Mikiko Hara doesn’t need a viewfinder. Instead the Japanese street photographer shoots from the chest, allowing the camera to capture happy accidents that come as a surprise... even to her.
One day in October 2014, I had a chance to visit the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for an exhibition that included some of my work. On a tour through its halls, an elderly woman stopped to stare at a photograph I’d taken of a Japanese girl.
“I feel as if I have met this person,” she said aloud to no one in particular. Something about this lady’s comment stuck with me: it seemed as if the image of a foreign girl had recalled an experience or feeling she had long forgotten.
Most of my photographs capture fleeting moments: figures, landscapes and material things that emerge and disappear before me as I navigate daily life. There is no set theme; I’m not trying to communicate a particular message. Instead I gamble on serendipity.
I hope that each snapshot will stir some fragment of memory within every viewer, arousing complex feelings and emotions that can’t be easily put into words.
I was born in Toyama Prefecture, an area neighbouring the Sea of Japan, in 1967. My parents both taught at a middle school and nurtured an appreciation for art in my elder sister and me. She went on to study Japanese-style painting at art school, while I pursued art history and theory in Tokyo. But I was not an earnest student.
Instead I joined a small theatrical group and took to the stage as an actress. Underground theatre was booming in 1980s Japan and, when I look back on that time now – short as it was – I can see a similarity between performing on stage and taking snapshots on the street: the physical sensation of excitement but also of fear.
I took up photography through a random set of circumstances when I was about 25. I inherited a camera from my father, acquired an old-fashioned enlarger from my landlord, and had a friend who taught me how to develop film and enlarge the prints. These factors combined to steer me towards a four-year course at the Tokyo College of Photography in 1992.
For the first two years, I had to gain experience by pushing my way into crowds and taking photographs of random people on the street – a period of training that felt both physically and mentally demanding.
One day in class, a teacher showed us the work of Garry Winogrand and told us to try to shoot like him. Winogrand’s photography looked so cool but, to tell the truth, I wasn’t sure what or how I could learn from this great master.
Later, after finding out more about him – he had a way of saying things such as, “I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed” – I found myself relating to his approach.
I began to understand that photography is not necessarily a way to express your opinion or principles, but to simply grope at the ambiguous matter all around us.
At some point I realised that I could never capture everything perfectly in one frame, as both myself and the subjects are often in motion. But I liked that sense of uncertainty and, over time, I think losing interest in composition proved liberating.
After a process of trial and error, struggling to find a way to go forward, something simple had a big impact: a friend gave me an Ikonta. It’s a square-format camera manufactured in 1930s Germany with a viewfinder that’s only vaguely useful.
I soon learned to take pictures without even lining up the shot at eye-level, never sure of what I photographed or how it would look until seeing the contact sheets – allowing me to encounter the work completely anew. This has been my shooting style ever since.
The images you see here were all taken between 1996 and 2009, but I think it could be said that they belong to no specific time or place. What’s interesting to me is that each one is a real moment I shared with my subjects; we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The camera is more honest, simple, cool-headed and unforgiving than my own eyes. Rather than making the photographer’s ideas a reality, I see it as an apparatus that can grasp and slowly scoop up things we cannot understand or perceive.
As someone who does not consider myself to be a journalist, I dare say there’s no better way to document the world. I just want to exist as transparently as possible along the way.
Change is published by The Gould Collection. Special thanks to Ibasho Gallery.