Japanese female photographers in the spotlight in Kyoto

16 Apr

People including children dressed in black robes with fans on them walk amidst a snowy landscape

Japan through the eyes of women photographers.


Kyoto's International Festival of Photography, Kyotographie, is not only for museums and galleries; over four weeks in the spring, photography invades the entire city with exhibitions held in various iconic sites, including a Buddhist temple, a busy shopping street and the house of Genbei Yamaguchi, a 10th-generation artisan of traditional kimonos and obis.

When Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi launched the festival 10 years ago, they had one goal: celebrate photography and give the medium the space it deserved.

According to the festival organizers, photography still struggles to be recognized and valued in Japan, so their goal with Kyotographie is to put the medium on the same level as the traditional arts: "Japan can be very strict and quite old-school in the way they are thinking about art, everything is categorized … we wanted to break that," festival co-founder Yusuke Nakanishi told DW.

The event features international masters of photography and new talents, a combination purposely designed "to get people interested in what they know less about," says Lucille Reyboz. Kyotographie now also aims to become a springboard for Japanese female artists: "In 10 years, we have seen more and more female artists coming up," points out Reyboz, so they used the festival's growing acclaim to finally put them in the spotlight.

"For a long time, we have observed Japan through the eyes of men. And it's as if we haven't looked at it completely,"says Pauline Vermare, a photography historian and co-curator of the festival's special exhibition, "10/10 Celebrating Contemporary Japanese Women Photographers."

Highlighting the work of 10 Japanese artists, the exhibition held at the Hosoo art gallery is like a "manifesto for women photographers in Japan,"according to co-founder Lucille Reyboz.

Photos reflecting women's struggles

The disappearance of traditional culture, nature threatened by humans, gender boundaries: Social and environmental issues are central in these photographers' work. An important part of the exhibition addresses the challenges affecting women in particular. The artists denounce the taboos and prejudices they have to deal with.

For example, through self-portraits and metaphoric still-lives, Mayumi Suzuki deals with her infertility treatment, "an issue that we don't talk about in Japan," she says. Photojournalist Noriko Hayashi documents the unheard voices of Japanese women married to Korean husbands who migrated to North Korea and could never return. 

Hideka Tonomura shows a series of portraits women mutilated by cancer: "There is too much of a tendency to judge women according to their body and women get a lot of prejudice when they lose their female body parts," says the artist.

Using the festival as a megaphone, the photographer organized a parade to express the beauty of these women. She invited her models to march in the street with their picture as placards. "Even if you have lost female parts of your body, you are still shining; we are all survivors and we all deserve to live freely," she told the participants in an emotional speech.

The women's struggles that are addressed in the photos echo the obstacles also faced by the photographers as artists: "In Japan, they don't have enough space to express themselves, they can't say what they think because if they do so they are perceived like being too strong, to pretentious," says photographer Yukari Chikura.

"I hope in the future we won't have to focus on saying that we are female photographers," she adds. "But right now, it is symbolizing the gender gap that still exists between women and men." She hopes that one day, this distinction will no longer be needed — when gender equality will have finally been achieved.

The Kyotographie festival runs until May 8, 2022.


Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Author Aimie Eliot

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