Satoru Yoshioka is a Japanese photographer who has been active as an artist for over two decades, photographing his unique vision of remarkable places and concepts. His work spans a range of delicate pinhole camera portraits of friends, to a visual archive of the most advanced high energy particle physics labs around the world. In this exclusive interview Yoshioka discusses his attraction to amazing places and the nature of his motivation.
CERN # 006, CERN / European Organization for Nuclear Research (Swiss) 2007
You photograph unique and amazing places. Most of us will never see the inside of a high energy particle physics lab, for example. How did you first begin to be interested in creating these pictures?
Actually my first experience with it was at the Acceleration Center in the states. They changed their name in 2008. It was in my neighborhood. I used to go there and have lunch sometimes. My roommate was an engineer. It was an ordinary thing for me, to go to the high energy particle physics lab.
At some point someone there told me that they are looking for the reasons of the universe, and I wondered if the place is big enough to really find the answers to such a question. I got a permit to take pictures after meeting the communications director. He gave me one hour to take pictures when the machine was stopped during maintenance. The pictures came out great, and I am grateful to him for opening the world of high energy particle physics to me.
Going back to the beginning though, I guess it is about capturing beauty. If I think back to the start of my photography, my pinhole black and white portraits, they are pictures of my friends. Sometimes when I was sleeping I would think of the kind of images I wanted to see. I was using big 4 x 5 Polaroid negatives, because I could see the image right away. In the old days, when you used film, you didn’t know what you were getting. Now with digital processes I can see the images right away. I like to make the images. I don’t care about the process part. Some people like the process, but for me I just need something that can do the job of capturing beauty.
What has been your most amazing experience as a photographer? What happened?
I have many of them, on different occasions. Some time ago I was at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company studio in New York. I was taking pictures of a Japanese dancer there, Mizuta Koji. He was the first Japanese dancer to join that company. Merce Cunningham is the father of modern dance, like John Cage is the father of modern sound. He’s like the god of dance. So just taking pictures of these dancers, to see how good they were, it was something important for me. They were dancers who performed in the best venues in the world, so shooting him in that studio was amazing.
Any other experiences like that?
In Switzerland, taking pictures of the particle physics lab. I was 100 meters down into the machine, taking pictures of the detectors. Not many people can get in there to do it. It’s such a magnificent, huge and beautiful machine. It has every reason to be that shape and size. Inside of the machine particles are colliding and creating energy. The machine is super strong. It’s just a beautiful and amazing place. Recently there was an announcement in the news about advancement in the work on Higgs-Boson. Having been in that machine, I feel like it is a remarkable place to be taking photographs.
Sarajevo was another amazing experience. I was with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They took me to a refugee camp. The war was still going on. It was so intense. Accidentally I used my flash when some people were fighting about something in the camp, and it was such a bad mistake. I could feel the intensity of my mistake.
What have I learned through it all? I learned that there is something that rules the way things work. We are just living on a small place next to a small star in this huge universe. So I start to think, why do people have to fight, why make war, when we look at it all from the perspective of the universe.
For you, what ties your whole range of photographs together? You make intimate, abstract personal portraits, images of destruction and death, and images of the world’s cutting edge physics labs. How should we make sense of all of this?
I guess before the particle physics images series came along I was interested in the atomic bomb history and impact. One time I was driving across America and I wanted to visit Los Alamos in New Mexico, to see where the atomic bomb was made. I just wanted to go there. I couldn’t go to the laboratory, but I went to the town. On the way, there is a historical museum, with airplanes and stuff. There are WWII planes, war machines for killing people.
I had also been to Nagasaki and Hiroshima around those days, and I tried to capture the image of the impact of the atomic bombs. I just took a picture of the fountains in the Peace Park at night under the rain. Later, when I had an exhibition at a museum in Kochi I used the recorded sound of the fountains from Nagasaki, and I included that as part of the exhibition.
I don’t know if I can explain and put it all together, but really it’s just about basic, beautiful images. That’s how I communicate, with images. I don’t know where it’s all going. When people see them, afterwards they can think about what it is, and what the meaning is for them. It’s up to them at that point.
You’ve been a fine art photographer for two decades, staying in the game and remaining productive. What have you done to stay dedicated?
It’s a miracle that I am still going, and really I don’t feel like I have done very much. I can do much more. If I ever feel like I am done, then I will finish, but I haven’t accomplished everything yet. I am not yet satisfied. That is the reason why I stay dedicated.
How do you support yourself through your relationships with others? Who supports you and keeps you dedicated?
Of course my wife and my family. In the world of high energy physics some people know me now, and those relationships also keep me going.
I am like an outsider but an insider. So by creating those pictures, we have created a good relationship. The rest of the world can get a sense of what they are doing through these images. I am not a photojournalist though.
Tell me about a time when you felt like you were not motivated to stay in photography. What happened to get you re-motivated?
Most of the time I am not motivated! But when the subject just comes to me, I go for it. Usually I am just with my wife and my cat. A happy camper! But when these opportunities come my way I love it. Opportunities just emerge.
An example is like the Merce Cunningham photo shoot. One day I was in New York, and I went to an opening at the New York Museum of Modern Art. I went with a painter who had a friend who played music for the Merce Cunningham Company. He brought his girlfriend who was a dancer for them. She invited me to come and see them perform, which I did. On the programme I saw the Japanese dancer’s name. He comes from my home town, Kochi! I was just amazed to see the guy on the stage at the Lincoln Center.
So I talked to my friend’s girlfriend, and six months later she introduced me to him in Los Angeles. We kept in touch, and one day when I was in Kochi at the museum I had a chat with some people there. I mentioned that I wanted to do an art piece with him. The museum was interested, so they put the funding together, and over two or three years we made the dance project happen with images and videos. I made images in New York, and later the museum flew in a musician from Yokohama to Kochi . They put on a show with Mizuta Koji and the musician.
Bringing it all together, tell me a story that defines who you are. A story from all of your experiences that demonstrates what Satoru is all about.
My identity. I am Japanese, deeply. I was comfortable in the states, but I am really comfortable here.
I never really thought about a story like that. I am who I am. Living day by day. I am happy with what I have. Still seeing that I have so much more to do as a photographer, I don’t know when I will ever be satisfied.
I think what I am good at is communication with people. I can’t accomplish all of this on my own. People help me. I try to help other people as much as I can as well. I try to be nice to people. I don’t know, I guess that’s it.
I do think about why people hate each other. These labs that I photograph can create huge energy, like the beginning of the universe. It makes you feel small. Thinking about the creation of the universe, I just see us as small and tiny.
What also interests me is the fact that right outside of these giant machines, you just have normal places. Cows, snow, ordinary mornings. I just start walking and taking pictures. Ordinary places are also beautiful.
CERN # 009, CERN / European Organization for Nuclear Research (Swiss) 2007
SLAC # 001, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (CA)
SLAC # 009, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (CA)
Ordinary Night in European Organization for Nuclear Research / CERN (Swiss) / 2.15.2007
From the series, “Jubilant and Speechless”
All photographs are © Satoru Yoshioka
Satoru Yoshioka web site: www.sypi.com
All drawings ©2013 Thom Dougherty