Lieko Shiga

The Resistant Photograph: A Day with Lieko Shiga
By Aveek Sen

Angry Lily (2007), from the series “Canary.” Image © and courtesy Lieko Shiga.

I had always felt that somewhere in the depths of my photography there had to be a connection with life and death…And yet, unconsciously, I had decided never to touch it directly.

– Lieko Shiga, Canary-Mon

Things with form were empty when placed beside sand. The only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form…The beauty of sand, in other words, belonged to death.

– Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes


It was in New York in 2009 that I met Lieko Shiga for the first time. Lieko, then 29, had come to receive the Young Photographer’s Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. Neither of us had been to New York before. In spite of her sparse English and my zero Japanese, we quickly got across to each other our sense of having landed in a somewhat unreal place of photographic déjà vu. Lieko was shy and gamine, and could only be talked to fleetingly in the breakfast room. But she knocked on my door one afternoon soon after we had both arrived, and told me she was worried that she had brought no formal clothes. She tried on some of my unisex ethnic wear, but they were all too big for her. In those few days, I formed no idea about her work, although I gathered that she was living in a rural community in Japan. I also sensed that talking about her work made her uneasy. In her conversation now, she reminds me of that shyness and reticence as important pre-conditions to the work that she would start making in that place on the beach in northern Japan.

We parted in New York and, after I reached Calcutta, I received an email from her with a single photograph of her pre-fabricated studio. It was a small white box on the beach against a backdrop of pines. She also sent me her books. In Lilly (2007), a girl called Bethany sits in a London housing estate holding her cardigan open to reveal darkness in her belly. Her gentle face reminded me of Anne Frank. Points of light buzzed like flies around faces and bodies, in the book, suspended in darkness. Canary (2007) arrived at my office like a ship laden with a surreal cargo of dreams, bones and rotting flowers. It was a universe unto itself – private, yet growing out of places, stories and rituals that were larger than private. I also felt that the key to this universe had not yet reached me. Then, in March 2011, I had to think again of Lieko’s box on the beach as I sat riveted to my computer watching, from what felt like an impossible height, the ocean swallowing up swathes of northern Japan. I emailed Lieko and she wrote back from her mobile phone. She had lost everything, but was safe in a shelter. A couple of months later, I got another email from her saying, simply, that there were 30,000 photos in the local community center, and that she was going to move out of the shelter into a temporary house in the region. Below the text of her message she had pasted a series of photographs. Some of the images looked as if a fire had broken out in the middle of an everyday scene. The chemicals on the photographic paper had reacted with the seawater.

“The photographic paper is the evidence,” I read on the train to Sendai, where I was going to meet Lieko on October 25, 2011. I was traveling with my friend, Natsuko, who was translating for me some of the Japanese texts in Lieko’s book, Canary-Mon (Gateway to Canary), published in 2010 in a limited edition. Lieko returns in it to the large images of Canary, re-photographs them and pastes the prints in miniature size on the right-hand pages. Facing them are texts in which she recounts and reflects on the shooting of the images – how they grew out of, and back into, the inner life of the photographer. The texts fade in places, making them difficult to read sometimes, and the entire book is cocooned in a thin cover that has to be torn open to get into the book. Natsuko read for me, stopping briefly to tell me that we were passing Fukushima. Eager both to listen and to look out the window of the speeding train, I gathered – but only in passing, as it were – that Lieko was engaging not only with the materiality of the photograph as evidence but also with the peculiar space within the image that eluded this materiality and even time itself. “Time moves forward toward my death,” she recalls writing on the disposable paper belt that loops around the cover of Canary, “and the act of creating a moment of stationary time, as opposed to passing time, is something akin to prayer.” Yet, she would realize the actual meaning of her words only later, while making Canary-Mon. Between these two moments – between 2007 and 2011, Canary and Canary-Mon, photography as evidence and photography as prayer – was a journey that I would begin to understand only after spending a day talking to her, looking at her new work, and driving around with her by the ocean where her missing home used to be.

Waiting for Lieko outside the station at Sendai, we could have been standing in front of a shopping mall in Birmingham or Manchester, except for the recorded voice of a woman hawking low-price stationery behind us. It rose to a pitch of hysteria in about 15 seconds, when it seemed to collapse and then start all over again, like a brain-fever bird in spring. Just when we were beginning to find this maddening, Lieko came running down an unexpected alley, greeting us with her elfin, but intense, laughter. Her laughter punctuates the entire day’s recordings on my dictaphone, mingling with the ping of the little calling bells in the restaurant where we lunched on dumplings and, later, with the cawing of ravens in the empty villages, the crunch of our footsteps on sand, and the rumble of the ocean as we walked slowly up to it. Back in Calcutta, as I wrote up her words from these recordings, sitting in a home that has stood on unshaken ground for almost a century, the buoyancy in her voice gave a disorienting lightness – perhaps spareness is a better word – to the difficult, often harrowing, stories that she told us. A survivor’s struggle with the power of recall and the visual artist’s wrestle with words come together in her voice. Yet, it is also buoyed up with the strange freeing power of immeasurable loss and, equally, with Lieko’s unsentimental determination not to let her art be reduced to an easy identification with this loss.


Three years ago, after finishing a residency in Europe, Lieko returned to Japan. While making Canary, she had spent some time in Miyagi prefecture, and she wanted “to get into it” now. So she drove straight to that region from the airport, and started looking for a house. The beauty of the beaches pulled her in. Suddenly, she came to a place by the ocean, dense with pine forests, and found herself “falling in love” with it. There was a community along the beach called Kitakama. She started knocking on doors to ask if there was an empty house available in which she could live. She introduced herself as a photographer. The first few residents were puzzled. It was the first time that a little woman calling herself a photographer had come knocking on their doors to ask for a place to live. They took her to the former director of the community center, who was culturally exposed, and he took her to the neighborhood association chief. The community center director said that the area had never had a historian and archivist, and it would be good to have a photographer living in it who could be entrusted with that responsibility. The neighborhood association chief said he knew a small house, the owner of which lived elsewhere. This person was called up, agreed to Lieko living there for a pittance, gave her carte blanche to do whatever she liked with it, “but just be careful, for the house is very old.” So, Lieko became the community photographer. This was a new identity for her, a “title,” distinct from that of an artist. It demanded a different set of skills that made her initially very nervous, but also gave her immediate access to the life and spaces of the community. For almost a year and a half after that, she concentrated on teaching herself this kind of public, often bureaucratic, photography. She also started sorting the funeral portraits at the local shrine and scanning old photographs of the grave markers, doing little work of her own. It was photography that allowed her in, and art that made her an “alien.”

For an artist raised in a small town without any experience of living in nature, it was “really fun” being an alien within a community. Fun in a “mad, chaotic” way, with everybody saying “straight away” exactly what they thought about her life and work. Yet, this candor, with its capacity to form instant relations, did not make the people of the community, and its shifting network of relationships, any less complicated and inscrutable in Lieko’s eyes. To her, they were “talking bodies” that began to entrust her not so much with their lives and histories as with their words and bodies. This was the way they drew her in, but also made her wary of losing her distance and freedom as an artist to the ethics and emotions of working within a community. The people of Kitakama gradually eased her out of her nervousness with official photography. She also lost her shyness with the karaoke mike: “I didn’t exist if I didn’t sing.” She photographed the meetings in the community center, the summer and autumn festivals, the annual holiday for the elderly in September, the athletics, golf, gateball and beer-drinking, the rituals in the shrine and the seasonal flowers.

For more than a year, this work within the community remained separate from Lieko’s work as an artist. But the difference between photography that was art and photography that was documentation was not relevant to the residents. One day, an elderly woman came to Lieko and asked for her funeral portrait to be made. The woman wanted to keep the portrait in her shrine at home so that her family members would understand that this photograph should be used for her funeral. Lieko was surprised, because the woman looked quite robust. She had come to be photographed on her bicycle and her hair was all over the place. So, Lieko took a comb and arranged her hair before photographing her. A new quality of ritual entered the shoot, and it felt to Lieko that she had crossed a line. From around that time, the line between her work with the community and her art began to blur.

However, the residents needed her strangeness, as much as she did, in order to maintain their distance from her. So, as an artist, her relationship with ethics had to be fundamentally different from that of, say, an anthropologist or historian. Yet, her long encounter with these “talking bodies,” rooted in her love for a place that she came upon almost by accident, was making her work a “cross-point” between the individual and the community. Rather than alienating the residents, what was inexplicable in the art she made with them became the basis of a new set of relations. Both the artist and the residents were equally in the dark about what the images meant and where they came from. This became a new game that united, instead of divided, them. What fascinates Lieko is that the residents would enjoy looking at this work at every stage of its making, but they never asked “why.” They were only curious about “how” she made it and “what came next”: “I am in the world before the image. That’s why nobody asked why.”


The woman who had come to have her funeral portrait taken was one of the 60 people from the village who did not survive March 11, 2011. She is linked, in Lieko’s mind, to a turning point in her work. Lieko had made her portrait as the village photographer. But she had also thought of making it part of her exhibition, for she never doubted that the woman would live to see her show. The portrait now has quite another meaning and value for the woman’s family, making it impossible for Lieko to think of it as art. (Would she have been in the same sort of quandary if the woman had died a natural death before her exhibition? On this matter, my thinking stops in its tracks when I remember Lieko telling us, while walking on the beach, that tsunami survivors often consoled themselves for the loss of their kin by regarding it as death by nature, hence somehow not unnatural.)

What, then, is art? And what is a photograph? What is it that compels or restrains us from making photographs, and art, with the stuff of what happens to ourselves and to others? It was impossible to fight these, most basic, questions down in our minds (and eyes) as we drove with Lieko toward the ocean through the remains of Kitakama. Everywhere around us, a landscape of ravage merged with ocean and sky to present shockingly photogenic scenes. Every modern and postmodern aesthetic, together with memories of the greatest literature, art and cinema, could be found or invoked in what we saw, in the quality of air and light, in the sounds and the silence, and in the emotions we felt or tried to imagine. A photographer could come here, and at the end of a single day’s shooting have enough pictures for the most spectacular photobook – like Robert Polidori or Mitch Epstein’s photographs of New Orleans after Katrina. Yet, what Lieko showed us and talked about demanded another order of engagement. It asked for a constant readjustment and refinement of judgment, in which the power of feeling and recall becomes inseparable from the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. For Lieko, a community had suddenly appeared, and then it disappeared just as suddenly. In the middle of these two imponderables stood the photographer and artist with a whole world of photographs lost and found. Lieko has calculated that if Kitakama had a hundred families, and each family had a thousand photographs, then the estimated 30,000 photographs that she has collected in the community center from the ruins – with the help of residents, volunteers and the army – make up 30 percent of the total number of photographs lost in the tsunami.

Lieko’s map of Kitakama’s disappearance – the area was cleaned up swiftly because of the airport nearby – connects three distinct spaces. First, the community center, with the cemetery and the shrine next to it, where she is washing and sorting the community’s photographs and other rescued belongings; second, the place on the beach where her studio used to be; and third, the little cluster of temporary homes in which the residents now live, and she lives too. She refers to her present home, furnished by Red Cross and Ikea, as her new “artist’s residency” and admits that she has never lived in such luxury before. It was this humor in extremis that helped her deal with the shock of what was left after she went back to Kitakama for the first time. She quickly got used to living with little or nothing.

However, Lieko found the wrecked hard-disk of her computer, where her archives were stored, in the sand brought in by the waves around her studio, forming ripples and dunes where there used to be grass. Some of her own work was stored as data in a Tokyo lab. So, with her data and her youth, she feels that she has been left with considerably more than nothing. But in the temporary homes, the residents lives are shadowed by profound uncertainty, largely owing to the government’s lack of transparency regarding rehabilitation. Where would they go from here: to where they used to live, or to somewhere else? To what extent were they exposed, and are still exposed, to radiation? So, younger people like Lieko suddenly find their lives turning unavoidably political.

When Lieko moved into Kitakama, the neighborhood association chief had offered her the changing rooms at the community swimming pool as a makeshift studio, since the pool was used only a few months in the year. As we walked in the stretches of sand ringed with wrecked pine trees, where her studio once was, the swimming pool lay blue and dream-like on one side, full of water, sand and fish. But the changing rooms were gone. Lieko comes to work here every day,. She had made large concentric circles in the sand, and was wrapping a fallen pine tree with black plastic as prop for a scene to be shot. “It’s like a private beach and pool,” she laughs. The ocean is a few yards away, and the old barrier wall – stretching towards Fukushima on the right – looks like a Richard Serra. The wrecked cars and marooned ships dotting the land are the Chamberlains and Kiefers, the sunken jetty a Smithson. To face the ocean is to face America, with the hills to one’s back. In winter, the beach is often covered with snow. On moonlit nights, the snow beach and the ocean become Caspar David Friedrich. Every now and then, there is a Hokusai. This landscape, Lieko says, “Could be anywhere, nothing. You go to a place and feel déjà vu. I went to New York and felt, ‘I know the atmosphere of this city.’ But when I come here, I feel no déjà vu. It is so new for me, and so clean.”

Yet, this curious lightness-in-extremity disappeared from the air when we reached the community center. Its doors and windows are now without panes, and always open. The clock shows the time when the tsunami struck. There is an iron ladder going up to the roof, where a number of families had taken refuge. At the entrance, Lieko has put up her phone number so that people might call her if they wanted to come and collect their belongings, or keep what they had found. In the main hall – quite small, but with a stage – the tables are laden with family albums and loose photos in various degrees of damage. The photographs that Lieko has finished washing are hung up to dry with clips from pieces of tape stretching across the walls from the floor to as far up as her hands can reach. The ceiling looks unstable, and a layer of rubble, as fine as dust, keeps forming on the photos on the table, which need constant dusting. It looks like a blasted exhibition, in which the most privately cherished moments in the lives of people have been put out in a space of public desolation and silence in an act that is at once infinitely cruel and infinitely kind. In the other rooms were other rescued objects – dolls, teddy bears, toys, schoolbags, certificates, buddhas, memorial plaques, clocks, cameras – neatly sorted on tables or in boxes. One large window with shattered panes frames the cemetery (the gravestones had proved to be the strongest vertical structures in the community), and another the shrine.

It was a set of rooms in which everything was, at once, rescued and abandoned, trash and yet of incalculable value. Even the most banal objects were mysteriously and unbearably meaningful. In these rooms, I found myself constantly thinking of art, and was constantly ashamed of doing so. For Lieko, this work of restoration demands a constant use of judgment. How does one decide what to pick up from the ruins and bring back? For how long does one keep them? What does one do with what seems to have been abandoned? Can one ever be sure? Because she knows all the residents, she recognizes most of the people in the photographs she washes and dries. Not only does she recognize them, but working with these photographs also opens up a corridor of time behind each face: “You end up re-experiencing the families’ memories and their entire lives through the photographs, and you experience so much, as if you were a hundred years old.” Often, when she listens to someone reminiscing in the shelter, as most do frequently, she would suddenly remember seeing a photograph of the event being recalled and exclaim, “Ah, I know that! I saw the photographs!” And everybody would laugh together. Film and camera companies have been donating albums and offering other kinds of help. She accepts most of this gratefully, but has to be careful about the situation being used for publicity.

One woman from the village had always wanted to get rid of most of her photographs. So, after she found them in the community center, she threw them out into the rubble. A volunteer brought them back again. When this happened twice, she went back to the remains of her house with the photos in a bag, took them up to the first-floor balcony and dramatically scattered them in the air. The next day, her brother went to her abandoned house before coming to see her at the shelter, saw the photos scattered everywhere, picked them up with great feeling, and gleefully brought them back to her. So, she put them in a bag again, but this time before putting the bag out with the trash, she wrote on it in big, bold letters, “THIS IS TRASH. PLEASE THROW.” Lieko also told us about a man who would come to the community center every day to look for his daughter’s photograph, for he had lost not only his house but also his daughter: “So I realized that the photograph is not a photograph any more. It is the daughter. From being trash to being the lost daughter, the value of a photograph keeps changing. Photographs can resist everything, but they can also become anything.”


Sitting around the dining table in Lieko’s temporary home at the end of our day together, all three of us were feeling a hundred years old. What we had seen and heard was difficult – “so precious, and so heavy,” as Lieko put it. And it was especially difficult because one somehow had to work out its relationship with art. Would it have been simpler if we had visited her as journalists looking for human-interest stories? When Lieko lost her camera with the rest of her possessions, one way of getting a camera on loan would have been to approach a newspaper and obtain a press badge, which would have come with a camera. But Lieko had found it impossible to do this because it would create the wrong kind of distance from the residents. Yet, thinking of herself as part of the community does not make it any easier for her to decide how to present – physically, intellectually and formally – the fruit of her complex work with, and within, that community. The idea of the “cross-point” is still crucial for her. But it is no more the photographer, but the photograph itself, that appears to be the cross-point between the artist and the world. For Lieko, the photographer’s most immediate relationship with the photograph is through its materiality – the feel of the photographic paper, in all its fragility and resistance, against the skin. It is this physicality that she has been trying to capture in different ways in the public space of her exhibitions. But she despairs that none of her attempts to convey this intimacy has been successful so far. Framing and hanging the images on the wall seems to be the least satisfactory option. In one show, she stood them unframed on the floor, resting at an angle against the wall, for she liked the grounded verticality of gravestones in the cemetery. To stand her pictures absolutely straight against the wall seemed too simple. She wanted to throw into doubt the verticality of the viewer’s own body while looking at her photographs. Placing them at floor level was also a gesture to the little old ladies of the community.

Yet, in spite of the physicality of her relationship with the photograph (ironic for a photographer who spends a lot of time converting damaged photographs into data), Lieko refuses to let the photograph’s materiality simplify its relationship with time: “Taking a photograph is making a space that is no-time – not the past, not the present, not the future. The process of making this no-time space is like a ceremony for me. But I also know that I am courting time; I cannot run away from time. That’s my life, my destiny. Yet, the person in the photograph, I know her. She looks at me and I look at her. But I cannot say where she came from. That is a mystery to me. Maybe she is looking at me from the future. Maybe she is looking at me from somewhere. I do not know where that somewhere is. But I want to know and I want to hold that space.”

For Lieko, the forms of knowledge held in this no-time space exceed the image and demand more complicated forms of presentation to the world. She has been putting out her work in Kitakama, not as an exhibition of photographs, but as a series of lectures that takes the implications of her work beyond her own story, or even that of the community (in an anthropological sense), toward a larger understanding of the ritual spaces of photography. One of her lectures is called “The Resistant Photograph.” The exhibition will follow later. She imagines her Kitakama book in three volumes: the lectures, the photographs, and finally – this is where Lieko took us, and possibly herself, by surprise – a novel. Perhaps it is only after she lets fiction into her archives that she would begin to “hold” in its entirety the “deep, huge and chaotic” truth of what she has lost and found in her community.

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