Recovery Through Process: An Interview with Yuki Kokubo – Momoko Allard

Yuki Kokubo’s serene images have recorded changing environments in locations spanning from Iceland to the northern and southern U.S., to Mexico and Japan. Momoko Allard connected with her via email in late January to learn more about her ongoing photo work and her newest project, a personal documentary film. 

 

 

(Iceland)

Momoko Allard: Tell me a bit about what originally brought you to photography, and how your work has evolved over the years you’ve been shooting.

Yuki Kokubo: I began photographing when I was sixteen. It was 1994 and my parents had just moved back to Japan. I was living with an NYU student on East 9th Street and I began dating an older boy who I met in the neighborhood. He was a street photographer and he introduced me to photography. He let me use his Leica camera and taught me how to process and print. He had converted his one-bedroom apartment into a studio with a darkroom, where I spent many hours falling in love with photography. New York City was gritty back in the 1990s and it was really interesting to photograph.

A couple years later, I moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I began to take a more conceptual approach to photography. It was really interesting to enter this new world of theory, interpretations, and dialog. After graduation, I continued to make conceptual work and participated in some group shows in Chicago. It was really fun, but I began to feel that I was missing something. Around that time I decided to volunteer at an after-school program for high school kids who lived in the notorious Cabrini Green projects. I taught some art classes and really enjoyed it. It meant a lot to me that I could use art in a way that extended beyond the art world in a way that felt useful. That experience got the ball rolling.

I moved back to New York in 2005 and began to take photographs with social and environmental themes. In 2008, I went to India to volunteer my time as a photographer and website builder for an organization called Swabhimaan. The following year I traveled to Iceland alone to immerse myself in the natural landscape and to photograph the glaciers. And I began photographing obsessively around the Gowanus Canal, which is a Superfund site in my neighborhood.

 

 

(Gowanus)

In 2010, I was working admin at the Environmental Defense Fund where my interest in photography was well-known and supported by my wonderful boss, Marcia Aronoff. In March of 2010, she gave me permission to go to Louisiana to document EDF’s coastal restoration project on the organization’s dime. A month after my trip was, of course, the BP oil spill. EDF sent me back down to Louisiana three times that spring and summer, where I extensively documented the environmental impacts in photographs and video. That’s when I knew for sure that I wanted to use my image-making skills to bring awareness to social and environmental issues.

MA: Was video a more recent expansion of your visual practice?

YK: I’ve always been interested in filmmaking, but there were reasons that kept me away from it. I took a film course in college but 16mm was too expensive, and back then, video was still visually rough in a way that I didn’t like. With the advances in digital imaging technology, both film and photography have become more accessible, but the downside of that is, as an emerging photographer, I found it nearly impossible to “emerge” shooting only still images. I felt it was necessary to expand my skills to film, but since it was something I’ve always wanted to do, it was a no-brainer. Beginning in 2010, I attended the MFA program for Social Documentary Film at the School of Visual Arts. I’ve completed one year and am currently on leave from the program.

I’ve worked on several short films, and am in the early stages of my first feature-length documentary. At this point, I’d say that I’m totally in love with filmmaking. For me, a photograph can be iconic, but a film has the ability to transport its viewers into a different world and carry them through various emotional landscapes that shift throughout the duration of the piece. The past few years have been a particularly transformative period in my life, and filmmaking has helped me approach the world through a different lens, which has helped me to learn more about myself.

MA: As your work has shifted to more directly serve social objectives, has your approach to the formal considerations of image-making changed?

YK: When I began taking photographs almost twenty years ago, I was mostly interested in studying environments. Back then, I used the camera to help me figure out the world around me. To an extent, I still do that, but have come to realize that life as a whole is a continual process of learning how to relate to the world. Nowadays, my work is more about service – to bring awareness to important issues, and to give a voice to the voiceless.

 

 

 

 

(Louisiana)

MA: How was shooting in Louisiana? Were you able to spend time getting to know the locals and hearing their stories? 

YK: Louisiana was a great experience because I really got to know the area over the course of multiple trips, which gave me a real advantage in terms of understanding the issues and getting access.

During my trips to coastal Louisiana, I often stayed in Morgan City. After one long shoot, I stopped in at a local restaurant called Susie’s Seafood. I probably stuck out being the only Asian person in the restaurant, with a big camera sitting by my side. So as soon as Susie came by to take my order, she asked me where I was from. Afterwards, we had a long conversation about how the oil spill had affected the seafood community, and how the restaurant was suffering from the skyrocketing prices. I knew immediately that I wanted to tell their story. It took a few visits to the restaurant before I convinced Susie and her husband Murray to be photographed, but I’m glad I did. I think most people understand the impacts of environmental disasters better when they see how other people are affected.

I love documentary for the human connections that it creates. When I look at any of my photos, I often think of how many people helped me to get to that place, or to meet that person. I keep in touch with many of the people I’ve photographed or filmed, as well as those who have never appeared in front of my lens.

MA: Like you mentioned, the BP disaster happened just a month after your first trip there. Environmental loss often only garners media attention when there’s a sudden disaster, and coverage again subsides as news cycles shift to the next incident. Did you experience that kind of wave during your time working in Louisiana? Through the EDF, did you find alternate routes of dissemination for your images that could contribute to a more measured awareness of the region’s issues?

YK: EDF has been working on coastal restoration in Louisiana for over three decades and their work continues. The BP disasters took a terrible toll on the coastal environments they work to restore, but it also brought international attention (and funds) to an area that had been suffering for decades from oil exploitation and development. EDF continues to use my images for their work there. A good example of that is a website, http://www.mississippiriverdelta.org, that just launched, representing a coalition of environmental organizations that work together to restore the coastal areas.

MA: Your most recent project also deals with an event of massive environmental and human loss, but on a much more personal level. After the earthquake in Japan last year, you put things on hold in New York to start working on a film with your parents in Japan. Can you tell me more about it? How was your family affected by the tsunami and nuclear disaster?

YK: As I sat down for breakfast on the morning of March 11, I opened the New York Times website as I usually do. On the homepage was a photo of an enormous whirlpool over Oarai, a seaside town where my parents and I used to go to buy seafood and enjoy the beach. Of course I was frantic and called my parents right away, but I couldn’t get through. It took me over three days to locate them. Those were really terrible days for me, without much eating or sleep. I called and emailed everyone imaginable, and even sought out strangers on the Internet who had posted about my hometown. Finally, one of their neighbors whom I had met on a previous trip and connected with via Twitter was able to contact their friends who live near my parents, and that couple reported seeing my parents walking their dogs.

My parents live in Ibaraki, and most of the area was without power and phone lines for about four days. As soon as I finally received a call from my parents, I booked a flight to Japan, but I had to cancel. Train lines were down and my parents could not get gasoline due to the fuel shortage, so I would have been stranded at the airport. The fuel shortage persisted for quite some time, as well as scheduled blackouts and a food shortage – a period of time when my parents lived on their rice stocks and whatever they exchanged with friends and neighbors. Because of their proximity to Fukushima, they were also advised not to go outside for the first several weeks.

It was during that time that it really sunk in how far away I was from my family and the country where I was born. Since my parents had moved back to Japan, I had maybe visited them once a year, sometimes less frequently. I realized then that my life had really drifted into a space where I had little connection to where I was from – it lacked a sense of belonging.

After the disasters, my father’s part-time job of doing excavation work disappeared. I learned that my parents didn’t have any financial cushion to fall back on. They make a living as potters, but business has been very slow for a long time so my father had been forced to take another job. There was no way I could help because I was in school full-time with no source of income, so I decided to sell prints of my photographs. I sent out a plea to my friends using email and Facebook. It was a really humbling experience to admit to everyone I knew that I was in need of help, but it still makes me emotional to think about the overwhelming response I received from my friends and their friends, and their friends, etc. My message was circulated widely and picked up by numerous blogs. People sent orders from Europe, and others sent donations without requesting prints. So many good people helped my parents and me in a time of need.

I finally made it to Japan in June after completing the spring semester. It was really good to see my parents and a few other family members. My father and I drove up the coast to see the destruction caused by the tsunami – I guess we both felt the need to see it with our own eyes. But after just one day, we felt overwhelmed and went home. I filmed quite a bit during the trip but couldn’t bring myself to look at the footage for a few months. Even though many of my friends and colleagues had suggested that I work on a film in Japan, it just felt too raw for some time. I decided in the meantime not to return to school. My parents have recently sold some pottery and my father has gotten his job back, but being the only child, it feels too uncertain to put myself further into debt – although I still hope to complete my degree at some point.

 

 

 

 

(Japan)

The film is an exploration of my roots and a biographical piece about my parents. Their stories are a window through which I hope to learn about Japanese society and how it’s coping in the aftermath of the disasters. In the U.S. (and other parts of the world), many of us have read articles about the “quiet strength” and “resilience” of the Japanese people. I think most of us feel a primal need to understand where we’re from, and although I haven’t lived in Japan for a very long time, I want to reconnect with that part of my heritage and share my lessons with the viewer. Filming my parents has also been a very introspective and healing process for me.

I’ve filmed on two separate trips so far and plan to spend much of the spring back in Japan. There is a big craft festival called Toensai, which my parents rely on for a good chunk of their annual income. I plan to help them out with the festival and through filming them, tell the story of their success and/or failures in the outcome of the festival.

Kasama-Yaki Film Sample Reel from Yuki Kokubo

MA: In a rough cut you shared with me, your mother remarks that people who create survive by creating. I imagine that as artists themselves, your parents have been receptive to the filmmaking process. How is it working with them?

YK: Working with my parents has been wonderful. I thought that they would be somehow resistant to being filmed, but I’ve been surprised to see how comfortable they are in front of the camera. I’m grateful that they have given me complete access into their lives, and I love that the camera gives me an opportunity to just sit there for hours and observe while they work. It’s not something I’ve ever done, or probably would have ever done if it not for this film.

Overall, I’m starting to find that people’s willingness to be filmed has a lot to do with the filmmaker’s intentions, and how clearly they communicate their goals to their subjects. I’ve never been filmed, but I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing. You’re putting yourself at the mercy of the filmmaker’s vision and it also takes up a lot of your time, so it had better be for a good cause!

MA: As someone who also lives somewhere stretched between North America and Japan, I’m really interested in hearing about how your parents relate to you through the two very distinct cultural spaces that the three of you have lived within. Do they understand your need to retrieve your roots? Do they think about it in relation to their own decision when you were a child to move with you to the U.S.?

YK: When I was growing up, Japan was a place where if you opened a magazine, all of the models were white. There were white people in commercials and white people on billboards. I grew up in a time where white people and Western culture were idealized in Japan. I’m sure there was more depth to the issue, but as a child of eight years (and younger), I took in the idea that it was better to be white and Western. My father also happens to be a very dedicated abstract painter, and I remember him teaching me about Western art and music with a kind of zeal. For those reasons, after we arrived in the U.S., it felt perfectly natural for me to unplug from Japanese culture.

On my most recent trip to Japan, my parents and I had a conversation about this topic. I was always under the impression that my father was against Japanese culture, but he explained that having grown up in the post-war era in a defeated Japan, he was part of a generation that looked at the country with a critical eye. Which, I guess is not that different from myself, and many others with regard to the U.S. My mother lamented that she let me drop out of Japanese Saturday school, which I attended until I was in high school. So, in a way, I found out that while they were ambivalent about my connection to Japanese culture when I was growing up, they never discouraged me from being a part of it. In fact, they’re very happy to know that I’ve become very interested now.

MA: This film seems like a once-in-a-lifetime project. When you’re finished, what kind of work would you like to move on to? Is there a place or thing that you dream of shooting in the future?

YK: There are so many places I want to go film, and so many topics that I’m interested in developing into films. I keep a list of ideas and articles that are interesting to me. A couple of years ago, I started developing a film about the environmental issues in Louisiana. The film encountered some roadblocks, but I’d love to complete that project some day. I also learned how to dive and started photographing and filming underwater last year, which had been a lifelong dream, so I’d like to make a film that has an underwater component. Under the surface, the ocean is a different world with a mysterious quality that I love.

What is most important to me is making films that bring awareness to environmental issues, and the role humans play – whether we are perpetrators or victims, or both. I feel that we’re at a critical point in so many ways, but there seems to be a lack of understanding that perhaps some films can alleviate.

 

*** Please help Yuki complete this film by supporting her Kickstarter campaign:

I’m trying to raise $15,000 by March 31st so that I can finish filming and hire a musician to compose an original soundtrack for the film. The contributions will also be used for other post-production costs, such as graphics and sound mix. There are special gifts for different levels of contributions, so please check it out! 

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/yukikokubo/kasama-yaki-made-in-kasama

Raised in an artists’ community in rural Japan, Yuki Kokubo and her parents moved to New York City in 1986. She began photographing as a teenager and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she obtained a BFA in 2000 with a concentration in photography. Beginning in fall of 2010, Yuki attended the School of Visual Arts to pursue an MFA in Social Documentary Film. She is currently on leave from the program. Focusing on social and environmental issues, Yuki has worked on projects for the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Climate Reality Project, and El Eden Ecological Reserve in Mexico. While continuing to freelance as a producer, videographer and photographer, Yuki is currently working on a personal film in Japan.
http://kasamayakifilm.blogspot.com/
www.yukikokubo.com

Momoko Allard is an artist working in drawing, photography, and other pictorial mediums. Her projects often involve questions of representation, sexuality, and visual pleasure. She is also at work on a dialogue-based video piece about her relationship with her grandmother, and the cultural, language and other cognitive barriers that shape their understanding of each other. Her work has been funded by le Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and the National Association of Japanese Canadians Endowment Fund. She lives in Montreal and sometimes crashes in Nakano. www.momokoallard.com