Interview Ikko Kagari by Maÿliss & Lukas Zpira


Ikko Kagari, is well known in Japan and by amateurs around the world for his controversial photography and his discretion. No one has ever seen his face. It was hard for us to get close to him and it took some time and good connections to arrange the meeting, using several middle men. We finally got an appointment in a cafe in Shinjuku. Our mediator was extremely strict – no shooting, no filming. We had the strange “pleasure” to meet him with his editor. The first approach was really formal and a bit awkward as he thought we were journalists – he obviously doesn’t like them. He was dressed with humble clothes, fishing boots, wearing a cap, a mask and some prescription glasses. We could barely see « something » of him, but hands do not lie. When he reached out to introduce himself it was clear he had lived through a few decades. We threw the first stone and try to start discussing his work, his inspirations. We understood rapidly that the communication was going to be difficult. Our mediator didn’t want the questions to be too direct or controversial and was softening our propos, sometimes changing it to make sure not to offend anyone and to stay as politically correct as possible. We introduced ourselves and presented our work. He told us of the difficulty he encounters to publish, and perhaps a misconception of his approach, especially in the west.

Maÿliss &Lukas : There seems to be a long pauses between your published works. Looking back at your early photography, particularly your subway series, did you continue taking these types of photos? Did you not publish them because of the changes in Japanese society?

IKKO KAGARI: Oh you mean the chikan photos? (a term coined to define the men who grope women often during rush hour in Japanese subway). I love that series, I love the ambiance! We live in an era where it is quite difficult to take these types of photos as security has increased. It would be dangerous.

M&L: Does the chikan phenomena still exist today? Has it changed since the eighties?

I.K: Chikans are quite active in some of the cinemas in Ueno and some subway lines as well. As I mentioned, security has increased making it difficult, but yes it still happens. It was important for us to know how his work was perceived in Japan, but it was clear there was some serious misleading between what we said, what the middleman said, what Ikko understood and what we were translated back. We recorded the interview and had to put back the pieces together, some were missing – lost in translation.

I don’t consider myself as a photographer, I prefer to focus my energy on being present and let the time come when it comes and let things happen when they do…
You know I take lot’s of pictures, different types and I have some major magazines who publish my work, of course no one says I love Kagari’s photos, but they want to see and secretly look at them. I think the people who enjoy my work are mostly intellectuals. It’s hard to take these photos on a regular basis because it happens by chance or as I prefer to say God is putting me in the right place at the right time. I’m not seeking to shoot these rare moments they just happen in front of me. I have so many shots of people who are about to commit suicide, or laying on the train tracks etc… I have the « shutter God » watching over me! I’m just the man who presses the button.

M&L: To shoot do you go to specific places or at specific times? What is the process involved in the way you work?

I.K: I go out walking usually around 4 or 5 am, I walk a lot and I’ve been doing this for 40 years. But I don’t only go out at night. I go everywhere, from Saitama to Yokohama. He took out some pictures from his pocket and started flipping them on the table. He became a little tense when the waitress came with the drinks, and hid the clichés. We asked Ikko if we could take portrait of his hand flipping the photos. Our mediator was against it and a bit offended so he didn’t translate easily. Ikko replied : Yes but only my hands! Please don’t show my hat, I’m starting to get famous on the streets in the underground culture, people start to recognize my hat! I want to stay invisible.

He continued to show the clichés while explaining: I’m always out and about and I always tell myself when I go out with my camera that this could be my last day shooting. I think it’s important to have this passion. Whether I shoot something or not doesn’t matter, it’s not up to me to decide anyways, it’s the gods that decide.

M&L: What are you favorite series?

I.K: The work I would love to publish as a book would be the « Hanami series ». Hanami is the cherry blossom viewing season. We didn’t know he shot anything else than Chikan photos. Probably no one does. A bit surprised, we asked him: Why the hanami photos?

I.K: People gather in the park and get drunk as they watch the cherry blossoms, they loose their inhibitions, you can see the real person and emotions. Cherry blossoms, Japanese spirit and bushido, all these things are linked together! He was full of emotions saying that, as if all the souls he captured were here among us today. He then started to be more comfortable with us, probably smiling behind his mask.

M&L: But you show a completely different side of Japanese society, perhaps the opposite of the image we have of a country where everything is nice, clean and cute. What is your stance regarding your work? Do you perceive yourself simply as a witness of societal phenomena or is your work closer to journalism?

I.K: I love our culture and I want to show what others do not show. Some may try to imitate my work but they can’t succeed because they will spend so much time waiting for that one shot that never comes. A fortune teller told me when I was twenty that I would do something no one else can. I believed this. We would have loved to develop this part that could have helped us to understand the depth and the mysticism of his work, but his answer was not translated to us. Probably because our mediator wanted to keep the interview on the professional side. We perhaps missed or misinterpreted some elements throughout the translation. The image we had of « the pervert photographer » as many call him, started to fade, showing a very sensitive men.

M&L: In western culture your work is perceived as being quite perverted, what are your thoughts on this?

I.K: I love Japan for what it is, and you know the magazines only publish the more controversial work, they want nudity, violence and the likes. If people could see all the other photos I take, that perception would change. My work can be quite tender, like a couple kissing in the park of a temple, but the magazines don’t publish that because it doesn’t bring money. But I photograph all facets of Japanese culture.

M&L: Have you had exposure in the west? Your work is known outside Japan only from few amateurs that pay an expensive price to get your rare books. Ikko’s book are published and distributed at a really reasonable price in Japan -around 30$- but small quantity, and sold oversea among amateurs for up to 600$

I.K: I never had an exhibition outside Japan, but now we have internet so maybe people in the west know more about my work. I’m an old man, and to be frank I’m not that interested in having exposure in the west. I once had an exhibition in Tokyo and some foreigners came. I was surprised by their interest in my work, but I don’t have the desire to have a wide exposure. I don’t consider myself as a photographer, I prefer to focus my energy on being present and let the time come when it comes and let things happen when they do. That’s what I concentrate on. I’m not in search of money or fame. Perhaps that the public considers that I’m a photographer, I want to be the invisible one.

M&L: So you don’t consider yourself an artist?

I.K: Absolutely not. I’m a shokunin, just a worker. Maybe this is a Japanese trait but I stay in the shadow, it’s not in my nature to come forward and say I took this picture. People know my work but they don’t know me. Being invisible to the public isn’t the same as being invisible for the subjects. We wondered and asked: Have you ever had problems with people who appear in your photos?

I.K: Yes many of course! And the mafia too! And now it’s getting very difficult to take photos with hidden cameras and the law has gotten very strict. I never use flash, only a special hidden camera and I’m careful when I take the photos. Of course problems can arise because people don’t want to get caught being naughty. I’ve had situations where I’ve shot mafia members fighting. The best thing to do if you get caught, is to run, fast! But sometimes that’s not possible, so I either call the police or just try to explain my project. Sometimes I need my publisher to get involved (laughs from both of them) and we try to explain what I do. We work with good magazines, not tabloid or trashy ones, which helps the situation when it gets tricky. As our mediator was starting to get a bit nervous, we knew the interview was coming to an end.

So we asked Ikko directly: Would it be possible to visit your studio and film it?

Ikko: No. I don’t have a studio, just my house and I’m looking after my wife who is old and sick. I am the man in the shadow, I like it that way. He added: If you want to see I can show you some Hanami photos, these are the most interesting. Like I said it’s the time when people are joyous, they get drunk, sometimes naked, sometimes even have sex! There are perverts and also voyeurs too. We would have loved to see these photos, but this part was never translated to us. Then, he pulled out some magazines from a bag and he gave us two of his books as presents. He took back the clichés that were on the table. It was time to leave. The invisible photographer disappeared as if he never really existed. Back in the street. We left with a strange feeling and mixed emotions, knowing we’d been part of something exceptional but that we had simultaneously missed something. If you wander Tokyo’s streets in early morning or go in a park to celebrate the coming spring, you may see him, but will not notice him. He will be the one that doesn’t exist, staring right behind you, shooting you in a subway, park, naked at your window. who knows.

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