Hideka Tonomura (b. 1979) is a Japanese artist whose work is centred around photobooks, snapshots and the female gaze. In 2008, AKAAKA published her project ‘mama 恋 love’ which has now been re-published by The Zen Foto Gallery. In this body of work, Tonomura focuses on her mother and particularly, her infidelity and affair. She is portrayed in bed with a lover who is completely obscured, making the mother’s gestures and pleasure the centre of attention. The ambiguity of the lover, on the other hand, turns him into a mere human-like figure. This section is shot in black-and-white while the second half, shot on 8mm, is in full colour, evoking nostalgic and dreamy feelings.
Her more recent work ‘die of love’ can be considered as her own “theatre of love” where the sensations of happiness, sadness and humour intertwine. Highlighted with vulnerably thin paper, the act of flipping the pages creates the impression of oscillating between hope and despair as in real life. In her oeuvre, she, therefore, forms an uneasy viewing experience evoked by her intimate and intense photographs of her family and emotions.
In an interview with Discarded Magazine, we talk together about Tonomura’s two projects ‘mama 恋 love’ and ‘die of love’ alongside the artist’s vision on intimacy, taboos and love.
In the project description of ‘mama 恋 love’, you mention that it was her first protest against your father. Could you please elaborate on this statement?
I didn’t mean that the work was my first protest against my father, but I wrote that the love affair was my mother’s first protest against my father. My mother and I both lived under my father’s control for a long time. Now he has repented his actions and apologized to us, and we have accepted it.
At that time, my mother had no freedom at all, and all her actions were being restricted. She did not have the freedom to go to the hospital even when she felt unwell. As a result, her illness progressed, and her stomach cancer reached the terminal stage. She had no freedom as a woman or as a human being, but her illness gave her an opportunity to be free and act. Over the next few years after the surgery, she regained her strength, dyed her hair, changed her clothes, and gained the freedom to go to the hospital. I think it was because she could finally face her life and the life, she had almost lost. And she fell in love. She tried to get her life back as a woman. At that time, as a woman myself, I deeply sympathized with her actions. I have wondered why my mother did what she did.
When I tell people about what my mother did, most of them tell me that they, as a child, cannot accept that kind of behaviour. Why is that? A mother is also a human being. She has the right to live her own life. Would you want her to choose to give up her life just because she is your mother? I wish she could live her own life as a human being, especially because she is my mother. My parents’ lives are their own. My life is my own, too.
Interestingly, your mother is gazing directly into the camera. Her gaze has a shocking effect, perhaps evoking a sense of punctum in the viewer which according to French philosopher Roland Barthes can be defined as an “accident which pricks me”. I would say in this instance, it shows your mother’s awareness of being photographed and her embracement of the process. Was this an accident or did you direct the scenes to some extent?
The duration of the photoshoot was about 20 minutes. I remember the time because I remembered the time when I entered the room and the time when the film ran out. But I have no memory of the time I shot this work. So, I was surprised when I developed the film because my mother was looking at me.
Before the photoshoot happened, she repeatedly urged me to stop shooting. But I really wanted to see her impulse with my own eyes, so I put a knife to my neck and tried to kill myself on the spot.
She saw that and understood how much I wanted to photograph her. I think it was out of love and understanding as a mother. I was even more surprised when I printed the developed film in the darkroom. Her eyes were looking at the absurdity through mine.
The moment our eyes met, I realized that her love affair was a protest and revenge against my father. She was trying to attain the joy and happiness of her own life — a kind of revenge for the time that had been thwarted and the life that had been lost. From the moment I understood this, I relentlessly burned the man to black in the photo.
This was to recreate the darkness she had seen for so many years.
Why did you decide to combine black-and-white and colour in ‘mama 恋 love’?
I have been documenting my family on video since I was a teenager.
When I started taking pictures, something happened to my family, and I photographed the event instead of filming it. Those works under the title ‘unlucky family’ were included in the first edition. The images in the new edition are a telecine of the motion picture I shot on an 8mm film when I was a teenager. I have re-shot the telecine.
The reason for including these images in the new edition is to give a kind of closing credits to the “family” that can only be fully shown by combining both the first edition and the new edition and to let myself go. I also wanted to create a time for readers to question what family is again, as a family is the smallest society that a child experiences for the first time.
In the book ‘die of love’ you portray love as a tragicomedy, blending the notions of happiness, sadness, desire and despair. What does love mean to you and how does your vision of this concept radiate through your photographs?
This work is mainly a story about photography.
At the time, I thought that the act of shooting photography was like chasing shadows. You want to get it, but you can’t. You want to touch it, but you can’t.
Photograph is a paper.
I thought it was like having an unrequited love for a mere piece of paper. I kept shooting and shooting, but it was still too far away from me. The distance was beautiful, but it was an invisible illusion. If it was going to be this painful, I thought I should just let it go and quit photography. And with this work, my photography died once.
What does love mean to you?
If losing oneself is love, then I hope that the ‘thing’ that one can touch is photography in the end.
I noticed that women seem to be the focus point of your work while men are often portrayed at the periphery or their identity is undisclosed, why so?
The Virgin and the Devil live together in femininity.
Femininity is a mystery. It is mysterious and it fascinates me.
Femininity exists within the male gender as well.
I don’t take pictures with the female and male gender in mind.
The act of photographing is the act of seeing.
It’s just that I haven’t met yet a man that I want to “see”.
Your sequencing is done in a very particular way. In the two books there is a sense of a fragmented narrative − cinematic aesthetics are combined with raw snapshots that depict the loss of self and purity of particular moments. It creates an uncanny temporality – lying somewhere between dream and reality. How then would you say you approach time in your work?
I recreate what I see in my photographs, and I recreate the time I lived in in my photobooks. Therefore, my editing process is linked to the memory of my brain. The sequence of the photos usually follows the timeline in my life. But I believe that photographs have a life of their own, and that photographs have a destiny of their own. This is a very conceptual answer, but I always cherish that kind of destiny.
I have never experienced it, so I can only imagine it, but I think this act is similar to sculpture or painting. I think it is like the feeling of seeing life on a white canvas, like seeing the image of a Buddha in a stone.
Do you consider photography to be an integral part of your daily life and that you and your work are inseparable?
I have had three close experiences with death.
The first time was at the age of 15, when I was struck by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and saw a picture of hell. The second time was when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know the stage yet and didn’t know what would happen to me. The result was early-stage cervical cancer but having died once from ‘die of love’, I was willing to forgo treatment if the diagnosis was bad. I have never confronted my femininity and life as much as I did then.
Before undergoing the surgery, I was in despair, but I was shocked to witness the radiance of the women’s core in the gynaecology ward. Then a black and white portrait came to my eyes. I realized that photography still lived inside me, even though I had given up on it once with my work ‘die of love’.
The third time was the death of a woman who was neither a relative nor a friend, but someone I related to through photography.
I was very upset with my own emotions.
I have never felt so much grief over the death of another person.
I still haven’t sorted it out.
I am sure that women who have been through a similar experience will understand.
We were comrades.
No matter how much I think about it, there is no answer, and I hate how absurd it is.
I think about her life.
Why? I will never find an answer to that question.
Still, if I am still alive, I think the only thing I can do is to live and fight against that absurdity.
And being as happy as possible is the only revenge against that absurdity.
While being satisfied with my life.
My enemy is myself.
Never give up on yourself.
I have changed from ‘photographing to live’ to ‘living to photograph’.
I will continue to live to photograph.
For me, the act of photography is a form of defiance.
Recently, you have started sharing short videos on your social media. What are your plans with these video works?
As I have mentioned earlier, I have been making videos since I was a teenager. I have been capturing my family’s daily life in my brain since I was a child. I think I protected myself by overlooking them. Picking up a camera was very natural as a progress. I never intended to stop filming, but more than 20 years have passed since I started making my own works, and I wanted to have a dialogue with myself at that time through my early works. I feel that this is because I have become very conscious of death.
To revive my early works of photography, I wanted to give them life by making new videos of them in the present. It is also a form of requiem for those photographs that have been in an asphyxiated state for a long time…
Since you tend to traverse the confines of nudity, sexuality and the everyday life in your work, why is this process important for you? And are there any boundaries you wouldn’t cross within the medium of photography?
Who sets the boundaries?
I have never been aware of boundaries.
Criminal acts can be controlled by logical thinking.
But what else do we need to control?