SOME/IMAGE : A CONVERSATION WITH S/T CHAPTER005 CONTRIBUTOR 'KENRO IZU'

There is an urgency towards documenting our world. In these times of overexposure, meaning often is far to be found. Images flow freely between individuals, across time, across cultures. Many would argue, this solely is a development that has it advantages. However, it also brings a sense of swiftness, interrupting the profoundness of human interaction.Therefore, it is unique to find individuals who work from instinct. Speaking through imagery and expressing something beneath the surface. Kenro Izu, is such a documenter of our times. Hailing from Japan, yet with a long lasting NYC residency, Kenro has developed such a rich portfolio of work. He acts as a mere observer on his journeys, capturing images along the way, always from an artisanal mindset. We spoke deeply about his first steps in foreign lands, spirituality, the light in India and eventually about giving back. Meet Kenro. 

'where prayer echoes' india 43, 2008 by kenro izu

Kenro, I would like to start by speaking of heritage. What attracted you to New York in the 70’s?

Well, those days in the early 1970s in Tokyo, photography only had a few options, which did not include creative (fine art) photography. At the time, New York, was the only city, which had a photography department in a museum (MoMA) and a wide array of commercial art galleries. For a 20 years old youngster and aspiring photographer, New York was simply the place one had to see.

How were these first years over there, I can imagine, encroaching on commercial work and seeking for adaptation were elements, key to you at the time?

Upon my arrival, I was lucky enough to find a job as an assistant to a commercial photographer to sustain myself. Meanwhile, it was also a good opportunity to learn about studio management and the techniques found in photography. These experiences were the foundation of opening of my own studio for still-life commercial assignments. The eye, which I acquired during my commercial assignments, was also effectively used for my personal work. Here I speak of an ability to see delicate nuances of light, shadow and compositions.

'eternal light' #8 allahabad. india 2013. on the maag mela, a smaller scaled ritual festival at the confluence of rivers ganges and yamuna, gather people to come pray. by kenro izu

'eternal light' #3 varanasi, india 2013. at the ''house of liberation'' a free housing where people come to die near the holy river ganges. a 100 years old man, a day before his departure. by kenro izu

One of your first photographic journeys, was the documentation of Egypt. How did you experience this time and how did the images feel to you?

At first, I did not have a particular theme in mind on this journey. It started as a searching quest for myself, seeking out an actual theme of my photography. Therefore, my photos taken in Egypt were very scattered and lacked cohesion. Among the photos, I took, one image in particular captured a most special aura, which only such a spiritual place could have. This image featured a pyramid, a tomb of ancient king who had wished for an eternal life. The photograph inspired me to observe my subject more carefully, beyond the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, its spiritual aura inspired me to photograph more places like this. It was as if I had found something, which I had been looking for, for so many years. This was the beginning of a journey, which has lasted for over 35 years.

Process. I would also like to explore your process. How do you work technically? 

It is an important part of my work. I was first exposed to platinum print in early 1980s and felt immediately struck by its warmth and depth. It was a time, when I was desperately searching the right approach towards the theme of documenting spiritual monuments (sacred places). Next to this, I was not fully satisfied with enlarged gelatin silver print process, which I was using at the time. The first platinum print I saw, was by Paul Strand, a simple contact print of an 8 by 10 inch image. I quickly realized that the enlargement was the cause of the “dilution” of quality and the unique density surrounding the sacred place. My response was, to create a large negative (camera) and make contact prints in platinum, to capture the atmosphere of the sacred place. A 14 by 20 inch camera was built for me and the result of the large negative and platinum print combination was extremely satisfactory. I have maintained this system ever since.

'where prayer echoes' india 327, 2009 by kenro izu

'where prayer echoes' india 62, 2008 by kenro izu

However, could I say that in its foundation, your work is firmly rooted on instinct? 

Well, I am not a scholar or scientist, but a photographer, who documents the subject from my own creative vision. What I have to do, is to sharpen my sensitivity with keen instincts to sense even the most subtle atmosphere of spirituality. So, in a way, this indeed comes from instinct. 

Craftsmanship. The idea of working with a proper artisanal camera, emulsions, printing and developing of imagery, is something extremely overlooked in these current times, how do you observe digitalization and new technology?

I do acknowledge that new technology provides convenience, speed and many creative possibility to photographers. But as a result, the slow and skillful traditional process became extremely rare within photography today. An appreciation of well-crafted prints still remains, but it exists in a much smaller scale. At times, I do fear that people, including the photographer’s eye, might lose such sensitivity to appreciate and resonate to fine print. As this is a sincere combination of context and fine craftsmanship, only found in traditional film processing.

 'eternal light' #6 allahabad. india 2013. a sadhu (saint who left the ordinary life, serve only to their gods) who came to join the kumbh mela (hindu ritual festival held once in every 12 years)  by kenro izu

'eternal light' #6 allahabad. india 2013. a sadhu (saint who left the ordinary life, serve only to their gods) who came to join the kumbh mela (hindu ritual festival held once in every 12 years) by kenro izu

'eternal light' #8 allahabad. india 2013. in the foggy dawn, people gather for the holy bath in the confluence of river ganges and yamuna. by kenro izu

 'eternal light' varanasi. india 2014. at a village of raj, public cremation ground along the ganges. by kenro izu

'eternal light' varanasi. india 2014. at a village of raj, public cremation ground along the ganges. by kenro izu

After traveling so intensively, would you say you have conserved some of your Japanese values and do these remain with you on encounters?

Journeys always bring so much. I can say I have developed an American ‘‘head’’, as it is here, where I have been living most of my life and a ‘’heart’’ of Japan where I was born and spent my young days. When I encounter a subject which resonates to me, and if a motivation arises to photograph it, it is my Japanese side of responsibility, that dominates my heart. But when it comes to setting up for photography, printing, exhibiting and publishing, it is my American head filled with logical systems, that takes over, I believe

Could we speak a little of your ETERNAL LIGHT pieces, as they are most striking indeed. What was your vision here and how did you capture these moments?

It was toward the conclusion of a five year project of “India where prayer echoes”, a body of work to document the sacred sites and people found here across India. To conclude the work, I wanted to include a photograph of a scene of cremation by the holy river Ganges to show it as the end of life. Actually, I realized the cremation of a body may be the beginning of a life, so I continued to photograph the scene. This turned out to be the beginning of the new work of “Eternal Light”, to document the lives of the people of India, this time particularly in three holy cities along the rivers of Yamuna and Ganges, the cities of Vrindavan, Allahabad and Varanasi. Through the images, one can observe the massive diversity of the subjects; people who live on the fringes of society. At times, this is seemingly harsh and I found myself struggling. The amount of sadness was overwhelming at times. Imagine senior citizens, dying of poverty, widows who are excluded from the family, children living in squalor and the sheer amount of orphans. What I found is that regardless of their living circumstances, they live with such dignity, which may be caused by their strong faith. I have started seeing people have a light in their life, perhaps it is in the distance and dim at times. However, I found it to be steady as if it is a beacon to their life. My superficial response of sympathy to the people in the beginning, later turned into a positive feeling embracing the resilience of mankind.

'eternal light' #4 varanasi, india 2013. at the ''house of liberation'' a free housing where people come to die near the holy river ganges. by kenro izu

Let us conclude by looking back. As someone with such an enriched life, you often mention, you want to give back. What does this mean to you and how do you envisage this?

When I encountered the death of a girl in Cambodia during a photo-shoot in 1994. This came with the realization that the girl had to die, simply because of poverty (her parents were unable to afford to pay $2 to a doctor). It was then, I realized the time had come, to give back to those who are in need. Next to this, I felt that the moral of the doctor who did not care for a girl, arguing over a small amount of money, had to be changed too. Therefore, I decided to build a children’s hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to treat children, free of charge. Angkor Hospital for Children opened its door in 1999 and has treated 1.3 million children ever since. “Treat every patient as if your own child” is the motto of the hospital, which serves as a constant reminder to all the medical workers. As a 2nd project, our organization (Friends Without A Border, www.fwab.org), just built and opened Lao Friends Hospital for Children in Luang Prabang, Laos, this year. I have been taking many photographs from these countries, which are so rich in culture and history. It is natural to think of giving back something to the place where I took many photographs 
and gathered so much inspiration.

For more on Kenro: www.kenroizu.com

Interview & text by Marlo Saalmink | S/TUDIO
www.marlosaalmink.com