My Sunday Interview with … Sayuri Grace

by Rebecca J Gerken

Sayuri Grace has had a lifelong connection with Japan which has recently been epitomised through her latest project. Each photograph, both from the black and white series and the colour, has you wondering about the stories unfolding in view of the camera. Textured and contrasted, it is almost comparable to any immersive experience, where you are glued to the events surrounding the subjects and you feel like a part of what is going on. Sayuri kindly took a few minutes to talk to me about her project…

RG: What’s your relationship with Japan?

SG: I guess that’s an interesting question because I got my idea for my final project [for university] through thinking ‘Why have I got this thing that is always revolving around Japan?’ Everything I’ve done over the last couple of years has some relationship to it, without meaning too, subconsciously and I think it’s because I don’t know it. I don’t know Japan so I want to know because it’s a part of me. I learn slightly different parts and then my mum tells me something and I want to hear more. So, it’s becoming a thing; when there’s something you like and then can’t get enough of and then you have to find out more.

RG: Did your mum grow up in Japan?

SG: My mum has actually spent most of her life now in England, but she spent the first twenty years or so there. So it is where she grew up but she moved pretty quickly. She’s told me all about that. I have actually quite a few experiences with Japan in the sense that I’ve been every five years. That’s the interesting part, I guess. At 5, 10, 15, 20, I’ve been to Japan.

RG: So four times…

SG: Well, I technically went as a baby but I’m not going to count that *we chuckle*.

RG: Would you say using photography is a way for you to get to know the country and culture more intimately?

SG: I think it is really different to me, it’s part of me and then photography is the only way I can think of to show that I want this relationship, the only way that will reflect it. I’ve done that since I was younger as well and have been looking at photos always, but I never thought of photography in that way but now I do, so it’s a similar relationship I guess.

RG: When you were over there, you took an analogue camera with you and your series is shot wholly on film. Do you work mainly in analogue?

SG: Whenever I used digital, I never got a satisfaction from it, which is something like the main reason I like photography. You get a satisfaction when you get something good from it so I stayed with analogue. I did use digital alongside the black and white and colour films. Because of the way we organised the trip, I used a high ISO film, so we couldn’t get through the airport. On the way back I didn’t want to go through it all again because we had to go through all the crap and we went to this place to get it developed. So I found out whether or not my five rolls of black and white had turned out the way I wanted them and then when I found out and saw that it was better than I had ever expected, it was the most joy and relief…that’s what I love about the analogue and with Japan, it was probably so much more of an experience that way. It shows my experience with Japan, more than digital would.

RG: How do you feel about the pace of using analogue compared to digital?

SG: I think you develop more of a connection with the photographs you take with analogue rather than digital because with digital you do feel like you can just do it there and then. With analogue, even when it’s 35mm and you can take lots of photos and you can change, there’s a sense of wanting to take the pictures than happen to be in your sight, that are there.

There was this case in Japan where there was a woman and her kid, and I’m not used to taking street photographs and you want to be in their face but at the same time you don’t want to be in their way. When you get interested in something and you see it and you think ‘I want to take a photo’, and there was this woman who just had this huge look that said she was lost. I took loads of photos about her and she didn’t even notice me, that was the strange part, and the kid was just mucking about. We were at the station and had time to spare and it was the strangest experience but having the analogue camera actually made it feel more real in the situation to me and analogue feels more physical, whereas digital just feels flatter somehow…

RG: You mentioned using the high ISO film. Was there ever any doubt that you weren’t going to use a film that gave you the grain effect?

SG: It’s like one of my favourite photographers, Daido Moriyama, or someone like that. It just seems to give images an extra texture to what is already visible and there’s something just gritty and nice about it, so I wanted to try it out. The results, I mean, a lot of people haven’t seen half of them because I’m still putting them together but it’s something that gave it my look, how I see Japan. My vision is kind of parallel to the way Moriyama saw it but in my own way, so I think the ISO being high actually helped it. It was amazing to work with, much easier in a way.

RG: I can’t image the images without the grain, it just works so well.

SG: I think that’s why I don’t like the colour so much. I mean, it’s alright, and my digital…

RG: Oh that was my next question! Do you prefer the black and white or colour?

SG: It’s a no-brainer. It’s definitely black and white. There’s something more colourful to the black and white than to the colour somehow. The colour photographs I have on my website, there aren’t very many of them, and they are most of the ones I like. Those are the only ones that work for me and I couldn’t seem to make a whole series with them but the black and white ones; I look at them because the individual photos are all on my bedroom wall. I look at them and I’m seeing them as a project, seeing them still as so much from just that. Colour, there’s something missing from it, like I haven’t developed yet and it was a starting point.

RG: Other than Moriyama, has anyone else inspired you greatly?

SG: The first photographer I ever liked was Man Ray so I suppose that explains my love of black and white, I have always loved black and white. Most recently, I guess because I’m looking at Japan and I’m looking at all the big names of people like Shomei Tomatsu and someone called Eikoh Hosoe who Moriyama assisted in post-war era. There was a woman who had a show at the Tate recently, Miyako Ishuichi, and currently showing at the Foundling Museum too, whose talk I went to at the Japan Foundation in Russell Square. She was talking about memory, how she started off in black and white and things like that. A lot of what she does is diverse; she photographs all sorts of stuff. I like art in general and would take photos of anything if I could so…easily inspired.

RG: Two of your photographs were exhibited in a group show in Margate earlier this year, how did you choose just two from your series and how did you decide on producing a small publication to accompany them?

SG: Basically, I was looking through them all and there were a few I wanted to show and it was the street stuff because that’s the stuff I had that I could say has more structure than any other photograph I took in Japan. I was thinking ‘what are my strongest ones?’ but then I was considering ‘how do I define strong?’ and which I could put together in an exhibition.

I chose ones that I think reflect my time in Japan and the ones that felt like how I felt when I was there, so they aren’t just my experience, but my emotions too. With the woman, I felt a bit lost and with the little girl, I felt like to me, she looked like she was part of the scenery but she wasn’t. Both of them felt a bit disjointed which was again reflecting my mood and it also felt like there was such energy about them which drew me to them and which also drew me away from others.

The publication, it was such a last minute thing, I should have put more time into it but I’ve had it in the back of my head for years, when I first started liking photography but I’ve always been scared of. Everything I’m scared of with photography is a sign for me to try it because it’s normally something that you should, something out of your comfort zone. I really wanted to see how some of the images would look in a small printed publication and I thought, ‘Just do it. Go for it.’ I sold four to strangers and I was so happy. Someone I don’t know actually liked it enough to buy it! It’s given me the confidence to do it again.

RG: It was newpaper-esque. Grainy. Textured.

SG: *nods* It worked and was influenced by how photo books are and with Japanese photography, photo books are the best, magazines and newspapers, that is the output, more so than exhibitions. It’s seen as the output. It was more interesting for me in that sense anyway as I heard that and I looked at things and agreed. I mean, of course I like exhibitions but there is something completely different in the way it’s done, texture etc.

RG: The series being plastered across you room, you must look at them every day. Is there scope for you to continue working with them?

SG: This was initially a personal project, not something I had planned to use for university, but it is going to continue to be a part of my course project and it’s something that I thought about when I took them in April. I live with them, look at them and process them. I still see a project there. I want to go back to Japan and hopefully will be raising funds to do so in the next year. I’m desperate to go back.

RG: How exciting! On to our topical question…With more film types being discontinued, yet Kodak claimed they won’t stop producing film, do you think it is likely or at all possible that we will see a total decline of film photography in our lifetimes?

SG: That’s an interesting question. Erm…I think you could easily say that digital is going to take over, but at the same time, I think it’s an obvious answer, but there are so many people invested in film that they will put their foot in the door and stop it from happening. I don’t think film could ever become extinct as long as there is a passion for film. If I, for instance, become famous in the next ten years, and film is really just going out, I would invest so much money into stopping that from happening. I would do my best, try to advertise and do whatever I could. I’m pretty sure there are people doing that now.

There are people, like Moriyama, who basically just work in film. There are so many people that use it I think you would have to kill a whole generation of people who love film in order for it not to be there. I can’t remember what paper, but there was a paper that went out, well even something as silly as Polaroid; that stopped production and now people are trying to bring it back…

RG: I really enjoy hearing people’s opinions on this topic. Thank you very much for speaking with me; you are a very interesting person and photographer. Don’t forget to look me up in ten years’ time when you’re famous!

Too see Sayuri’s Japan photographs and more of her work visit