Feature on the eponymous series by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki
ZOO Magazine #47, 2015

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Araki has explored pretty much the whole scale of photographic genres, from portraiture to street, landscape, and even product photography since he started his career in the mid-1960s. This is perhaps to be expected from someone who is famous for being the most prolifi c photographer ever, and who has published over 350 books. Araki once said, “If I didn’t have photography, I’d have absolutely nothing. My life is all about photography, and so life is itself photography.” Many commentators of his work have taken up this statement to understand his work as a way of discovering life. But is that really the case or does photography instead make life bearable for him by only seeing it through a lens? Araki never stops shooting as if life itself was not worth living unless it is neutralized on the spot by the halting power of the camera. If that is the case then Araki, who has had his fair share of personal suffering and loss, might not be the only one in Japan who has had to develop his own coping mechanisms for dealing with what might be called “the burden of reality.”

It has been argued that the Japanese nation experienced a collective trauma as a result of both the atrocities perpetrated against it during the Second World War and its own history of oppressing other people. These are the “wages of war” that writer Ian Buruma refers to as a legacy of guilt that has prevented the Japanese people from properly mourning and moving on. A traumatic wound is never readily visible though; it rather takes the shape of unexpected symptoms, and returns to haunt the present. Similarly to other distinguished Japanese colleagues — most significantly perhaps the late Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama — Araki has systematically come back to the Second World War throughout his career, and specifically to the month of August, which is heavy with historical significance. “August is important to me,” Araki said to ZOO Magazine. “The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and on Nagasaki on the 9th, the end of the war also took place in August. I was fi ve years old at the time but this is something I have never forgotten. At that time of the year I always feel the need to do something related to these events.” Just as Tomatsu created disturbing images of objects that had been uncannily deformed by the nuclear bomb, and Moriyama chronicled postwar Japan and its struggle between past and present, Araki has found ways to address the unimaginable without actually naming it. One of his latest endeavors called August (2013) is a series of black-and-white photographs shot with a broken lens during the eponymous month. Araki explains that his use of a defective lens “is related to Fukushima, another nuclear disaster. I know that the nuclear bomb still influences life here in Japan, though; it might be invisible but it is still very present, and I wanted to relate both events.” He declares, “I wanted to visualize the invisible during this very month of August.”

Araki, who is turning seventy-five this year, has been struggling with sickness and impairment. He has undergone cancer surgery, and a recent retinal artery obstruction in the right eye has left him partially blind. Life is catching up on Araki. He has, however, not lost his sense of humor as he mentions that he had to pay for the lens that he had purposefully “hurt” himself in order to take the pictures. And, asked about which project he would most like to be remembered for, he diplomatically replies, “There are too many to choose from. It depends on the viewers; each person can choose his or her favorite. There is nothing I should say or decide. It is always up to the viewers.” He makes what may be his most signifi cant statement when asked about how he deals with his condition, since sight is central to his profession. “I have totally accepted the fact that I have lost my vision on the right eye; I am still moving forward. There is no traumatic event.” Although he might be famous around the world, Araki remains a profoundly Japanese artist, who, similar to his fellow citizens, arguably still struggles with the “burden of reality.”