I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

Straightforward: I Don’t Sleep by Aya Fujioka

Japan Exposures’ contributors John Sypal and Dan Abbe recently had several online chat sessions about Japanese photographer Aya Fujioka and her new book, 私は眠らない, or I Don’t Sleep, published late last year by Akaaka Art Publishing. They were nice enough to send the transcripts over to us, and we present below an edited version of their thoughts about the book.

Dan Abbe: You know, I showed this book to two people – one a photographer, and one not – and they both really enjoyed it. It was interesting to watch their reactions while they flipped through it, like at first they did not know what they were looking at, but by the end they were very much in the book’s grip. I’m interested in the sequencing of the book — I feel like it relates things in a pretty coherent way, from start -> middle -> end.

John Sypal: There are two distinct chapters in it, aren’t there.

DA: At least two, I suppose.

JS: You know, I have always assumed that these pictures are in chronological order. Of course there is no way of knowing, but that was my impression.

DA: That was definitely my impression as well. It seems that way to me. But who knows. However, it’s interesting that we both had that impression. I think everyone who looks at the book feels that way. The sequencing was entirely different.

JS: It is truly convincing, this sense that it is sequential.

DA: Definitely. It produces a very strong effect. There’s a strong current flowing through the book — it’s going in a direction. It could be just as simple as saying that this current equals the direction of time, going forwards in time from one point to another.

JS: Yeah. More than “Place”, the photographs are about “Time”. And photographs in general are fundamentally structured through, with, and in time. Rinko Kawauchi has a book called Cui Cui which deals with the death of a family member in a far more literal — visually literal — way than Fujioka has in this book. But after photos of Kawauchi’s grandfather’s funeral, a few pages later he comes back. It’s like “Hey look! There’s grandpa!”

DA: He was resurrected???

JS: He was — photographically.

DA: Haha.

It’s not a book about Japan, it’s not really a book about Death with a capital D, it’s not a simple “Girly-Photo” snapshot collection.

JS: You just don’t know what is what in the book.

DA: What do you mean?

JS: It’s not a book about Japan, it’s not really a book about Death with a capital D, it’s not a simple “Girly-Photo” snapshot collection. Things are recognizable — for the most part. Maybe I’m getting tripped up on that photo of the hands rising out from behind a table with tangerines on it.

DA: I don’t think that she was really worrying too much about how the audience would receive this, i.e. as “a book about Japan,” etc

I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.
I Don’t Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

JS: It’s a good example of how her images are straightforward but feel like they’re coming around a bend of some sort.

DA: It’s certainly very complicated, but I don’t think that’s because she wanted to make a “complicated book.”

JS: Right, and I am glad about that. It isn’t a book about Japan. Or the Japanese. It’s about her immediate surroundings at a particular time. Literal and Emotional. It’s this sideways kind of take — a slight slant. Not in a formal sense but rather in aligning reality with herself. ずれ (zure) in Japanese works better to describe it.

DA: I like the word “straightforward”.

JS: It’s sometimes a crutch when describing photos — but here it works.

DA: I guess what I’m getting at is that she is trying to take “straightforward” photos of a situation that is definitely not “straightforward” — even though, at the same time, it kind of is, in that it can be condensed down to one sentence – a relative is dying.

JS: I think the challenge is that it’s hard to express how closely this must feel like. That is, how it must feel to be able to see out from inside someone else’s head. The pictures are structured and filtered through her own reasonings — of course this is true for any photographer but Fujioka pulls it off unassumingly. I don’t feel like there’s any real lesson to be learned, or any broad preachy emotive expression about the Human Condition.

Fujioka is trying to take “straightforward” photos of a situation that is definitely not “straightforward”, even though it can be condensed down to one sentence – a relative is dying.

DA: I agree. It seems like a very honest attempt to communicate her experience during this time.

JS: Death does make many subtle appearances — the mourning Kimono, the Funeral Photograph, the tangerine carcasses on the beach.

DA: You never actually see her mother’s face — there’s one shot where she’s facing the camera but she’s got this heavy face mask on.

JS: How important is it to know that it is her mother?

DA: Hmm…

JS: I didn’t find any contextual information in the book.

DA: There isn’t any, although maybe if you spent a lot of time with the book you could put it together. I’m not sure. It could be vitally important, or not at all. It definitely affects the way I look at the book, but I think it would still be possible to get something from it otherwise. Sorry, that’s not a very good answer — but I liked your question.

By the way, there are a number of photos with “mistakes”.

JS: Light leaks?

I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.
I Don’t Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

DA: Yeah. I wonder how (or why) they were produced.

JS: There’s certainly a Toy Camera boom… but again I think that her work is different. Lazy viewers might dismiss her work as “snapshots” or “Hiromix” (or Japanese Girly Photos, etc) which is done at the expense of missing out on a wonderful and challenging collection of photographs.

DA: Yeah, I mean many of the photos are certainly unplanned. But the editing of the book makes it entirely different from a “snapshot book”, just in the way those books approach experience.

JS: I’m a big fan of true snapshots (although I hate the term). I have a Japanese book called “Childlens” on my shelf – – it was a disposable camera project where kids of ages 2 to 5 were given cameras with which they made photographs which were both mind blowing and humbling (to me as a photographer) at the same time.

DA: I saw a copy of Araki’s “Sentimental Journey” today (selling for $3000), I wonder if that might be closer to this in spirit. I wouldn’t really know, not having seen more than 10 of the photos, but just as an example of something that’s more closely connected to what’s happening to the photographer.

JS: With Fujioka — I mean, you have a name on the cover and a few lines at the end of her words — but I don’t feel all that close to “her”.

DA: For me it feels almost uncomfortably close.

JS: Experiencing Fujioka’s work is to me akin to trying to remember a dream in those moments right after you wake up. But that sounds like a super lame tag line. Her work is beyond such gimmicks.

I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.
I Don’t Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

DA: I dunno, it doesn’t seem quite that vague to me. Images might be hard to process directly as “information” but as I said before, there is a strong current going through the book, whether that’s a kind of narrative, or her feelings, or whatever.

JS: I’m interested in the visual themes that resurface throughout the book. Vegetation, hands, looking through things…

DA: Dirty windows…

JS: Being looked at through things, like the paper door and the woman’s facial mask…

DA: hula hoops, oranges…

JS: …and arms held out. Also the old man’s face is previewed as a sketch on a stool. Across from the photo of the woman face down on a bed.

DA: So many hands!

JS: And on one page, trees have fingers. It’s a photo across from a picture with hands in it. There’s also tile roofs and tatami-mat covered rooms

DA: Right. Well, how much do you want to make of these recurring things?

JS: I think that recurring elements are very important. But I don’t think that she is a collector out there thinking “oh boy here’s some more oranges” and then fires off 8 frames of film. It seems more likely that as she shoots she begins to see patterns emerge. That’s how it should be, anyway. The patterns emerge from looking at prints or whatever way it is that she deals with the physical aspects of her photography.

Aya Fujiya -- from I Don't Sleep
Aya Fujiya — from I Don’t Sleep

DA: I agree. They strike me as a (maybe unconscious?) way to order her experience, maybe as she was taking the photos or, like you’re suggesting, maybe after it. Everyone is drawn to certain things.

JS: Yeah. By the way, the picture of the square-ish cube-shaped frozen octopus in the round plastic bowl blew me away and to place it across from the photo of the nude woman in a square wooden bath was genius.
Let’s talk about the book’s design — it’s pretty amazing. It’s big, and the pictures are big. The white frame keeps them separate from the reader’s own world. And we shouldn’t neglect the fact of how some of the vertical shots are postioned! This was the first time I had seen a book where “down” was the gutter for two facing pages of pictures. (the photo of the woman with the apple and the observation point ceramic sign).

DA: I agree — it’s a really well done book. The vertical spreads only come at the beginning, no?

JS: Around there.

DA: I was thinking about making some nice color copies of the pages to put up on my wall. The colors are fantastic.

JS: Yeah! Her palette is so different from most other Japanese photographers working in color. It’s richer, but not saturated. She shoots film– and the grain works in her favor. For whatever it’s worth, I know she uses a little Nikon FM2 with a 35 or 50mm lens. I have also met her when she had a Werra over her shoulder. It’s a clever little German camera that has you advance the film by rotating a collar around the lens. How this affects her photographs, I don’t know. I’d like to think that the physical necessities surrounding her camera operation lends itself to the quiet feel of her work. And in the way Fujioka responds emotionally to places and events, she utilizes time to create these pictures which are truly beautiful. Beauty might not be her end goal, but we shouldn’t ignore their aesthetic poignancy in addition to the emotional impact of this fantastic collection of photography.

Please also see our gallery of Aya Fujioka’s work along with an introduction by John Sypal.


I Don’t Sleep is available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.


John SypalJohn Sypal, was born and raised in Nebraska, USA, and currently lives in Matsudo city (Chiba Pref.). John has been exhibiting his photographs widely in the US and in Japan. His photographs are frequently featured in Japanese photo magazines. He is currently a member of Machikata Sampo Shashin Doumei (Walking Photographers Alliance). John also enjoys meeting people and photographs their cameras for tokyo camera style.


Dan Abbe

Dan Abbe lives in Tokyo and writes a blog about photography called Street Level Japan.