Hakuro, an Itoshima Almanac was produced between September 2012 and September 2013 in Fukuoka, Japan. The creation of this body of work was only possible thanks to the generous support of the Asian Cultural Council, the Studio Kura artist in residence program, Albus Shashin Labo, and, above all, the people of Itoshima.

"The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk" - G.W. Hegel


Hakuro, an Itoshima Almanac

While the Objectivist claims of documentary photography have long been discredited, I do not take this to mean that a valid form of documentary is unachievable, but rather that until now the tool has been inappropriately applied to the task. Consequently, although much of my photography may be storyboarded, artificially lit and even scripted like cinema, I do not accept the argument that such working methods necessarily render the resulting images any less truthful than other forms of photography. Indeed, much of my recent practice is motivated by a desire to breath new life into the rotten corpse of the documentary genre. Yet, unlike traditional reportage photographers who believed their crystal-clear Leica rangefinders somehow gave them direct, unfiltered access to "the truth", in contrast, my preferred tactic is to place as many obstacles as possible between myself and the final image: by expanding the space in time between the moment of selecting the subject and that of pressing the shutter, I am able to fill this void with the subjectivity of my collaborators in the hope that the end result reflects something more than just my own narrow world view. Following the linguist George Lakoff, I have come to think of this method of working as Experiential Realism.

Since the dawn of time humans have sought to predict and control natural phenomena. Indeed Homo Sapiens' continuing existence as a race is in part testimony to our relative success in this task: without such forecasts agricultural endeavors would be doomed to failure. But so deeply ingrained in human society is the concept of time that we can be forgiven for forgetting that this system for chronologically ordering and measuring the duration of events is an entirely cultural and intellectual construct and that in different parts of the world, and in different eras, many alternative calendar systems have been employed (and in fact still are). As case in point, while Japan currently uses the Gregorian calendar, prior to 1873 a lunar calendar system was in place, with the year divided into 24 solar terms (二十四節気). Furthermore, even the "four" seasons, while objectively 'real' in the sense that their changing effects are empirically demonstrable, are not quite as predictable, preordained and clear cut as we often casually assume (and rarely are they so compliant as to respect the designated start and end dates appointed for them on official state calendars).

I first began developing the project Hakuro, an Itoshima Almanac in September 2012 while artist in residence in the Itoshima region of Kyushu Island in southern Japan, and then returned to produce the remainder of the work during a second residency between July and September 2013. My intention was to produce a body of work that, as much as humanly possible, would be based on the thoughts, beliefs and values of local people and which would go some way towards bridging what Grimshaw, Owen and Ravetz have called the "textual/visual divide" (2010, P. 149) by using the data resulting from my research as starting point for a visual document rather than presenting these findings in the form of a written text.

The method I devised was to begin by accosting people on the streets, in the fields, at malls or coming out of train stations, and, with the one phrase I'd learnt in Japanese ("Excuse me, I am an artist making a photographic project about Itoshima") tried to convince them to stop and read the printed A4 sheet explaining the project that I thrust into their hands. Those that obliged were asked to leave their email address or phone number, and over the following weeks I carried out what social scientists call Experience Sampling: i.e. I sent out questions by email and SMS, to which respondents could file their answers anonymously using a reply-form on a dedicated website (my hope being that the notoriously shy Japanese might feel more comfortable revealing their most personal thoughts and opinions to a total stranger if they were secure in the knowledge that they could not be identified). Messages were simultaneously sent to all participants using bulk-messaging software and ranged from very general questions designed to spot-sample respondents' behavior - such as "Please write a detailed description of everything you did in the 10 minutes before reading this message" - to the more specific, informed by my particular interrogative frame of reference - for example, "Please describe a positive event that happened to you recently. Why do you think this happened?", or "What things are you most afraid of at this moment in your life?".

Once I'd amassed sufficient data, I could simply have begun producing photographs based on the information that I'd received directly from respondents, but it occurred to me that if instead I first passed this material on to a second group of participants, to reinterpret as they best understood, then my influence over the resulting body of work would be reduced to a minority share and the project would stand a greater chance of reflecting the collective concerns of local people in a truly meaningful way. So although I selected participants for the next stage of the project (i.e. the photographic phase) in a manner which no doubt reflected my own subjective interpretation of the information, once I handed this data over to the participants in the photographs, and asked them to interpret the information as they understood it, the data returned to the public realm and took on a new lease of life.

My interest in producing this work lay not only in the tension between the chaotic stories of the 'real world' as told to me by the participants and my own instinctive attempts to impose order and control on that information, but also in the 'data-loss', distortion and transformation which took place as a byproduct of this hermeneutic process. Our instinct is invariably to lock down natural phenomena, arrest its movement and organic evolution, file it away in ill-fitting and rigid concepts, but our world is ever shifting, mercurial and very much open to interpretation. As Hammersley & Atkinson have noted, "The world does not arrange itself into chapters and subheadings for our convenience." (2007, p. 191) and my hope is that Hakuro reflects this.

Much in the same way that humans endeavor to control and comprehend the untamable and unfathomable forces of nature through chronological, meteorological and astronomical systems, the date-stamp and climatic data which accompany these images are a futile attempt to codify, fix in space and time, and render comprehensible the cruelly irrational void of human experience. As Hakuro's form and content was not only dictated by phenomenologically acquired data, but also by demotic accounts - that is narratives originating from the inhabitants themselves - I believe this is also a true story. Of course, it is not the truth, and nor may it even be the truth as either the participants or myself conceive it individually, but nor is it pure fiction or deception and I hope that Hakuro can in some small way be of genuine value in furthering our understanding of the world in which we live. 

Nigel Bennet, 2014 | www.nigelbennet.com


References

Hegel, G W . Philosophy of Right, Prometheus Books, 1820.

Grimshaw, A, Owen, E and Ravetz, A, Making Do: The Materials of Art and Anthropology, in Between Art and Anthropology; Contemporary Ethnographic Practice, Schneider, Arnd and Wright, Christopher (eds.), Berg, 2010

Hammersley, Martyn & Atkinson, Paul. Ethnography: Principles in Practice, Routledge, 2007

Lakoff, G. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, University of Chicago Press, 1987