Exalted gestures, obscure figures and unusual settings. Meg Hewitt’s photography can be described as expressive. In Japan, and particularly Tokyo, the Australian photographer found the perfect stage for her photographic creativity. The often exaggerated poses of her protagonists, encountered on the street, in the underground, or at particular kinds of bars, are reminiscent of Japanese Nō Theatre performers, a tradition that Hewitt has interest in.
Please tell me about your relationship to Japan. When did you first visit and what draws you there?
I first visited in Japan in 1998 when I stopped over on my way to the UK. I was amazed how completely different things were from Australia. I walked around Kyoto for a week trying to understand and explore the culture, but didn’t make it to Tokyo on that trip. Back then a lot of the signs were only in Japanese, so it was more of a challenge than now with multilingual signage particularly for trains and streets. I love Japan very much. It is such a beautiful country and the people are so kind and polite. It always amazes me how quiet it is when in a crowded subway train and how large swarms of commuters seem to effortlessly weave around each other without being pushy or aggressive. Everybody at home seems really brash each time I return from Japan.
How did the Tokyo is Yours project come about? What did you want to express?
Tokyo is Yours was my first major long-term project. I was very moved by the events in Japan surrounding the 2011 Great East Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I wondered what the mood was in Tokyo which is only 150 miles south of there. Tokyo is a metropolis of over 14 million people. Most people rely on public transport, so it would be very hard to evacuate. The former prime minister, Naoto Kan, admitted in 2016 that he was seriously considering evacuation at the time. The situation was like science fiction, but unfortunately it was also very real. When I first visited Tokyo for the project I would see a graffiti tag everywhere: ‘Tokyo is Yours’. It was like a proclamation that, despite what had happened, Tokyo still was.
How would you describe your visual style? How did you find it?
I started off by exploring documentary and street photography. I wanted to go beyond photojournalism and explore more emotional and imagined narratives. I studied the history of film-making for a while, and love film noir and the psychology of editing based on early studies of the brain and memory, which was explored by the surrealists. The street is my departure point. I go out with the intention to meet people and interact with them, not just to make photos from a distance.
Which photographers inspire you?
Some of my early loves in photography were Trent Parke and Anders Pedersen. I strove to learn everything I could about analogue photography, to get the texture and contrast in film that inspired me in their work. I love the dialogue that Pedersen has with people. Café Lehmitz is an amazing record of a time and place and shows you his engagement with the subjects. He is a participant in the situation and they are comfortable with him taking photographs. Diane Arbus is also a big favourite. She had a beautiful way with people and was also drawn to people and things that moved her.
Please tell us about how Japanese photography influenced your work.
I learnt more about the Japanese photography tradition through my trips to Japan. A lot of Provoke photography is about the edit – it has a rawness and a beat to it. My favourite Japanese photographer is Masahisa Fukase. I discovered him through the book The Solitude of Ravens. I love the emotion in his work and his obsessiveness. When making a book, one of the hardest things for a photographer is to make sets of images that visually work together. I imagine I have a basement full of my favourite images, and I go out to take pictures to add to my collection.
How did you get in contact with the Japanese subculture? Please tell me more about this scene.
There are many subcultures in Japan: rockabilly, punk, heavy metal, rock and rollers, Lolita, Fairy Kei and fruits. Many of them hang out around Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. There are many small bars that specialise in a particular scene where you can meet people. I also have a friend who likes to go anime clubbing. This is where you dress up as your favourite anime character and dance to music with anime sounds over the top. One of my favourite bars in Tokyo is transgender and a hang out for Japanese painters. There is a man who lives in silence above the bar: he sits in the middle of the room and writes Haiku.
How is it that you shoot with Leica cameras?
When you’re working with instinct and emotion you really want a camera system that becomes an extension of yourself in the way that the M system does. The simplicity of use and manual control allows using the camera to become second nature, an extension of your mind and body. The feeling you get when you squeeze the shutter button on a Leica is different from any other camera. You feel like you are making images, not shooting. I work pretty closely with people, so having a less intrusive camera is definitely part of my process, and the rangefinder system allows me to view outside the frame and better anticipate what’s coming.
Tell me about your workshops. What can participants expect?
I currently run two workshops a year in Japan. Tokyo in the spring and Kyoto in the autumn. I know both cities pretty well, so I help people access the good spots quickly and penetrate the different layers to build a series in a week. A lot of people have challenges approaching and interacting with people they don’t know in order to take photos with them. I address different ways to do this, and also work one on one in the street with participants to address any challenges they might have. Once you start taking pictures with permission, the quality of your portraiture really opens up. I also stress really taking the time to consider how you feel, what fascinates you and compels you to make an image.
During the workshop, we have a night out together where I introduce participants to many spots that can be hard to find. Japanese subcultures, small lanes and bars, and some of the famous haunts of the Japanese photographic community.
After completing her studies in Visual Arts, Meg Hewitt spent twelve years running her own restaurant in Sydney before turning to photography. Nowadays, she works on her projects, assists a master photo printer and runs workshops. Her photo book, Tokyo is Yours, received a number of international awards. She had her first solo exhibition in Europe in 2019 at the Anne Clergue Gallery in Arles.