When the Camera Speaks

When the camera speaks, what are photographers trying to tell us? What do they want us to feel?
Why did they choose photography to express themselves?
Leading photographers share their thoughts about their craft.

Mongolia today through the power of photography

Interview: October 5, 2015;
Posted: January 12, 2016

Tetsuro Shimizu worked as Toshinobu Takeuchi's assistant for three years before embarking on his solo career. He specializes in landscape photography in a variety of formats, ranging from snaps to documentary work, all of which display his highly original viewpoint. In 2005, he won the first Yonosuke Natori Photographic Prize for Street Boy. In 2012, he published CHANGE, a collection that encompasses his 15 years in Mongolia. An exhibition of his photographs of goldmining in Mongolia is scheduled to be held at Olympus Galleries in Tokyo and Osaka starting March 2016.

A team of three to tackle the task

Tetsuro Shimizu has been documenting life in Mongolia for many years now, and recently published the photo collection New Type. We caught up with him in early October when he was busy working on the new book, to find out how the photos were selected and the meaning of the title.

Q: What inspired you to put together a book like this?

Shimizu: Back in 2012 I released CHANGE, which was the culmination of 15 years covering Mongolia. My idea was to produce a photobook for the people of Mongolia themselves, so for CHANGE the entire process from design to printing was done in Mongolia. Producing the book there also showcased the current state of Mongolian printing and binding skills, and the work of its designers.

Thankfully the collection was well received, but I did have regrets about the printing quality. Unfortunately there was a lot of color rolling, which means colors turning out differently to what was envisaged. Plus, it was a limited edition of 500, sold in Mongolia and Japan, but many Japanese customers never received their copy. So then I thought about putting out a Japanese edition of CHANGE, but the more I thought about it, the less I could see any point in just reprinting the same book, so I decided to leave CHANGE as it is and move on to the next project.

Q: What was involved in producing the new book?

Shimizu: Having found a publisher this spring, I assembled a team consisting of an editor, designer, and me. We started by discussing various options, like splitting the contents into three sections and including both color and black and white shots. At the time I had a one-man show called "BURGED" running in Kumamoto, and to my surprise the other two came down at their own expense to see it. After the show we traveled together around the islands of Amakusa.

Q: So that's where plans for the book started to gel?

Shimizu: No, at that stage it was just simply socializing and getting to know each other. I must admit I was slightly puzzled as to why they had bothered to come along: I guess it was partly to see how I took photos and interacted with people.

A tough process of elimination

Q: You say you had almost finished selecting the photos by last weekend. You must have had thousands of shots, so how did you choose the ones for New Type?

Shimizu: I started by working my way through them all. I've made four trips to Mongolia this year, so that's already 30,000 photos. This latest book is 160 pages, which means I can only include about 150 photos, but I still found 3,000 out of the 30,000 that would have been perfect for the book.

So I divided them into folders by location: the Gobi Desert, lakes, Ulan Bator, and so on. After I had come up with an overall picture, I whittled them down while maintaining some sort of balance. By the first design meeting I'd got it down to 502 photos for the three years 2013-2015.

Q: How did you choose which ones to keep?

Shimizu: In the end, I asked myself whether each photo really said something I wanted to say. There were plenty of shots that were visually attractive, but my main criterion was that a photo truly communicated what I wanted to say.

Origin of the title New Type

Q: What does the title New Type mean?

Shimizu: While I was shooting for the previous book CHANGE, Mongolia was becoming more democratic, and change was happening fast in all sorts of ways. Now the country is flooded with material goods, and there's a sense of plenty that wasn't there before. There are smartphones, Wi-Fi, and even Lexus cars. It struck me that the country had embarked on a new phase, hence New Type.

Q: Did it take long to decide on the title?

Shimizu: Quite a while, to be honest. I kept writing down a title, crossing it out, writing another. Then on the subway heading to our first design meeting, it suddenly came to me: I was repeating the previous candidates to myself when "new type" struck me out of the blue as the train passed Omotesando. It was a perfect match with what I imagined the book would be, so that was that.

From that point on the three of us joined forces to choose the photos, discussing them as we went through them. Initially I kept my thoughts to myself, telling the other two that I'd whittled the photos down to this point, and could go no further, so they could finish the selection. They seemed a little surprised!

Q: This being your book, didn't you want to do everything your own way?

Shimizu: That's a good question. Previously, for exhibitions and magazine spreads I'd always selected the shots and put everything together myself. But you risk becoming wrapped up in your own world, and it's not good for my professional development. Input from others can spark new ideas. And a big part of it this time was doing things like traveling around Amakusa and finding that—albeit in very idiosyncratic ways—we shared the same goals. Our balance as a team is great.

Q: When choosing photos, do you view them on screen, or print them out?

Shimizu: A photobook is something to hold in your hands, so I look at the printed versions. There are often two photos in a spread, so we started by assembling pairs, then systematically arranged them. Each of us brought different skills to the task, which led to some unexpected ideas.

I believe that how people interpret my photos depends on their knowledge of Mongolia, or lack thereof. My colleagues might suggest an interesting pairing of photos, but if it wasn't a combination I could explain to a Mongolian, I didn't use it, because for me, the top priority is to produce a photobook that also resonates for those who live there.

Shots that didn't quite make the cut

Q: There must have been many photos among the 502 you regret having to leave out. Some of these will apparently be featured in the PHOTO GALLERY (see bottom of page).

Shimizu: Yes, let's look at a few. Take this one of a woman. The light is good, and so is the way the subject has been captured. I like it as a photo, but it just isn't a good fit for the book. It comes down to how much of the photo's meaning the viewer can pick up. Whenever I was unsure, I returned to "new type" and asked myself whether the photo fitted that title.

Shimizu: This one shows the popular Mongolian festival of Naadam. The most exciting event is the horse racing. The winning horse is considered auspicious, so everyone tries to touch its sweat. To capture this scene I waited where the horses would cross my path as they made their way back from the finishing line. It was pretty scary having the child jockeys bearing down on you at full speed brandishing their whips! The policeman here is firing a stun gun as he warns people to stay out of the way. It was complete chaos. But because it's hard to grasp all that information from this one photo, for the book I chose a different shot.

Shimizu: There were also some I didn't use out of consideration for the overall flow of the book. This is a frozen lake. They say it freezes overnight, and it is incredibly clear. It's about a meter thick, and people drive on it. But although it is an interesting photo, it's a little too expository in nature. When an image has too much force, it can interrupt the flow of the book, so I left this one out.

Black and white the key to conveying essence

Q: CHANGE was done in sepia, but this time everything is in monochrome.

Shimizu: Sepia has that faded, nostalgic look, so it was perfect for CHANGE. But this latest book doesn't need that nostalgic atmosphere, so I decided monochrome would be better because it has a starker, less sentimental look. And I chose it over color because doing away with color helps the reader to focus on what I'm trying to say. Color can distract from the message of a photo, and can even be a nuisance.

Another thing with this book is that there is no text for individual photos. People might find it more enjoyable to have things explained, but I would prefer that even readers with no prior knowledge of the subject use their imagination and spin their own stories as they look at the photos. That means success depends purely on the power of the photographs, which is a personal challenge for me as well.

Interview and text: Koji Okano