Hagio Prize 16th Year Winner: Rebecca Steltner
After I finished the SOAS Diploma in Modern Japanese in July 2015 I was very lucky to be able to go to Japan for what would turn out to be almost five months! I am incredibly grateful to Mrs. Hagio, SOAS and the Thomson Reuters Foundation for this amazing opportunity.
I had been to Japan on short trips before but thanks to the Hagio prize I was able to pretend that I actually lived in Tokyo and to join local photography clubs and later also the Jeara Art School as their first foreign student.
When I first arrived – this time with a diploma in Japanese in my pocket mind you – I found out very quickly that my language skills were perhaps still not quite up to discussing aesthetics and interviewing artists using Keigo. I have to admit that this made me question myself quite a bit until I remembered that photography was supposed to communicate through images and I joined some friendly amateur photography groups. Especially, the local Instagram group was very welcoming and in September I had the chance to meet many interesting people and to start practicing my Japanese, while making a first attempt at street photography. Funnily enough, the group included quite a few foreigners but few of them were English speakers and so most of the time Japanese was the lingua franca, perhaps not something you would expect when you see three girls from Thailand, the UAE and Europe!
With the Instagram crew and the photographer friends I made there, we organised quite a few trips in Tokyo, for example to Tsukiji Fish market to document the old market before it will move this year, Showa Memorial Park for autumn leaves and Tokyo Dome for a spot of bokeh-shaping and turning every illumination into hearts. Later I also tried my hand (and nail scissors) at turning Ikebukuro's lights into Kanji shapes.
We also ventured a bit further out to Jogashima to photograph birds of prey and to Hanno and Iberaki, where I learnt about each of the monthly flower obsessions such as Higanbana, Cosmos and the amazing pink Kokia bushes. One thing that really surprised me was that despite living in a metropolis most people I met – not just photographers and even guys! – seemed to be aware of what was in season and there are so many more plants to discover besides Sakura. It made me think back to the bluebell forests outside of London, that I had never made it to …
At the Strobists Society and Portrait Photography groups I learnt to use studio lighting and work with models for the first time, which really is a great exercise for reviewing て-forms. In Shibuya you can rent a studio with all the lighting equipment from just 3000¥ per hour (about £20) and it's big enough for 5 or 7 photographers to share. I did have some strange experiences here though. When I arrived at the first event, a group of about 10 photographers were already setting up the equipment and having geeky chats about lenses and the benefits of various strobes and adapters. A table was laden with fancy cameras and behind a curtain the make-up artist was discussing today's look with a couple of models. I went to introduce myself as a new member and was quickly ushered behind the curtain to join the models. I decided my Japanese must be even worse than I thought and tried again. Flattering though it is to be sent to the models, no one believed that I was there to take photos until I opened my bag to wave my Nikon in the air! In the end I was very happy with my first studio pictures because I could walk freely between the two rooms and so was able to have an input on the clothes and the make-up. Being a woman photographer certainly was an advantage there.
Later, I would return to the same studio with my friend Meo and quite a famous photographer she had in tow, who wanted to experiment with studio lighting, too. We took turns to model and take pictures but when I was editing the shot later, it was obvious how we'd fallen into somewhat stereotypical roles: my friend had brought a beautiful Thai dress and Mori-san had brought a Kimono he often lends to his models. Of course we girls couldn't resist wearing these when it was our turn to pose. However, when Mori-san posed it was as the photographer that he was; in jeans and socks and holding his camera. I hope Mori-san doesn't read this because I am still hoping to get my revenge if I ever get to meet him in Tokyo again and put him in his own Kimono!
Meo also introduced me to a group of young fine art photographers and this is how I got to discover the 美しすぎるSE exhibition somewhere in a Shinjuku basement. It was a group exhibition of several portrait photographers with very different styles and also different ways of presenting their work ranging from polaroid collages to floor-to-ceiling fashion shoots. I wish I could repost some of these images here. That evening, I wandered around taking ages to try and decipher the descriptions of the art works when I noticed a girl posing in front of some of the frames. She seemed to know a lot of the artists and when we started chatting I asked her what the name of the exhibition "Beautiful SE" meant. She told me it was her; that all the photos that I had been looking at were of her! The exhibition was about to close and the mob was already pushing and shoving towards an izakaya but we walked back to some pictures as I made her pose next to herself to check that it was really her as the images were all so different. She told me that she was also the one who had arranged the shoots and commissioned the exhibition. Leaving me wondering once again, who the artist was in this project? Finally, I asked what 'SE' stood for. "Systems engineer, of course", she replied. "I am a beautiful Systems Engineer." One of 'her' photographers is Kenta Soyoung whose work can be seen here https://www.instagram.com/kenta_soyoung/
For three months I had now been trying to join a photography school as well. Something I wish I could have done at the beginning of my trip but the schools I found were often not open to foreigners and when I finally found the JEARA art school and applied there, they also had to go away and check if they had a rule against Gaijin joining. Luckily, for me no one had thought of that yet and so I could join. Everyone was very lovely and patient with me as I joined when I took classes during my last month in Tokyo. Only the teacher had to make sure I got 'picked on' at least as much as everyone else. She must have been telepathic as she seemed to know exactly when I had got a little lost and would put me on the spot, say to name something yellow and to explain what it might represent in a picture. You know the kind of question when your mind will invariably go blank? And then in this case start to scramble for things that you can actually say in Japanese that are yellow? I tried to think back to vocabulary 'games' we had in Shin-Sensei's class and my only criticism would be that we definitely didn't learn enough yellow things that would pass as arty!
In the end I received not one but two diplomas, one in Romaji and one in Katakana, just two days before I had to return home: a perfect souvenir really of an amazing time that allowed me to meet so many interesting people. Some of them agreed to let me take their portraits that can be seen here https://www.instagram.com/beccy.portrait. I hope I can continue to take portraits when I move to Japan to teach English for a year from June 2016. This trip has certainly inspired me to want to stay in Japan a little longer and I hope to one day exhibit some of my work with my new friends in Tokyo. Perhaps I should take some photos of beautiful systems engineers.