other people. And I was shown how much more capable is their photo art than we had thought. And I recognized anew how art is the common language of the world.

I came to think of how, for the sake of Japan´s future, I wished children to be allotted more time for the education of the mind and adults to develop a serious sense of crisis. Our NPO has a membership of around 600. The membership ranges widely – professionals, amateurs, students, all kinds of people. Through my activities with The Darkroom International, at the very least, I hope to inform as many people as possible of what this trip brought home to me.

I truly look forward to the day when a Japanese person will be selected Best Director at the Academy Awards and his or her words of thanks include a mention of The Darkroom International.

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