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25 May 2007

Festival, Part II

More images from the "Moon Viewing Festival." These candles spelled out a message for the revelers.

The EU-Japan Fest in whole represents a desire that's pretty unique in scope. Years ago, as the European Union (then the European Community) solidified deep relations between its member states (think of it as a group of people getting together for business interests and sticking around long enough to become a family), some called for this understanding to be made, in a sense, official.

Their festival website quotes the Greek Minister of Culture in 1985, Melina Mercouri: "A mutual understanding of our cultures, our identities, is essential to true European integration."

So while knowing that their economic ties weren't enough to make a European Union identity one as complete as, say, an American identity or a Brazilian identity (Brazil's being the more fun of those two, perhaps), the EC's Council of Cultural Ministers decided a new Cultural Capital of Europe would be declared each year. The program gives that capital a chance to showcase their country's way of life on an international stage. Since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 (replacing the EC with the EU), the cultural exchange with Japan has gone strong with the EU-Japan Fest. Each Cultural Capital since 1993 has worked with the festival. Again, this is pretty unique: a large international body seeking cultural relations with another international body, for the purposes of celebrating ideas and traditions that are really personal.

24 May 2007

Festival, Part I

Every year, the Japanese celebrate the moon with a festival called the "Moon Viewing Festival." Over the next couple of days, I'll post a couple of my photos from that festival.

It begins late in the evening when people gather for the Ma Cha, the tea making and drinking ceremony. In the meantime, all kinds of performances are held for the picnicking audience.

When I was in Japan for the fourth time (to open the second exhibition in Nara), I was invited to the festival and asked to tell the audience about my involvement with EU-Japan Fest and my experiences with it. Being invited for the opening also meant I had to do publicity for the organization, like giving lectures and leading workshops.

It also meant attending the actual opening ceremony, which was also something memorable: the whole ceremony is rehearsed with the entire crew the day before, to ensure that everything goes as planned. As one of the five or six opening ceremony celebrities, you get a big red and white flower made of ribbon, white gloves that are always much too small, and a pair of too-small golden scissors. Then, on the ceremony-master’s signal, we all cut our part of the ceremony’s ribbon at exactly the same time. I did this twice and it is a great privilege but also great fun.

23 May 2007


The worse thing of all (see the last post: "Skybox") was that Miho had to return to Tokyo and therefore never had the chance to improve on the job. I'm very sorry she had to go in such circumstances. Miho, the pictures that we did make together are simply beautiful!

Alarmed, I decided to be even more careful with my next and last assistant, Yoshiko (seen here photographing a massage therapy session), who arrived on Miho's last day in Wakayama. Yoshiko would stay with me for the rest of the trip; we would have 6 days in total. With her I thought I might have a chance to build a real team.

First we tried our luck in a little harbour where I started my trip in Wakayama. I had seen some more places that looked good to me but I never had the chance to check them out, because we always had to leave once we were there. I watched Yoshiko closely when she gave her first performance and after the second idle attempt I saw what she was doing wrong. It seemed she was trying to sell something to the other person and that, of course, didn't work. After I tried to explain to her what I had seen, I told her to try and do it simply, her own way. We called it a day and left for the south to our Bay Hotel in Minabe Town.

(This was a great place by the way, the owners really made you feel at home and the cooking was great.)

After a while Yoshiko began to get lucky, and I saw she was enjoying it when she found success. She loosened up and started to get the right feeling. It was good to see her being herself and approaching people with great confidence and in a very natural way.

I found the places and she got me in time after time.

22 May 2007


I wound up having five different assistants in Nara (not six), and they helped me for a couple days each. That can be a problem because you do not get the chance to become a team in that short a period, but in Nara it worked out just fine.

Wakayama was totally different, especially in the beginning. Here we got no for an answer time and again. I was travelling with Miho (that's actually Yoshiko, above--more about her in the next post) and I felt that it would be better if we moved to the south, somewhere halfway down the coast, and find ourselves a good hotel from which to work. The only thing was that the appointments were again scheduled throughout the week and all in the north around Wakayama City. Blast!

And that’s when I lost it myself: after two days of struggling and getting no for an answer I began to lose my patience and felt uneasy about what was going on. I gave Miho a hard time about the appointments and in doing that I made the biggest mistake I could have made. I killed the team spirit and wasted my precious, vulnerable assistant. And nobody was more sensitive to that than Miho. I apologize for that and I want to stress that she was a great help while she was with me, and that I enjoyed her company very much.

At the same time, I also realized what we were doing wrong. We were simply trying too hard. We pushed the rope instead of pulling it gently and we were aiming only for paradise, paying no attention to the road we were travelling on. You see how easy it is to fall into the trap, even for me.

21 May 2007

The Thing With Assistants

Above is me with Mikiko, curator and artistic director of "European Eyes on Japan." Her email about preparations for my project stated: “We are organizing your assistants, maybe six different ones and probably all young girls."

Well, I had no problem with six different assistants and I had no problem at all with young girls.

The only thing with young assistants (boys or girls) is that they tend to try too hard to succeed and are very afraid to fail. This makes them very vulnerable and insecure individuals, and in that condition of no use to me at all. Just imagine yourself being approached by a stranger -- a foreigner -- who is going to ask to take your picture inside your very own house... ? If I'm honest, I don't think I let the guy in myself. It would take a very confident person to have any chance of success at all.

Before I decided to become a photographer professionally, I was afraid to lose my hobby; the joy of simply making photographs. I told myself that that would not happen if I kept an eye on that. The only true way to become a professional photographer at that time was to get a job as an assistant photographer. This was very difficult. There were not that many professional photographers around in Holland and totally not outside of Amsterdam. Assistants were standing in line to get a job.

I was very lucky to get a job within no time and find myself in a situation that was beyond my imagination. It was completely different from what I expected. Away went my ideas of the future. At the same time I had to pay great attention to what was going on because it was all new to me.

Before I knew it, I was in the same line of work as these photographers and far away from my ideal: to become a true independent and well-respected photographer. All I knew from that moment on was the struggle to get work and to survive. The ideal life of the independent photographer whose work is respected by the audience was not in sight anymore. It took me ten years to realize that, and I weathered a big financial disaster during which my two daughters were born to make me change my direction, and try to go back to my first ideal. You can compare this with swimming against the stream of the river. It is extremely difficult and can only be done by not letting your mind get distracted from the other side that you want to reach.

I want everyone involved to have the same experience of enjoying what they're doing up to the highest possible standard. That is the only thing that I demand of my so-called assistants. Because they are no assistants of course; they are my keys to the houses of the people I want to photograph. I believe that only when both of us are really enjoying the hunt, we can succeed. It's called teamwork.