Nobuyoshi Araki (荒木経惟) (b. 1940) is one of the most celebrated photographers in Japan
(b. 1940) is one of the most celebrated photographers in Japan and
one of the most prolific photographers in the world. He has published
over 400 books, beginning in 1970 with Xerox
which was produced with the aid of a photocopy machine. With the
publication of Sentimental
a record of the artist’s honeymoon, Araki made his mark on
contemporary photography by exposing the private and intimate events
of his wedding journey to public view. His candid photographs, often
considered pornographic, have provoked conflict with authorities in
Japan and controversy in the West. The interview addresses issues
concerning Araki’s participant/observer method of dealing with his
subjects, his blurring of reality with fiction, pornography,
authorship, productivity, and the editing process.
am most interested in how you gained intimate access to your
subjects. How did you develop your method?
ask me such a thing! I gained access through sex. Sex is like
foreplay. Photography comes afterwards. Or vice versa.
you have sex with all your models?
Of course I had sex with all my models. It is a certainty. But now I
can’t do it any more. I am so sorry.
project documenting the red light district of Tokyo in the 1980s, as
seen in the book Tokyo Lucky Hole (1990), entailed
intimate access to the sexual practices of the district’s
prostitutes and their clients. Your first person participatory
approach, with you in the role of customer, often resulted in
photographs of you taking part in erotic acts. It is akin to the
technique of an anthropologist investigating his own culture through
participation and active observation. What was your motivation for
needed to break down the me-and-you barrier. I can say that I have
collapsed the previous tradition of photography that emphasized
objectivity. In the past, photographers felt they had to eliminate
their subjectivity as much as possible. I consider myself a
“subjective” photographer. I try to get as close as possible to
the subject by putting myself within the frame. In addition, this
action avoids making my photographs mere works of art. Photographs
taken by others are better photos than I took [ laughs]. Sometimes I
give my camera to a subject and my subject takes a picture of me.
I frequented the club which appeared in Tokyo Lucky Hole,
there was a guy who came with me. In the course of the activity of
having fun, I would pass my camera to a woman or to him. Sometimes he
would take pictures of me. He instructed the women in using the
camera. By doing so, I got different kinds of shots. Sometimes the
photographs caught that I didn’t get an erection.
it the editor of Photo Age who accompanied you?
editor came with me, but not him. The editor at Uwasa no
Shinsō [The Truth of Rumor] came with me. He was an
enthusiastic participant. He played multiple roles, from taking
pictures of me to being a customer himself. Today’s editors don’t
do that for me any more. It was back in the 1980s. There is no good
photo or bad photo. It doesn’t matter.
passing in and out of the view of your camera’s lens, thereby
blurring the boundary between photographer and subject, intrigues me.
Photographers such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark also appear in their
works. What is your rationale for revealing such personal activities
to the public?
me, photography is (by definition) to reveal oneself. Both Clark and
Goldin focus on particular situations and occasions. However, I came
to photography because I like to explore the banality of life,
people’s ordinary activities. I don’t pursue any special
of your books, such as Sentimental Journey (1971)
and Yoko My Love (1978), document your deceased
wife’s private life with you. Sentimental Journey brought
you a lot of attention for its honest depiction of everyday life,
like pictures in a family album. These pictures, including shots of
Yoko having sex with you, are quite revealing. What made you decide
to publish such personal images? Did you consider their shock value?
Was this a way to gain an attention to your career? How did your
wife, Yoko, feel about being physically and emotionally exposed to
that degree? Would you say she was your collaborator?
did not intend to shock anyone. I had more of a “natural impulse.”
Only artists without talent try to shock people. Because showing
naked (genitals) was prohibited (in Japan), it was sensational to
show them, but I was not thinking in such a calculated way. As to my
honeymoon, I started taking photographs right away, beginning with
our train ride, and then having sex. That is what everyone does on a
honeymoon, so it is nothing special.
the time the book was published, people were more concerned about
sex. Now people care less.
Journey was published, Yoko brought this book to the office
where she worked. The great thing about Yoko is, she tried to sell it
to her co-workers, even to her boss.
have luck with women. I am not a great photographer, but I only have
great subjects such as Yoko and Kaori.
next important book, Pseudo-Diary (1980), seems to
challenge the notion of “honesty,” which was the key factor
in Sentimental Journey (1971). Did you choose to blur the
boundary of truth intentionally, in order to mock or deceive the
viewers? Is it true that you added inaccurate dates for each photo
me, taking photographs can be just like keeping a diary. During the
1980s, everyone was taking pictures like a diary. In that cultural
climate, the first cameras with a date function were introduced to
the public. Such a camera allowed you to date all your photographs.
It could be manipulated so easily. I took photographs, one after
another, with different dates since I could switch the past with the
future by manipulating the dates on an automatic camera. Photography
is lying, and I am a liar by nature. Anything in front of you, except
a real object, is fake. Photographers might consider how to express
their love through photography, but those photographs are “fake
love.” That is how I make the future and past. That’s why I
entitled it “Pseudo-Diary.” I can create 2020 in 2010.
noticed there were a lot of pictures dated April 1st. NA: April
1st is the ultimate metaphor for the photographer as a liar
[from the tradition of April Fools’ Day]. Also, there are a lot of
August 6th,, 9th, and 15th dates relating to bombing of
Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan respectively
in Pseudo-Diary (1980). In the publication Tokyo
hōshasen (Tokyo Radiation) (2010), I only used dates from
August 6th to 15th. This is a sequel to Tokyo Zenritsusen gan
(Tokyo prostatic cancer) (2009) I am making a connection
between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and my own
radiation treatment for cancer. I know it is unethical to relate my
personal treatment to such significant dates of Japanese history
do you think photography is a form of lying?
is a secondary thing, because actual objects are true and photography
is a lie and a merely a copy of reality. Existence comes first. So
you don’t have to make a big deal about photography.
next question is about the relationship between your work and
pornography. Generally in Japanese pornographic photography, models
are young and beautiful, usually digitally manipulated to make
perfect images. However, in your photographs, many of the women are
wrinkled and deviate from the cultural norm of beauty. What do you
suppose male contemporary viewers think about your models? Do you
consider male viewer’s responses? Are you trying to please the male
viewer or are you trying to rebel against the male viewer, even as a
don’t think about it. I do not care about my male viewers’
responses at all. My friends have complained, for a long time, that
they cannot masturbate to my photos. That is because they do not have
a sense of how to look at photography. When photographers in general
make ordinary pornography, they do not touch the models. Male viewers
in general seek “beautiful” images in pornography. Meaning, they
do not want to look at reality in women’s body such as wrinkles and
“love handles”.. That’s why other male viewers can’t
masturbate to my work. But I think the dirtiness of sex would in fact
attract people. Beautiful “normal” pornography does not appeal to
the human heart.
with a digital camera, a photographer can only present a virgin
because a digital camera is like a virgin. It doesn’t have a
history. With a film camera, I can present the model and her
ex-boyfriends all at once, because a film camera has a long history.
A woman’s image shot in film reflects the existences of her three
prior boyfriends. It shows the model’s history.
different is your work from conventional pornographic photography in
photography reveals everything, differently from typical pornography.
There is a Japanese proverb, “Hiding makes it flower (秘すれば花).”
[If you hide something, it becomes more valuable and beautiful.] But
my models and photographs show everything. That can’t make it
flower. I am not photographing to show someone else, but
photographing for myself. All these soft pornographic photographs in
magazines do not last, but my photos will remain. [To add more
context, the women in traditional Japanese pornography often seem to
be embarrassed, whereas the women in Araki’s photos appear more
are widely regarded as a photographer who knows how to communicate
with your subjects. How do you relate to them? What do you say to
them? Do you always use the same methods when you work with models?
depends. I keep talking to them when I photograph. I cheer them up by
would you describe your relationship to your camera?
camera is like my pants? It’s hard to say. It is certain that I
cannot live without a camera.
you bring your camera today?
can take your nude photos later. [Araki laughs while removing a
camera from his bag.] This camera takes color photographs and has a
date function. Color is Eros. I like color photographs. I call them
Kōshoku nikki [好色日記].
[This is translated as “lechery diary”, but 好色
be literally translated as “ likes color.”] Liking this
combination of Eros
that you are licentious. Releasing a shutter is like making a wink.
you ever use a digital camera?
digital cameras are for stupid people. Pictures taken by a digital
camera only show the instant moment. A digital camera copies the
presence of reality. What you see is what you get. However, there may
be something added to the frame during the process of developing or
printing when it comes to gelatin silver print. There could be
sentimental feelings in those photographs. This kind of “mysterious
secret” goes into the process of using a film camera. It is humane,
so it is appropriate for photographic expression. I do not feel the
body temperature of the subject in digital image. There is no
physicality. A digital camera turns a photographer into a robot, with
of your works are exquisitely composed; others appear to be quite
casual, in the style of snapshot aesthetics. Can you tell me about
the way you photograph? Were you aware of works by Robert Frank?
don’t think about Robert Frank’s photographs at all. Frank would
like to show his intelligence and ideas through his photography. His
photographs were about social consciousness or social reality. But I
don’t take pictures about social consciousness. For example, the
pictures by Frank taken from the window of a bus have a high vantage
point, like a bird’s eye view of the city. That’s how he became
an observer of the society. However, I take photos from a taxi
window, a very low vantage point. It can be a close-up view of
people. What I see from a taxi window are women’s butts. That’s
why there is no slump for me. Robert Frank told me that what is great
about me is I have not experienced any slump.
next question is about your productivity. Are you always intending to
take a lot of pictures? NA: It is a way of life.
Taking photographs is like heartbeat and breathing. The sound of
pressing the shutter is like a heartbeat. I don’t think about
productivity at all. I just shoot life itself. It is very natural for
a photographer, the moment he shoots is most thrilling. Developing
and printing comes later; it is secondary. That’s why we are all
poor. I enjoy taking pictures very much, but I am not thinking about
many books have you published?
four hundred. It’s like diarrhea. When I take photographs, I
publish them immediately so that I don’t get constipated.
edits your photo books? Do you get involved in the editing process of
general, I think photographers should edit as well. Making
photography demands a series of choices, like, who to photograph and
which photographs to show. I have so many photo books. However, I
think I have the responsibility of editing my photo books. For those
works that have the word “sentimental” in their titles, I edit
them by myself. All my photos are great, so even if someone else
edits them, it still makes a great book. In general, most of the time
it is more interesting when editors are involved. Photography is
collaboration, because taking a picture requires collaboration with
models, and editors are necessary collaborators for me.
Collaborations make things better. One gets more excited (sexually)
when someone else is looking, right?
you edit the book, Pseudo-Diary?
I edited that one. In that book, editing just meant taking random
dates and arranging the photos according to the dates; it’s
the editing, the editor specializing in literature said, “You need
to put some text along with photographs.” I considered my
photographs talkative enough, so I didn’t want any text, and I
said, “No.” As an example, an editor said that the
Journey – Spring Journey –
[a book about Araki’s beloved cat, Chiro, who died in 2010] needs
text along with Chiro dying, but words cannot be of any help in this
devastating situation. So I inserted photographs instead of text. I
would not have inserted any photographs unless some editors asked me
to insert texts. In this way, making photo books can often bring a
new idea through the collaboration with people. Sometimes editors can
inspire me, but it doesn’t make this someone else’s book.
Collaboration produces better photo books.
Was Chiro your alter-ego?
Well, I am not sure, but her presence was great to that extent.
find a great sense of humor throughout your work. Where does your
comic bent come from? Are you influenced by the traditional Japanese
erotic Ukiyo-e prints,
which often portray light-hearted sex (Shunga,
have a sense of humor by nature. I think humor is very important.
Within Japanese culture, a sense of humor (comicality, 滑稽さ)
is a virtue. If it is not expressed well, it’s not interesting. I
believe the Japanese sense of humor comes from Edo period. However, I
wasn’t influenced by Ukiyo-e浮世絵
earlier interviews, you stated that you were influenced by Japanese
culture rather than by well-known photographers in the West. What is
your relationship with Japanese culture? More specifically, what is
your relationship with the city of Tokyo?
is my neighborhood in both a physical and a mental sense. I often
take pictures of the sky, but the sky is not the sky if it is not
taken from my own balcony. Sky can be interesting only in
juxtaposition to the electric poles and wires that are running
through Tokyo. Images of the sky alone are not very interesting.
‘Sky’ is other world; life after death. ‘City’ (Tokyo) is
this world. My photos must contain both of them in the same frame.
“Sky is like a film!” Sounds sophisticated, doesn’t it?
have read that you were influenced by the short-lived Japanese
avant-garde photography magazine Provoke from the
late 1960s. What aspects of the magazine work affected you at the
would not say “influenced”, but it was definitely on my mind. I
couldn’t fully participate in it, but I shared the rebellious
spirit with Provoke. Two years later, Provoke was
pushing me toward the direction of making the book,Sentimental
Journey. It became an inspiration for Sentimental
did you learn about Provoke?
knew about it. It was strange for them that I had asked to join them
because I was working for Dentsu[an advertising company].
Takuma Nakahira of Provoke considered me an enemy
and attacked me. But when he met me, we became friends with each
other. Daido Moriyama defended me. Moriyama said, “He is a nice
guy.” Everyone there was very serious. I told them, “Don’t get
a fever over an idea. It’s just an idea. Everybody becomes too
passionate about photography, but it’s only art and photography.
Why would you be so enthusiastic about it?”
and his friend went to Zushi, swimming across the ocean to go to the
island. They were criticizing other photographers. They were critical
of photography. I think it was not necessary to be so critical of
each other. If I said something wrong, they would have killed me.
They were that passionate in the critical sense.
blur several boundaries in photography; fact and fiction, formal and
informal, your position as a producer and as a subject. This raises
the question of authorship.
do not have any authorship whatsoever. I transgress the boundary as
if going back and forth between life and death. Sometimes I was
taking photos from the window of a car. Up until now, the inside of
the car was this world and the outside of the car was the other
world, but lately it has become the opposite. Inside the car is the
outer world. Outside the car is this world. I feel as if I am taking
photographs from a hearse. Sometimes I am looking at the outer world
from inside, or I am looking at the inner world from outside. This
position can be very fluid and will change again in the future, for
often let other people take pictures in which you appear as a
subject, but you claim them to be your photographs. Who has
authorship of these works?
is not the work. You shouldn’t make photography into an art work.
in your photo books, the photographs are all credited to you.
the camera has the authorship, not the photographer. And I own the
I saw Sentimental Journey – Spring (2010) your
recent book about your cat, Chiro. I found it to be emotionally
touching. Your decision to include images of the dead cat, its
cremated body, etc., recalls the final book about your
wife, Sentimental Journey – Winter (1991). You
said that Yoko served as a mirror to reflect yourself. I assume the
cat also played that role. Are you identifying yourself as a cat?
I took photographs of Chiro, no one could come between us. We were
just looking at each other intensely without saying anything. There
is a powerful relationship between me and Chiro.
you conscious of your own mortality? What will be your last picture?
Who will take a photo of you when you are dead? Have you thought
about such things?
will take my own photo from the coffin by using a digital camera for
the first time. I think I am haunted by death. The god of death is
approaching me, but I am far away from him because a goddess from New
York came to me. The evil spirit ran away because of you.