Ariko Inaoka has been trying to get back home. Ever since leaving Japan as a teenager, Inaoka has used photography to document displacement, memory, and magic. Saturated in a wash of light, Inaoka's images possess an ethereal, soporific glow. Like strange and nostalgic reveries, Inaoka's photographs depict sublime landscapes, Western nomads searching for gurus, and most famously, Icelandic twins Erna and Hrefna.
In her ongoing twins series, Inaoka visualizes the eerie, enchanting sentiment of fairy tales. She tells a story of youthful insouciance and the secret, silent bond of sisters growing up in unison. And somehow, in the rocks and water of Iceland, Inaoka finds fragments of her own uprooted childhood in Kyoto. Now, despite being back in Japan, Inaoka speaks to us as a foreigner in her homeland, yearning to reconnect to her roots.
How did you become a photographer and how has your craft shaped your life thus far?
I grew up in Kyoto, and I moved to the United States when I was 17. I went to high school in San Diego, and that's where I started to do photography. I decided I wanted to go to art school for college and moved to New York in 1995 to go to Parsons, The New School. It was very challenging to live in New York as a fine art photographer. When I was 30, I moved back to Japan, which gave me more freedom and to photograph my own projects. Two years ago, I moved my base to Kyoto from Tokyo for my family business. My family owns the oldest restaurant in Kyoto, which has existed for 548 years. It's always been run by men, and since my brother and sister couldn't do it, I offered to run the business. Managing the restaurant has definitely slowed down my photography, so I had to cut down my commercial work. Now I only shoot what I really want. I even have a dark room in my house here. Plus, I always wanted to be in Kyoto again.
Why do you choose photography as a medium, versus other forms of documentation and art?
I've always been looking for what I'm good at and can get excited about. Mostly because, while growing up, my sister was always the artist and could draw everything really well. Now she's a contemporary artist. I always wanted to find something like she did, and right now, it's photography. But in the future, it could be painting, ceramics, or cooking. If I find something I feel a strong connection to, it could be anything. It's easy to do many things, but doing one thing for a long time can be very challenging. Sometimes I feel like my own work isn't very good, and I don't know what I want to photograph. But sometimes, it is only after I experience doubt, that I can reach the next level of my creativity. Contemplating one thing for a long time is very important. Just like in my family: we make very simple food, but over many centuries it's become a national treasure.
What are you currently working on?
I'm still working on the twins project, which I only shoot in the summertime in Iceland. I am mostly fascinated by how the twins grow and change each year. I began shooting them when they were nine, and they just turned 13. I want to keep photographing them until they're 16. These are the years people change a lot and I vaguely remember it being quite an intense time in my life. I really think what I felt, thought, and dreamed around that age made me who I am today. People start to choose what kind of clothes they want to wear, what kind of music they like, and who they want to be. For example, when I was 13, I already knew I wanted to live abroad. And just physically, this is the period our bodies change a lot in really beautiful ways.
How did you decide to photograph Iceland?
Originally, I ended up in Iceland in 2002 on an eight day road trip with friends, during which I photographed the landscape for the first time. Surprisingly, even though it's so far from my home town, I started to think about my own childhood memories in Kyoto. There's an element in the water, moss, and rocks that is really similar to Japanese zen gardens and shrines. Also, it was after September 11, 2001, and I was very conflicted about society and the direction of my photography. I started photographing Iceland as a way of healing, and began going back every summer to shoot there. I ended up working on this project for five years before I met the twins, and in 2008, I published my first book, SOL.
What is it about twins in particular that captivates you?
I haven't found a final answer to that question, and that's why I am so obsessed with this project. It's because I don't understand them; I don't understand what it means to have a twin. But I believe in spiritual power, like telepathy. I think we all have that kind of power--sometimes we want something so strongly that we can concentrate on an image and make it real. Many people say, twins have telepathy and they share each others desires even if they're separated. There are amazing stories about twins separated since birth who end up with the same tastes in food, music, and even cigarettes. I also believe in Taoism--the dualism of light and shadow; birth and death; man and woman. Seeing the twins together brings all this to mind.
Do you find that mystery and magic have been constant themes in your work over the years?
I think that they've always been with me. I'm not religious, but Buddhism is a strong part of my family, and I believe in the magic of existence, the planet, and the stars. And I believe images can capture more than you see. In coming up with a concept, I choose twins, travellers, or landscapes as symbols for invisible power. I just don't want to take beautiful pictures and say 'look, this is beautiful.' I repeat a theme for a long time, and this repetition reveals the invisible power.
In the other series I'm working on, I go to different holy places in India and meet foreigners, mainly Westerners, who are sleeping there and traveling for a long time looking for gurus. I take their picture and we talk about their journey. The conversation always becomes very spiritual.
What is your creative process, and your stance on staging versus candid, and film versus digital photography?
When I'm shooting the twins, I feel like I am playing with them. I choose the clothes they wear, and I try to keep it simple. Sometimes I get ideas from pictures or movies I've seen and I try to re shoot an image from memory. Or sometimes, I just find a beautiful location. Then we go shoot and run and jump together, and the magic comes to the film. I only shoot with film because the printing process is so important to me. Sometimes I make contact sheets and wait a month before developing them. In the dark room, the memory of our playtime and memories of my own childhood mix together as I'm searching for the right color or mood. Printing is a very meditative process for me. I cannot give my negatives to someone else to print, because no one else can instill the photographs with my memories.
What is the primary inspiration for your work, even outside of art?
Of course reading books, looking at beautiful art, listening to amazing music, and traveling--there are lot of inspirations in life. But for my career, it's about getting to know myself. When something inspires me, even in film, it has to have some connection to my life, my memories. For example, I think Italy is a great country, but the culture is so different. Their use of vivid colors is really different from Japanese art. I connect more to the light in Iceland because it reminds me of the light and colors in Kyoto. That's a big part of why I moved back to Kyoto. This is the place where I grew up and where my sense of beauty comes from.
My inspiration is very, very personal. That's why I spend five years on one project, and I read books and constantly think about the theme. My work helps me to understand who I am. Even now, I'm in the middle of the twins project and through this interview, I learn more about myself. Maybe it's only when I finish a project, that I can truly understand why I wanted to do it and can move on to a completely different project.
Can you anticipate what your next project will be?
I'd really like to start shooting in Kyoto. Partly because I want to learn more about Japanese culture and my family history. But it's very challenging for me because everything is so familiar. Kyoto is beautiful, but over-photographed. Everyone has their own version of what it looks like, so I want to find an original way of looking at my home. I may not find my next project in Kyoto, but I will give it a try.