Manabu Yamanaka’s Gyahtei, published earlier this Fall, brings together Yamanaka’s six major series focusing on societal outcasts, including street children, homeless, the physically deformed, and the elderly. Working in a similar vein for over 25 years, each series might take up to four to five years to complete. Yamanaka doesn’t just bring his subjects into a studio but chooses to immerse himself in the milieu of his subjects and their living conditions before ever setting up his camera.
Yamanaka’s working methods, as well as the consistency of purpose and style he approaches his subjects with, clearly show that he doesn’t take his project lightly, nor is he interested in a quick hit of shock. In a 2005 interview, Yamanaka talked about his working process:
First of all, I decide on a subject for a project and then study and research the subject. And the next step is planning out picture composition [while] at the same time scouting, casting, and thinking about the other details. Finally, I start the new project if I convince myself that all of the above is in place. Usually it is not so easy, so I’m constantly making changes. I always find the appropriate way of shooting after I start. I believe that there is always a way through a difficult project.
The title Gyahtei as well as other series’ titles all originate from Buddhism. Even though Yamanaka has said he is not a practicing Buddhist, he does “always hope that I gain more understanding of Buddhism every time I finish a project. In other words, I show my work as a consequence of my understanding on the theme of the project.”
Manabu Yamanaka’s photographs are often referred to as disturbing, or unnerving, but perhaps that faint praise says more about the viewer than it comments on the actual work, the subjects of the photos, or the photographer’s intentions. In the way that some people peek through their fingers at horror films, labeling Yamanaka’s work as disturbing seems a defense mechanism, a way of distancing oneself from the visceral realization that what separates the viewers’ reality from that of Yamanaka’s subjects is what the Japanese call 紙一重 (kami hitoe) — a fine line. That Yamanaka can bring us so uncomfortably close to confronting that which we take for granted, and our corporeality and mortality, in the reserved and respectful manner that he does, might be one reason why the photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki called Yamanaka the most “hardcore” of all Japanese photographers working today.
Japan Exposures is honored to have the opportunity to present to our readers the following introduction to Manabu Yamanaka’s work. Please also see our current Cover Photo featuring Yamanaka.
More of Yamanaka’s work can be seen at his website, including some brief writings about each series. A report on him in Japanese can be found here.
Gyahtei is available from the Japan Exposures Bookstore.