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 http://www.rokkophotofestival.com ]

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.

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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.

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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.

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Mt.Rokko International Photo Festival 2016 : Portfolios reviewed.

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Let’s begin!

I recently attended the Mt.Rokko International Photo Festival 2016 in Kobe, Japan as reviewer and below are the notable works that I have personally seen over the 3-day event. I have been coming to this festival since 2013, organised by Takeki Sugiyama and his excellent team of volunteers and staff. The festival is centred around the portfolio reviews, of which there are 21 reviewers and 42 photographers. There are also presentations and slideshows from the guest photographers, this year, being Jamey Stillings, Kosuke Okahara and Alejandro Durán.

The overall standard of work is notably higher, since the director implemented a pre-screening and presentation session earlier in the year, to prepare the selected photographers to obtain maximum value in attending the reviews. This is clearly seen, in my experience last week, of being presented with clear and concise statements, quality loose prints in presentation boxes and a few well-edited work. However, as other reviewers also noted, photographers are still presenting too many prints in their series, and in some cases, too many series. Anything more than 20 images for me, would be too many.

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Kyoko MARUYAMA
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Kyoko MARUYAMA

One of the most arresting images I recall were the two silver gelatin photographs (above) from Kyoko Maruyama‘s project Heart Island project -Awa. Although the series is not complete in terms of photography, she had an initial idea to photograph the inhabitants of this district in Chiba – under threat from possible massive contamination  of the land through the underground storage of unknown polluted soil. The story itself warrants documentation over the next years and has potential.

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Takayuki NARITA

When Takayuki Narita, a young and trendy photographer, with manly long hair and light beard sat down and presented me his statement, titled ROSE GARDEN and printed on paper with light pink roses and pale green leaves, I didn’t know what to think.

Until he showed me his series of garish, over-saturated ‘studies’ of people enjoying themselves in a sunny Osaka park well known for roses – I begin to understand his obsession with the flower. He writes “The modern day flower thieves snatch the images of flowers with the digital cameras, smart phone in forms of megapixels”. As an observer of human behaviour, his carefully composed scenes are humorous as well as reflective of our modern ‘image-sharing’ societies across the world.

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Takayuki NARITA
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Takayuki NARITA
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Laura VALENTI (Photo Lucida Critical Mass)
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Toshiyuki SHIRAI

I also reviewed Toshiyuki Shirai‘s [without joy, without happiness] series of self-portraits dressed in what is a typical ‘salaryman’ (business) man suit, posed in expressionless faces in ‘out of context’ situations, eg. playground, swings and slides where children enjoy themselves.  He complains of the ‘mental torture that salarymen endure like “a man digging a hole in the morning, and fill it in the afternoon every day, endlessly”. This creative series can be expanded to include other scenarios – like on a beach, in a kindergarten etc  where the contrast can be extended. I like this kind of photo series – of self -examination and creative portrait photography.

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Toshiyuki SHIRAI
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Toshiyuki SHIRAI
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Noriko TAKASUGI

I knew of Noriko Takasugi‘s recent portrait at this year’s Taylor Wessing Photoprize where she was a finalist with her portrait of celebrated Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Also, her Fukushima Samurai series of portraits which she showed at Mt.Rokko this year. What I didn’t expect was the depth of research she had done in this project which, for several years now, has over 40 fine portraits of modern day samurais, each, dressed in traditional garb and photographed respectfully in and around the Fukushima area. It is time a book is published.

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Ryosuke SAITO
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Ryosuke SAITO

Another promising work I have seen is Ryosuke Saito’s humorous observational series of ‘tourists, smartphones and selfies’ called “#photooftheday”  (- complete with hashtag).

His witty captures of beachgoers in Thailand reveals more about what I term the ‘experience’ economies have to offer and yet informational exchange still holds true in our social media world. Similar ideas with the Rose Garden series above.

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Eiji OHASHI

Another brilliant colour series is by Eiji Ohashi from Hokkaido.I saw him at Mt.Rokko last year where he displayed a black and white collection of his Vending Machine series. At the time I thought that they could be improved if he captured them in colour instead. This year he showed another set of vending machines in colour, and I thought they were significantly improved, as they showed the placements of these machines in more realistic and contemporary settings. The images are quiet reflections of an essential and modern invention that is found all over the country. He has 9 pieces of this series being shown at the Singapore International Photo Festival 2016 in October.

The photographer known as TOMM is a bubbly person and dons a  pair of Yohji Yamamoto trousers. He showed me his series of raw and gritty black and white photographs of festival people from over 30 such events across Japan called Ikai (Spirit World).

His pictures are to record what he calls ‘tamafuri’ or life soul of these events in modern times Japan, where science makes everything efficient and festivals seem irrational and strange at times. He photographs in black and white to depict the sacredness of their existence.

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TOMM Photographer
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TOMM Photographer
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TOMM Photographer
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TOMM Photographer

I found his images to be varied, strong and well composed, as often than not, photographing at public festivals can be quite restricted in terms of vantage points.

His images are bold and has a sense of immediacy to them, unlike many festival photography series I have seen. I did suggest to Tomm if he could visit the annual Thaipusam festival in Malaysia one day, that would be right his street.

One of my favourite images of the festival came from Takako Fukaya from Aichi.

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Takako FUKAYA

She is a mother three girls and she started showing her black & white images of them playing and doing normal things in and around her home, gardens and recreational parks. I didn’t feel as though she was portraying them in their joyful existence as they seemed too contrived. Nonetheless, when she began to show me her previous series of colour studies of them, right at the end of the review session, it completely surprised me! This set of toned portraits was fresh : innovative and whimsical, using homely props and natural light with effect. Beautiful.

Finally, I was also impressed with Yoshi Okamoto‘s series about women scorned. There is much intimacy and isolation that showed through to the viewer with her work about depression, despair, loss and ultimately, an unknown fate  which lies ahead for the woman in the picture. Yoshi is no stranger to awards, as one of the images from this series was selected as a finalist in the Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards 2016. We also discovered that she has been selected as one of the 100 candidates at Review Sante Fe this year.

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Yoshi OKAMOTO
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Yoshi OKAMOTO (R)

I would like to mention Shyue Woon‘s Car Park series of dimly light atmospheric scenes. This was his first review in his photographic practice and was proposed by myself to attend the portfolio review at Mt.Rokko this year. His work was also projected at the Emerging Photographers Slideshow on the final evening to all the gathered photographers, reviewers and guests.

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Shyue WOON – Emerging Photographers Slideshow

The final mention goes to the Anne-Sophie GUILLET a French photographer on a residency in Japan. She showed two series, Inner Self and Reminiscence.

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Anne-Sophie GUILLET

I’m a sucker when it comes to a strong portrait image, and she has not one but several strong ones in her series Inner Self, which are formal portraits of ‘androgynous’ strangers she met on the street, invited to their homes and photographed. To me, this is such an interesting photo project which does not involve any kind of travel or fanciful enactments but require patience, trust and a lot of goodwill.

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Anne-Sophie GUILLET

Reminiscence goes deeper, and she explores her childhood memories at her grandmother’s house in the French countryside. The house is no longer in the family but she has her grandmother’s objects and belongings to which she photographs at the house and it’s surroundings to immortalise her fading memories.

Each year the Mt.Rokko reviews always bring out some extraordinary work and this year these are the more memorable and meaningful ones for me. I’m sure other reviewers will have their own set of favourite projects, and  would like to close by thanking the festival director Takeki Sugiyama for his constant drive for education and exposure, and to make this event a success in Japan.

Arigatou gozaimasu.

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Open Portfolio Viewing