Reaching for the peak

I just returned from attending the 2018 installment of the Mt.Rokko International Photography Festival, my sixth visit as a portfolio reviewer and also to present projects and run a workshop. I join many professional colleagues from the wider photography industry from across the globe as an invited guest with the main purpose – that is, to nurture young and upcoming Japanese photographers create more meaningful projects, strengthen their ability to project a strong story through their picture taking craft, which no doubt, all of them already have brewing inside them.

[ Also link to same post in Japanese at ]

The festival, headed by its visionary director Takeki Sugiyama, a surgeon by profession, and totally passionate for the ‘meaning behind every photograph’, who is also an avid collector himself, is run with typical Japanese efficiency when it comes to scheduling and timekeeping, and a certain familiarity that is unique to Mt.Rokko. The volunteer team and staff already feel like family after the very first visit.

Photos by Melanie McWhorter & Chikara Komura

Held partly in downtown Kobe for the exhibitions and having the reviews in close-quarter up at Mt.Rokko, makes for an interesting long weekend for the guests and photographers, but slightly inconvenient for day visitors wanting to participate in the workshops or presentations. However, I feel that this arrangement is already being addressed over the last two years to make the festival more accommodating.

Over the years in coming to Kobe, I have gained many connections and friends in the photography world, and have also opened my eyes to contemporary Japanese photography – it’s highly aesthetic based imagery, and the very important link to nature, family and tradition. I speak of course in general terms, and there are photographers who also make non-conformist projects that surprise.


For Mt.Rokko, I believe that it has steadily gained the reputation of being a tight-knit photo community, and being a ‘portfolio review centered’ festival, it has the advantage of fully catering to photographers seeking to maximise their exposure in gaining valuable feedback through the expertly selected workshop mentors and international reviewers. Because of the proximity of the venues and the ability of the photographers to access the reviewers throughout the weekend, there are ample opportunities for casual conversations to happen – and I believe, even more for future installments – that these downtimes are vital to allow honest exchanges on a one to one basis, in addition to the scheduled reviews.

An advantage of being a small festival, the manageable numbers also help enhance the ‘community spirit’ and camaraderie of the participating photographers who come from all over Japan, and overseas as well, and I feel this is very important, especially for first- time reviewees, and more introvert photographers, and a unique feature for Mt.Rokko.

I have been following the progress of several photographers who attended the early installments of the festival and can happily say that many of them have gained new exposure of their projects and have gone on to win international awards, recognised in festivals or have exhibitions in galleries outside Japan. I can safely say that having attended Mt.Rokko previously, played an important part in their successes.

Since 2013, Mt.Rokko festival has been much praised for their purposeful and beneficial portfolio reviews and even as we had a smaller participation size this year, the variety and standard of projects presented were of greater depth and subject matter. This may be due to the stricter pre-selection process imposed by Takeki Sugiyama, the director to improve the overall photographic standard being presented to the international reviewers.

Part of the reason for attending a festival like Mt.Rokko and its portfolio review sessions is to make new connections with the greater photographic world, with international reviewers and also other photographers from Japan and overseas. Many opportunities can present themselves to participants – especially where their projects are unique or strong, and also where the participant makes the effort to communicate and interact in open discussions or during Q&As at the presentations.

I have known several past participants who have submitted entries to the Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards and have been successful in becoming finalists and also went on to be recognised in other awards and festivals. I am glad to see this happen. I am also seeing participants who have been awarded for their projects that have become stronger and more meaningful in their edits, over the years.


The importance of education – that is, not only by the formal way but through personal development by gaining knowledge through experience and interaction, is vital to any photographer who seeks to advance and elevate his or her craft, both technically and artistically. Portfolio reviews are an effective exercise in receiving critical feedback and guidance in a photographer’s journey for deeper self-expression. I am grateful and honoured for being able to be a part, however small, of this journey with the Mt.Rokko participants.

Rokko Mountain High – Have your portfolio reviewed in Japan, 2015


The 2015 Mt.ROKKO INTERNATIONAL PHOTO FESTIVAL is now accepting participants for it’s Portfolio Review session from 28 – 29 August 2015. The festival runs from 21 to 30 August in Mt.Rokko, Kobe, Japan. In it’s 3rd consecutive year, the festival have explored the themes of Communication and Education in contemporary photography practice. I was fortunate to be involved as a Reviewer and it has broadened my perspectives and views about Japanese photography as well as connecting with many talented photographers from abroad and from Japan too.

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I would recommend any photographer hoping to expand their knowledge and obtain valuable feedback from an international array of Reviewers, to apply for this event, not least, the new friendships, sharing and connections you will make.

Apply here 

See below for past articles :

Festival Update 1 2013

Festival Update 2 2013

Festival Review 1 2014

Festival Review 2 2014

Festival Review Highlights 2014

Festival Feedback Lim Paik Yin 

Festival Feedback Nadia J Mahfix

Festival Feedback Syfrey Moniz

Festival Feedback Ailsa Bowyer

Mt.Rokko 2014 Portfolio Review Highlights

Review Highlights

In my second year attending the review sessions as a reviewer, I have developed a greater sense of appreciation for contemporary Japanese photography, especially within the context of aesthetics, form and content where I found to be very much related to the ‘being’ of the photographer and is intertwined with a personal discovery and journey of the artist, which is rather unique to this nation. Reviews are a great way to discover the ‘pulse’ of what is being photographed at any one time, and having an open mind approach is best, for the genres presented is as varied as the characters of the photographers.

The photography from 15 photographers I reviewed over two days had studies of nature, family, landscapes, objects, street scenes, street photography, architectural images, creative portraits and some ‘road trip’ style photography. The deep respect amongst the Japanese to Nature, family and the home has been the source of many of the themes I continue to see.

Of the photographers I have reviewed this year, the works had better visual narratives, were of high standards and creativity compared to 2013. As expected, the standards of presentations was exemplary, with well printed photographs and good selection of media. I understand that the selection process of the photographers was rigorous and I applaud the organisers in maintaining a standard year to year.

With the review sessions still fresh in my mind, I highlight several photographers whom I have had the opportunity of reviewing, whose works stood out, and made a lasting impression in my mind. This is not to say the others weren’t significant or memorable, however, I would like to share some of the works that have made me reflect a little, surprised me, or stood out photographically as being unique, to my readers.

Susumu Okada – White Traces

Susumu is an accomplished photographer, and he presented his White Traces in perfectly printed large sized exhibition quality inkjet prints. The size of the prints, I think were at least 40 x 50cm, hits you with so much detail and texture that is is difficult to neglect. His series White Traces are streetscapes photographed around Tokyo of isolated spots, flyover pillars, fences, backyards, carparks where the main point of focus are the tiny round white and grey marks left on the hard surfaces by kids hitting baseballs against them, countless times. The images are truly unique and has many dimensions of narrative; reflecting the passage of time, a city neglected, the lack of open spaces, inner city life, etc. One thing, not a single kid is shown playing the game. Tokyo looks deserted, dull and grey.


 All images © Susumu Okada


Mina Daimon – Miniature Garden series (Hakoniwa , A world within a BENTO)


What would we do without the bento? The simple bento box is uniquely Japanese. So, Mina Daimon, a graduate in Landscape Architecture Science presented an amazing series of perfectly filled lunch boxes, which she neatly arranged items of food she painstakingly cooked, in various combinations over a period of months, and photographed them. Her idea for this series comes from the fact that she sees the bento as miniature gardens, tendered to perfection, in a variety of ways in tastes and design, all for the enjoyment of one special person, her husband.  A simple idea takes on a whole new meaning, in this series about food, order, dedication and love.

Work — Mina Daimon Photography

© All images Mina Daimon

Here’s what she says about this series.

I do a simulation in my head before sleeping.
First, packing rice in the first layer of the lunch box.
Then sprinkling sesame seeds on the rice it and garnishing with pickles in the corner.
Taking out the ingredients which had been prepared the night before,and adding the final touches to each dish.
Boiling leaves in plentiful water for marinating.
Cutting everything into the appropriate sizes and filling to fill the second layer of the box.
Hakoniwa (the Miniature Garden) = A world within a BENTO.
I go to work with “my very own garden” hidden in my bag.
It disappears quickly, but brings me happiness through sudden bento-inspirations at work.

Everyone sees their own landscape.

Work2 — Mina Daimon Photography Work3 — Mina Daimon Photography

Minoru Hotsuki – Persona


Minoru Hotsuki hails form Tokyo and again, is an accomplished print maker and photographer. His series of slightly otherworldly portraits, titled Persona is bizarre yet mesmerising. Taking a leaf from ancient Japanese artists, he photographs his friends in several poses, profile and straight-on, and recomposes the forward looking eye into the profile image. Digital trickery aside, this conceptual portraitist has achieved a look in his series mimicking the cubist painters, and ancient artists from the middle-east, into what is the importance of the all seeing and knowing eye, the window to one’s soul. At first glance, the portraits seem normal, perhaps a slight discomfort faces the viewer, until the technique is disclosed, the notoriety of the work shines through.

minoru2 minoru3

© All images Minoru Hotsuki

Hiro Tanaka – Dew Dew Dew Its

Hiro Tanaka is a great guy. I would say he is an opportunist photographer. He followed a band across America for months on end, backstage, frontstage, slept in caravans and RVs, city to city, town to town. Attended raves and parties, met countless of peoples, ate fast food, and just photographed everything, from dogs to kids, to strange plants, drunk friends, landscapes, I mean, everything. He showed me his publication called Dew, Dew, Dew, Its (which I still can’t remember what the meaning is) and I laughed. Not because the pictures are funny, although some of them definitely are, but because the photographs captured, by this ‘foreigner’ in the Land of Opportunity is so ‘in your face’ and exposes all the idiosyncrasies of a nation so diverse as is ‘road America’ in all it’s garishness and colour, that only a roadie like Hiro would have been able to capture, living amongst the very people he relied upon for his travel and lifestyle. It reminded me of Martin Parr’s more astutely photographed Think of England series.  Refreshing.

hiro5 hiro4 hiro3 hiro2 hiro1

 All images © Hiro Tanaka

Shinji Ichikawa – Distance

Rarely have I seen ‘open spaces’ in landscapes so well photographed in Shinji Ichikawa’s project Distance. His images are tightly composed and well observed and in some pictures, he intentionally blacked out the sky or background, creating a false negative space which emphasizes the foreground, making the image surrealistic.




All images © Shinji Ichikawa

Kyoko Yamamoto – Dark series

Kyoko (or Yama as she is known) comes across as a quiet and unassuming photographer, but she has mastered the fine-art aspects of colour, composition and subject matter to high degree of perfection. I did not review her work, but she caught up with me at breakfast on the last day, and offered to show me ‘dark’ series.  Wow, just blew me away!

Kyoko Yamamoto Photography2

Kyoko Yamamoto Photography1

© Kyoko Yamamoto

This series comprises of streetscapes, objects and architectural studies processed to a stop or two from total darkness, and offers a nocturnal dreamlike atmosphere punctured by luminous glimmers and shards of light. Totally moody and accomplished work.


For many photographers, portfolio reviews can be a daunting task. What do you show? How do you show? What do you ask? Do you take notes? What if the work is incomplete? What about the statement? I present some suggestions for photographers attending reviews. Bring only the important series from your recent photography, it can be work in progress or recently completed.  Limit them to about 10 to 15 prints per series and a maximum of 2 series, since there will not be sufficient time to view more than about two projects. I would prefer to look through loose prints than prints inserted into presentation folders, since we can re-sequence or pull out inappropriate images on the desk as we discuss the work. Quite often, photographers bring too many photographs from a project, which in actual fact may contain 2 or even 3 series. Editing of the project is really important, as it shows that you are focussed and the project idea is tight and concise. If your statement is too broad, then your images tend to be the same. ~SL

Mt.Rokko International Photo Festival

Photo books, Galore!


Self-published photography books are all the rave at the moment in the photography world. Although photo books have been around, the advent of print-on-demand online services allowed the cost-conscious photographer to order single or multiple copies at very low costs, where before, the creation of photography books had to go through the usual route of seeking a publisher, raising the necessary funds as well, to stocking and retailing. Wedding photographers today never had it so good. Only five to ten years ago, producing one-off wedding albums for clients were either DIY scrap-book material or prohibitively costly industry printed glossy affairs.

Today, many specialist printers are springing up to offer low run orders strictly geared towards the enthusiast photographer with a portfolio or two to show, and the design tools are becoming extremely sophisticated.

In October, along with the other mentors on the KLPA Exposure+ Photo Project Mentoring Program,  and our participants attended the second IPA Photo Books Show in Singapore organised by Kevin WY Lee of Invisible Photographer Asia. It was timely as the participants duly completed their 3 month-based photo projects earlier in June, and had further time to develop and design their photo books to coincide with this event. Not knowing what to expect, they were all geared up to self-promote their publications with great enthusiasm.

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The event was hosted by the National Museum of Singapore and stretched out for two whole days of the weekend, with Saturday morning allocated for setting up our ‘Malaysian’ stand.  The day was interspersed with several book launches and talks at regular intervals with the public mingling and browsing rows and rows of photography books from many different genres. There were at least 200+ titles available for viewing, and many of the photographers were present also. For this event, the organiser called in books from SE Asia so there were publications and mock-ups from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines and also Japan.

Also launching at the event was Kevin WY Lee’s instalment of the photo book initiative by Platform titled Bay of Dreams. More about this project in the link.

The weekend generated much publicity for our participants, who also had the opportunity to ‘plug’ their own books to the gathered public on the rostrum, and this is a great way to bring identity and visibility and also confidence to the photographer, as often is the case, ‘the artist is the art, and the photograph is the commemorative’.

As the weekend came to a close, Kevin indicated that this second Photo Books Show generated sales of about SGD$20,000 and attracted  1,200 visitors. There were also 15 new book launches over the weekend and much publicity was generated online. For our contingent, everyone went home satisfied and pumped up, each with several sales of their ‘first’ book under their belt, and many new friends made. The event opened our eyes to the growing interest in self-published books, especially in Asia, and that sales can be a reality, if you have a genuine and interesting series of photographic works to be printed into a book. Definitely back for more next year. On a more personal scale, photography books also help photographers focus more on their projects in definite ways, in terms of editing and presentation, allowing serious in-depth thought, through the development and progression of their creative processes.

I would like to extend our thanks to IPA and the Platform bunch for inviting us to the event. We hope for a bigger event next year.

More here on the IPA website and more on EXPOSURE+ here.


Still on the subject of photography books, I had the honour of meeting Fabrice Wagner who runs Le Caillou Bleu – a specialist fine art publisher based in Brussels, recently at the Mt Rokko International Photography Festival, in Kobe, Japan. Do check out his online catalog of some fine collectable books by emerging and established photographers. I came away from this festival with several self-published photobooks presented to me by the photographers I reviewed. The most amazing little photobook one could ever receive was from Miki Hasegawa, titled Jewels, a handmade ‘accordion’ style book, no more than 3 inches square, with pastel images of  photographs about her home taken from a child’s eye level of her daughter. Simply gorgeous.


Mt.Rokko International Photography Festival 2013 – FESTIVAL UPDATE 2


DAY 1, 08 November

First day of the festival began with a hard-hitting full frontal assault on the senses with Antoine d’Agata’s 20-minute video screening of his brutalistic body of work at the YMCA venue on Mt Rokko. Anton spoke, or rather answered questions about his style and approach, his sharing of personal space in which he leads the viewer to an abyss of self-discovery, with his hallucinatory and often grotesque images of personal sexual encounters. He explains his philosophy of ‘intimate and journalistic’ practice as a personal way to document the world around him, photographing the ‘violence’, not liking the aesthetic form which he says now permeates Magnum, which he sees as a compromise, and is useless to him. His subjects now comprise of ‘violence’, which he says exists today stemming from institutional, economic, politics, war and marginal populations of society. Through precise methodology, as clear and lucid as possible, his works even covers architecture.

He also photographs the opposite side of this state – the population that is against society, the reaction to this violence – ie. victims who are at the receiving end this violence. He hints that perhaps this approach does not mix, but in his mind it does. In his video, he shows the Japanese audience a part of world where most do not have access too. Photography as a ‘way of seeing’ is very lazy he opines, as a spectator. He prefers being part of the photography and creating images in which he is embedded within. Documenting human beings’ relationship with the world is more complicated than just looking.

Review Session – Image makers and their images.


After a quick lunch at the Rokkosan Terrace restaurant we headed back to the YMCA to begin the first of the review sessions. These went by smoothly and completed on time from 1pm to 5pm. Each reviewer met at least 8 photographers with a 20-minute slot each, firmly adhered to. My reviewees ranged from highly experienced to keen amateurs, from late 20 to early 60s all thoroughly enthusiastic about their craft. All had very strong content, some more polished than others, and presentation was in the highest order, as expected. We each had an interpreter and Ayako did a fabulous job. I am honoured and privileged to meet so many talented photographers, and also my fellow reviewers, who are some of today’s most dedicated educators and advocates in the world of contemporary documentary and fine art photography. In the early evening, everyone gathered at the Rokkusan Hotel again at the Ajisai Room for the International Symposium.

Naoko Ohta, influential curator from KLEE INC Paris Tokyo talked about the current state of Japanese photography, and how it lacked education in the widest sense, from the youth upwards. She also reminded local practitioners to be more visible through active participation in international festivals, workshops and events. She laments the weakness in contemporary Japanese photography as being inward looking, and lacking depth in their works. Next to talk was Laura Pressley, executive director from CENTER, which runs the Sante Fe photography programs and renowned portfolio reviews, and also Amber Terranova from Bilder Nordic School of Photography in Norway. Each shared their views on the state of photography in the world today, the increasing importance of the value or ‘experience economy’ in all consumer structures, and gave their candid thoughts on the future of photography – about making relationships, fostering communities and connection in career progression. Amber also touched on the growing necessity and skills by photographers of story telling in their work, which often begins as personal funded projects and showed some examples of photo-stories by well-known photographers whose works were later recognised and published.

All in, I can say I really enjoyed meeting with new photographers, especially from Japan. Their desires and wants are the same as photographers in other parts of the world. Guidance and sharing is vital. Laura’s closing tonight summed it up. “Commit to an idea. Be patient. Young photographers need time to ripen. It is not a sprint, but a marathon.”

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Day 2, 09 November

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we started the second day of reviews on time at 9am. A full 2-session review took up most of daylight with a quick lunch at the YMCA canteen, in between. Following the closing of the review sessions, we have each seen and evaluated about 25 attendees’ portfolios over the weekend, shared and communicated with each photographer, and looked at several hundred individual images. The entire party then headed to the Alpen Rose mini ‘dry’ ski centre, to attend the Open Review session, which is also open to the public. This allowed each participating photographer the opportunity to show, share and view each other’s works in an open and casual manner, and I think this is a fantastic set up. The day ended with a screening by guest photographer Hiroshi Watanabe and a Q&A panel discussion with the principals of the festival, led by none other than Antoine d’Agata speaking French – Japanese through an interpreter. It was most bizarre for us English speakers. Lastly, Takeki Sugiyama, closed the festival with a brilliantly compiled slideshow by Emerging Photographers, to an atmospheric and contemporary soundtrack.

The evening ended in a celebratory mood with Takeki-san, festival chairman toasting everyone involved, at the Zine Cafe, a mountain top restaurant and bar with breathtaking bird’s eye night views of Kobe city and it’s harbour.

Day 3, 10 November

Three Satellite Event workshops organised by the festival today. First, an educational workshop involving families and children, engaging and valuing the art, at the YMCA was given by Laura Pressley and Amber. The second was a photography workshop by Tsuyoshi Ito from the USA, on Project Basho and the third, a publishing talk and photobook workshop by specialist independent publisher, Fabrice Wagner of Le Caillou Bleu from Belgium.



I think it will be a very good experience for new photographers to attend the portfolio reviews of this festival next year, as it will surely be beneficial from the sharing and networking, as well as the advice and direction  given by reviewers as well as fellow photographers. Although new, this festival has the personnel, drive and the know-how to only grow.  The increased confidence and enthusiasm I have seen in these photographers when they came into the review hall on the first session and on the last evening was clearly noticeable.  As a reviewer, it also opened my eyes to a great many new works and styles of Japanese images and it is always appreciative to learn that the guidance and direction I have given is taken to heart by the photographers. It evident to me that the earthquake and Fukushima disaster of the recent past has greatly affected the collective psyche of this nation, and thus reflected in several portfolios.

For serious  young photographers, it is actually vital to have one’s work reviewed especially by overseas reviewers in terms of visibility as these are great opportunities that may be career changing.

Links :

Theory Of Cloud Gallery

Mt Rokko International Photography Festival

Mt.Rokko International Photography Festival 2013 – FESTIVAL UPDATE 1


Arrived just in time for the reception at Tanto Tempo Gallery in Kobe hosted by Takeki Sugiyama, founder of this unique photography festival. Unique because, according to Takeki-san, this is probably the first international festival with a good representation of guests and reviewers from outside Japan. It is also unique because of it’s location, in the Kansai region, away from Tokyo, to be set in the picturesque mountains above Kobe and it’s beautiful bay. Special guest photographers Antoine d’Agata and Hiroshi Watanabe (whom I met at Sagamihara in 2007) will be leading their presentations individually over this weekend.


Jay from SIPF and Fabrice Wagner, independent publisher


Antoine d’Agata and Gwen Lee from SIPF


Yoichi Nagata (Fraction Magazine Japan), Naoko Ohta (KLEE Gallery curator), Yosuke Fujiki (B Gallery, Tokyo),  Kunihiro Takahashi (Toseisha / Tokyo) Hiroshi Watanabe.


Welcome to Kobe


Antoine’d Agata, Takeki Sugiyama (MtRokko director), Hiroshi Watanabe, Jay, Gwen sharing a moment

Education, according to Takeki-san is vital, in the moving forward of photography in Japan, especially in the youth, and greater exposure of contemporary Japanese art photography to the ‘outside’  is his challenge.  More later.