A CONVERSATION WITH SATOSHI FUJIWARA

Berlin-based photographer Satoshi Fujiwara creates images that question notions of authenticity, identity and media neutrality. His series Code Unknown was inspired by Haneke's film of the same name, and shot entirely on the Berlin U-Bahn. Subjects are photographed unawares, but the identity of the subject is obscured via careful cropping, shading and composition. The series was picked up by Issey Miyake and resulted in a T shirt collaboration featuring Fujiwara's prints. His latest series: #R, & #Police #Cover-Up #Demonstrations #Brutality, focusses on perceived reality in reportage of news events. The images seem to portray familiar scenes from the global refugee crisis, yet on closer inspection, we realise we have been duped.

MOTHER Director Kate Friend talked with Fujiwara about his work and intentions in a Berlin cafe earlier this summer.

#R, & #Police #Cover-Up #Demonstrations #Brutality

I thought these were real police brutality images. I didn’t question the authenticity at all. What was shocking was not the images themselves but my own reaction on realising that these weren’t what I assumed they were. Do you think we only respond to extremes now?

To say that people only respond to things because they are extreme isn’t completely true. No matter how extreme an image is, 

With this series, by restricting information and processing the images, I transformed the pictures into an easily digestible icon of violence.  As an experiment, I actually uploaded these photos, accompanied only by the hashtags in the title, on my own social networking profile. However, the reaction was a lot more muted than I expected. When I asked my friends and colleagues about it later, they responded, much like you, that these were authentic photos of a demonstration or incident. It may have been that these were buried under the torrent of other “extreme” reports that flood our news feeds, completely ignored as people tapped to the next post. 

Where did you shoot these images? How did you get so close? Did you encounter any problems?

The shots featured in these series were not from a single event or accident and were mostly taken at different places and times. By later putting them together, a single fictional narrative was forged. To me these two series are a parody, so to speak, of media coverage today. For every photo that was taken with a compact camera up close to the subject, there are ones that were taken from afar using a telephoto lens. Playing the part of a clueless Asian tourist allowed me to be overlooked by the subjects and I rarely got in any trouble. 

Did you feel scared?

I was a bit nervous when taking photos close to the police. Compared to Japanese police, the ones in Europe are a bit domineering. 

Do you think we are fetishising violence? And the more violence we are given, the more we are dependent on it? 

There probably is that side to people. However, what I am dealing with here is only the violent nature of visual images as seen in the likes of propaganda. Though the less than subtle depictions as seen in the past have slowly faded, I believe we are still being manipulated by the media making use of visual violence. 

When did you start taking photos? 

I started to seriously make photographic works around 2-3 years ago. Before that I worked as a graphic designer in Tokyo, primarily involved in the planning and production of mass advertising. Even then, I was deeply interested in the effect that images and photos had on people and societies. Drawn by the works of German photographers such as Bechers or Thomas Ruff, I quit my job and went to the library to read through all the books related to photography, and around 4 years ago, moved my home base to Germany. 

Personal reportage bias vs media / corporate press reportage bias - is it the same thing? 

There is no easy answer to this. Some parts are the same, and some parts are different. It depends on the system or structure.

You talk about the difference between German and Japanese police, and that German police appear more intimidating and aggressive. How do you think they achieve this? And is it more effective?

Of course, as safety and national character are different depending on the country, it is hard to say which methods are more effective. What I can say is, even if Japanese police were not as aggressive as German police, through the manipulation of images in the media, it’s not impossible to CREATE a complete opposite impression. 

Do you think in certain states the impression of police as brutal, violent and oppressive is something that is manipulated by the state itself - they see it as an advantage and means to control?

Depending on the country’s situation or time period, it’s completely feasible. 

Do you feel that the performative role that police play, in terms of their dress, attitudes and body language, directly reflect a part of that nation’s physche? 

This is also difficult to give a broad answer to, as the relationship between the people and the police vary depending on the country’s system. However, conversely it may impact the spirit of the people. I believe that visual information and words hold a lot of power.

What is the significance of hashtags in the title?

The hashtags applied to videos or pictures on social network sites are, in a sense, supplying the context. Attached according to the speculation or whim of the poster, they limit how these photos can be interpreted. Aping the way images are created on social networking sites today, by putting in hashtags in the title, I sought to manipulate the way people would take in these photos.

 

Code Unknown

In your ‘Code Unknown’ series you photographed subway passengers in Berlin, cropping and composing the images in such a way as to make the identity of the subject impossible to identify. The results are unnerving and somewhat grotesque, and comment on rights to photographic identity. The images ended up being used as graphics for Issey Miyake’s FW 15 bags and shirts. How did this collaboration come about? What do you think Yusuke Takahashi recognised in the pictures? 

He contacted me when he saw that I won a Japan Photo Award in 2014, citing his interest in the concept and visual impact of my work. Initially, however, I wasn’t too keen. I have no interest in fashion photography and don’t have the greatest impression of the fashion industry, as exploitation under the guise of image collaboration occurs frequently in the fashion world. 

What changed your mind?

The idea of how interesting it would be to have one image jumping onto a form of media that I hadn’t even thought of, launching into a direction I had never considered. This is one of the funny things about photography, as well as being one of its frightening aspects. I thought that photos that had been taken without permission becoming part of a global clothing brand and spreading across the globe would help to become food for thought on the role of photographs in the media. Ultimately I was able to learn a lot through this collaboration, for which I am very grateful. 

Rights over digital and photographic representation are very tricky issues, and something you address in a lot of your works. Do you feel that what we are trying to protect is the right to a controlled, performative sense of self? We don’t want our picture to be published in a way that we do not feel accords with our own sense of ourselves. 

That’s probably true. However, even that “view you have of yourself” has been affected by the media. 

What makes the images yours, without permission from the subject or rights to the subject? How different from its original subject matter do you think an image has to be, to be seen as separate and without rights to the subject? 

I am not an expert on legal matters, so I can’t answer from that perspective. Ultimately, I am focusing on the way images and photos are created in today’s age. How far a person’s identity can be determined, and from what point it stops being a problem is a grey zone, the boundaries of which I have been repeatedly exploring through my shooting and editing. I don’t think my words can do justice to the results of my experiment. Please look at the photos. 

What does it mean to you to screw up your prints on the gallery floor?

I do not think that the end point of this series would be confined to being a print in a frame. These photos alluding to the issue of property rights take on more and more meaning as they jump from media to media. The screwed up prints reflect those thoughts as well as one of my common themes, the violence in photographic media. 

What is the goal? 

Right now I am interested in redefining snapshots of today. “Code Unknown” was a deconstruction of portrait photography, “#R” and “#police #cover_up #demonstrations #brutality” were on the dismantling and reconstruction of broadcast images. Despite the strides made by science and technology, I feel that way we interpret photos and images have not kept up the pace. From here on out, I want to break down the various “fuzzy boundaries” that exist in the field of photography.  

What’s next for you?

Currently I am undertaking joint projects with the likes of German public institutions and Italian cultural institutions. I can’t go into too much detail as they’re still in the preparation stages, but working in these areas are incredibly meaningful as they provide me new perspectives in these processes. 

 

www.satoshi-fujiwara.com