Listening to the streets | Tomoko Goto

The Japan-born, Malta-based photographer Tomoko Goto is currently showcasing some of her most recent work – sourced from her travels back to her homeland as well as the Netherlands and Malta – at the Architecture Project building in Valletta, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘…streets et cetera…’. She spoke to us about the pervasive – and revealing – power of street photography, as well as her impressions of the Maltese cultural scene

Tomoko Goto
Tomoko Goto

How long have you been experimenting with street photography? Why does the genre appeal to you?

I’ve been working in this genre for about five years. I think many photographers start by taking pictures on the street because it’s the most immediate place to practice the basics under natural light. The street is also full of lives and drama, and that gives me a sense of connection to a place.

My university education was in cultural anthropology. I’ve always had a keen interest in cultural diversity and how people live. In my photos, I try to find meaning or beauty in the ordinary. I don’t mean ‘beauty’ in a superficial sense, but beauty which comes from the complexity of stories, emotions, and history as it rises from a subject. Absurd moments and haphazard instances. Things that have always been there but that we overlook. I want to capture that essence in my photographs. I also enjoy playing with colour, contrast, and visual rhythm. Travel is great for that. I love working with the golden yellow sunlight in Malta, as well as the bleak nostalgic feel of the light in northern Europe.

Given that youre a travel photographer, how does returning to Japan affect your work? Does your homeland influence you to shift your gaze a little bit?

I was born and raised in Japan, but I’ve lived outside the country for half my life. Having been an expat for such a long time, living in completely different cultures and environments from Japan became a part of me to the point where I finally started feeling like a foreigner in my own country. When I go back, Japan feels familiar, but the society doesn’t quite agree with me anymore, especially in terms of their unbalanced work ethic and the groupthink mentality.

As a photographer, this sense of cultural detachment helps me notice things that many Japanese and non-Japanese don’t see. I become curious about things I never would have found interesting. And on the street people often look at me wondering, “Why is she photographing that?”

How did taking the photographs of Japan feel when compared to the other two cities/places? Were there any distinct shifts in focus, or even style?

The twelve photographs presented in this exhibition were taken in Japan, Malta and the Netherlands.

The big difference lies in whether I look like one of them or a foreigner. I blend in with the Japanese community quite well. It’s mentally easy for me to work there because I can be a part of the environment. But in places like Malta or the Netherlands, I am a visible outsider. People usually see me as just another Asian tourist with a camera hanging around her neck. But one advantage of taking on the tourist role is that I’m expected to take photographs.

That’s what tourists do. I get to meet nice people who want to talk about themselves and model for me. A Maltese fisherman once told me, “Make sure you send this photo to your family in China”. So I stand out in the crowd, but I can often break the ice with people easily because I’m a foreigner.

The degree of familiarity and time restriction also determines the outcome. If I have only two days in a place I’ve never visited before – like my stay in the Netherlands – I can easily become overwhelmed by everything I see. So I usually photograph a very small area and spend time walking back and forth in order to form a specific theme in my mind.

What would you say are some of the more interesting dynamics between the Japanese streetscape and its architecture? How did you seek to capture this?

All of the Japanese images shown in this exhibition were taken in Tokyo. It’s a vibrant city with a mix of sci-fi and tradition, anonymous skyscrapers and tightly knit communities, and radically different flows of speed and mind. It’s a city where walking down a peaceful side street can lead you to the busiest pedestrian crossing you’ve ever encountered. Tokyo contains all the extremes in one place.
I’m interested in how people find their own space to exist in such a chaotic environment.

Feeling lonely in a highly populated city is worse than the sense of solitude you get in a small town or in a foreign country. And the architecture of Tokyo definitely contributes to this sense of alienation. The cityscape divides people, segregating them from one another, and sticking them in their own small cell, both physically and mentally.

My recent book, Tokyo Lost & Found, published by Ede Books in December 2015, explores the sense of detachment and solitude I felt in Tokyo. Some of my favourite images from the book are also exhibited this week at Architecture Project.

What do you make of the Maltese visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

There seems to be more art events happening in Malta these days, but I feel like there’s a disconnect between the creators of this art and the general public. Both artists and viewers need to interact and engage actively with each other if the Maltese art scene is to grow.
In Malta, many seem think of art as only for the high brow. But this is the furthest thing from the truth. Art helps us question the reality of our lives. It prompts us to discuss the problems of our society. And it deepens the ways in which we see the world around us and ourselves.

But art must be consumed in order to be alive. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Over the past three years, I’ve spent several months in Berlin, a city with a vibrant art scene. Each time I go there, I see ordinary people from all walks of life making casual visits to art galleries. They go to exhibitions, not just for the free wine but to discuss the art. And they buy art for their homes. It’s not a matter of cost or wealth, because a fine art photograph or painting can be purchased for much less than what you’d spend on a nice dinner for two. I just don’t yet to see that level of engagement with art here in Malta.

People here readily “like” what you do, but they don’t open their wallets to support it. Malta is lacking a sense of patronage for the arts, and so art here cannot become a full time way of life. This situation can change, but only if schools and cultural stakeholders create more programming that seeks to expose people to art and helps them engage with it. Businesses and private companies should also spend more on art, so that it becomes a part of our everyday lives.

I think it’s also important for local artists to make cultural and artistic exchanges beyond Malta. With help of exhibition-maker Michael Bock, I’m very fortunate to be presenting my photographs from Japan and the Netherlands alongside Maltese images in this exhibition. My next goal is to present my photographs of Malta abroad.

The exhibition will be on display at Architecture Project, 4, Sappers Street, Valletta until January 29. Opening hours: Monday to Thursday: 10:00 to 19:00; Friday: 10:00 to 13:00

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