By Agnieszka Rakoczy
Usami Masahiro, the Japanese photographer whose work has recently been on display in Paphos and Nicosia, is the very antithesis of the snapshot artist.
The narcissistic selfie aside, most of us see a photo as a captured moment. Significant and special as that moment may be, the care and attention we give to the framing and composition is, comparatively speaking, seldom much more than an instant or a series of instants. A blink of the camera’s eye.
But we all know that professional photographers are different from you or I and Usami Masahiro, a meticulous, painstaking, visionary artist, is very different indeed.
“I spent almost a year in Cyprus, meeting people and talking to them before I finally had a concept of what kind of pictures I wanted to take,” he tells me over a cup of coffee in Ledra Street.
“Then I started looking for people who I wanted to photograph and this was even more difficult than the time spent developing the concept. Because the problem is not just to find the right people but you also have to persuade them to agree to be photographed and then to appear on the day when the session takes place. All of that entails a major effort in terms of organisation and logistics and still things can go wrong. Often people tell you they will come but fail to appear in the end and then all your plans go upside down.”
Forty-five-year-old Masahiro made his name in Japan as a creator of complex, tableaux-like portrayals of persons and events. They are visual representation of the inner and outer world of those he portrays, a concept derived from the Sanskrit or Buddhist Mandala, itself a colourful, schematic diagram representing the cosmos.
“I stumbled upon this quite by accident,” Masahiro admits. It came about when he was an art student. “For one of my assignments I decided to make it easy for myself and take photos of one of my friend’s rooms. It was a typical Japanese room – tiny and crammed with lots of my art student friend’s stuff. So I took this picture and realised that the objects in the room said a lot about my friend’s personality. This became my first Mandala picture.”
Pleased with his concept, Masahiro changed the original spelling of the word of mandala to manda-la and proceeded to take photos of people’s rooms and homes as a way of portraying their personalities but somehow it didn’t seem enough. Then in 2010, he decided to take a photo of his high school art teacher that incorporated not just the objects that surrounded and helped define him but also the people associated with him
His teacher, Ishibashi Norio was a sculptor and a devotee of the delicately demanding ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony. Norio’s daughter, like many teenagers, was obsessed with Japanese Manga cartoons to the point where she loved dressing up as some of the anime characters they featured.
So, in order to portray Norio, Masahiro had to assemble a gathering of more than 50 people in his art studio.
Dressed in traditional Japanese robes, his teacher sat in the middle of the room, the very centre of the Manda-la. Surrounding Norio were his family, his art students, friends with whom he studied the rituals of the tea ceremony, and finally his daughter and her friends who, like her, were practising cosplay (in Japanese kosupure).
“Around him we placed all the things that he needed for his life — tea ceremony utensils, his artwork, all these traditional things as well as new ones, and they all combined to show his world around him and his personality. All of this, put together into this one picture,” the photographer explains.
This proved to be a turning point in Masahiro’s artistic life. Finally, he had stumbled on something he felt was 100 per cent his own original idea – the Manda-las of people’s lives that represented the whole microcosmos of their existence.
However, this did not prove to be the end of the Masahiro’s creative journey.
In 2011, Japan was hit by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the country and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The quake generated enormous tsunami waves that poured far inland across the shoreline, often reaching heights of 40 metres. The destructive power of this lethal inundation ripped apart coastal towns and villages, carrying ships inland, flattened thousands of homes and then sucked tons of debris and vehicles back out to boiling sea.
The damage to the reactors at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant triggered then an even worse third disaster, contaminating a wide area that to this day has forced almost 100,000 displaced residents to continue living as evacuees.
Masahiro like many other Japanese artists felt that his work had to respond to this catastrophe. He decided to move from personal to social issues and began an extensive research into the areas struck by the disaster. He spent a lot of time talking to people who had lost everything in the quake and tsunami. The result – he created powerful photographs of their past and their present existence.
One work from this period features Michinori Sasaki, a monk in the Shingyo-ji Temple in Nihonmatsu City in Fukushima Prefecture. Sasaki and his wife run a kindergarten on the grounds of the temple. After the earthquake, they set up an NGO devoted to tracking and measuring radiation levels in food and to decontamination work. Long before the Japanese government admitted it, the Sasakis were insisting that there had been a dramatic increase in the number of cases of thyroid cancer among children who had remained in Fukushima and they launched a campaign for their evacuation.
In Masahiro’s photograph, the Sasakis are seen surrounded by many of their supporters, all in radiation suits, having a traditional Japanese picnic under cherry trees blossoming in the spring.
“For us, Japanese people, looking at cherry blossoms is very important. We enjoy it very much,” the artist says. “But the Sasakis and their friends cannot really enjoy it from the bottom of their hearts because nature in Fukushima has become poisonous.”
How difficult is to take such pictures in such circumstances, I wonder aloud. Masahiro responds, head nodding, in a very serious voice: “Very, very difficult indeed.”
“When I was working on my Hiroshima Manda-la, I had to gather together in one day, hundreds of people from various local organisations working on the subject and they all initially agreed to help me. But then, I discovered that there were various animosities among them and it was very difficult to navigate through it. Sometimes I was really losing all my hope and wanted to quit. But I did it and the resulting picture shows in its centre this old lady Yuriko Hayashi who was nine years old when the atomic bomb hit her town. Now here she is surrounded by hundreds of other survivors and also newborn babies and animals and flowers that grow in local mountains, because it was important for me to show in this picture that the life continues and survives.”
Cyprus is Masahiro’s first venture overseas using the full array of his Manda-la photography concept and skills. Invited to participate in Paphos2017, he came to the island last year.
At the outset of the Cyprus project, Masahiro thought he would focus on the island’s multiculturalism and the desire for reunification. But the deeper he delved, the more he realised his task would not be that easy. In many ways, he found it even more difficult than his Hiroshima project.
Working in Cyprus, he says, he often felt like “a self-righteous foreigner who thought he knew what was happening on the island only to be reminded time and again that he had no idea”.
“This work was like trying to pass through the eye of a needle. I talked to many people who were telling me how in the past all Cypriots were living together and attended each other’s weddings and festivities but yet it was hard to find people willing to participate in such recreated photo shots themselves.”
Unficyp refused him access to the Green Line. For the main Manda-la picture he had to opt for the stunning location in the abandoned Turkish Cypriot village of Ayios Sozomenos, close to Nicosia. But even though he arranged a bus to take people there, many who promised to come never appeared so he had to rework his original concept and re-configure the whole picture.
“In Japan, when you organise such a photo, you usually have to negotiate with organisations or groups but here in Cyprus everything is on a much more personal level so it takes much longer and is much less certain,” he explains.
“I couldn’t take a perfect photo because so many people didn’t come. The balance in the picture is not great but this is the reality of the island so be it,” he says.
Still the work he created on the island is a series of stunning photo images, a tapestry that represents past and present drawing on the individual stories of Greek and Turkish Cypriots he met in the course of his research.
Masahiro’s photos were exhibited at Paphos’ Khan Inn in December last year and at Home 4 Cooperation (H4C) in Nicosia at the beginning of January.
“So many people have helped me when I was working here. I am very grateful to all of them,” Masahiro says.
That gratitude is reflected in the donation of his work to H4C where it will be back on display in the near future. An event not to be missed.