A photographer’s view of the world from multiple perspectives

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“I see my work as a kind of tapestry, which is woven by thousands of threads to create one image”

At a glance, Sohei Nishino’s monumental photo-collages resemble scrambled google street views — pixelated skies and disjointed terrain, melting into each other. But, look closer, and their intricate compositions are revealed: elaborate webs of images shot on film assembled to envisage Nishino’s impression of a place — a teeming city or natural vista. “I apply the pieces of photography like a painter paints with a brush to reconstruct the memory,” he explains.

Nishino came to prominence with his Diorama Maps — renderings of cities around the world, which he created by walking the streets for three months and shooting hundreds of rolls of films. The resultant prints bear some resemblance to the actual geography, but, for the most part, they are led by Nishino’s memories, constructed from his instinctive response to a place.

For Everest and Journey of Drifting Ice  Nishino’s most recent projects that are currently on show at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, by appointment only — the photographer turned his lens to nature, an interest that developed during a residency programme in North Carolina, US, where Nishino lived for a month in a town called Chapel Hill. “It is a place in the middle of nature; I was interested in what I would be able to create there,” he reflects.

Everest, 2019, courtesy of the artist Sohei Nishino and Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Nishino spent time exploring the surrounding woods alone, an experience that was initially unsettling, however, as time passed the photographer adjusted to the environment, observing how his senses behaved differently in nature compared to urban areas. Slowly, Nishino’s practice shifted, growing to encompass the natural world.

For Everest, a sprawling, tapestry-like vision of the mountain, Nishino shot 400 rolls of film during a 23-day journey from Lukla, a small Nepalese town and popular arrival destination for visitors to Mount Everest. He did not follow a linear route, instead, Nishino’s journey took him to the base of Everest, and other nearby mountains, ending at Gokyo Peak. The final work reflects that course – a patchwork of images tracing his route.

The passage of drift ice guided Nishino’s second project, Journey of Drifting. For this, the artist began in the Shiretoko peninsula in the northernmost region of Japan, before venturing to Magadan, in Russia, from where the drift ice travels. The work comprises two separate photo-collages, capturing each place: “I left a gap between them,” says Nishino, “to allow the audience to imagine the distance between the countries and the journey of drift ice itself”.

When making the work, Nishino allowed the ice’s movement across the Sea of Okhotsk in the western Pacific Ocean to guide his approach, walking and taking pictures with his face to the sea. “Making photographs in such an eerie environment was not easy,” he continues. “Nevertheless, walking on drift ice in two places was a worthy experience, as I could feel its movement directly.”

Below, Nishino explains his process and the ideas behind his two most recent works.

Everest, 2019, courtesy of the artist Sohei Nishino and Michael Hoppen Gallery.

British Journal of Photography: How did you develop your distinct approach and aesthetic?

Sohei Nishino: My relationship with photography began with walking. One of the reasons I started to take photographs was because I walked along Henro, a Buddhist pilgrimage route on the island of Shikoku, Japan. Before that, I often drew on canvas and sketched.

After completing my studies I continued travelling. The experiences I drew from walking and translating those experiences onto a map, along with the spontaneous act of taking a picture, are more important to me than the choice of destination. I apply the pieces of photography like a painter paints with a brush to reconstruct memory. So, in a sense, it is closer to drawing and painting for me.

BJP: Who and what inspires you?

SN: Japanese Yamato-e paintings and artists such as Richard Long, Hieronymus Bosch, Picasso, and Tadataka Inō — the first cartographer to create the first map of Japan, — all inspire me. Recently I have also become more interested in drawing too. I see my work as a kind of tapestry, which is woven by thousands of threads in order to create one image. One thread symbolises me and the act of my movement, and all my creation and movements connected to each other to weave one piece as long as life. Drawing is very close to this idea too.

Everest, 2019, courtesy of the artist Sohei Nishino and Michael Hoppen Gallery.

BJP: How do your newest works, Everest and Journey of Drifting Ice expand on themes from your previous series, and how do they diverge — what new themes are you exploring? 

SN: I have created work in a number of cities around the world but recently I have grown interested in nature and expanding my territory of observation and physical movement. I have become more focused on moving itself, so, for my recent work, I travelled along the Po river, Italy, which is 650 km long from the source to the Adriatic Sea. I also walked 500 km along the Tōkaidō road from Tokyo to Kyoto, which was painted in Ukiyo-e.

Exploring Everest was also a journey during which I did not stay in, or return to any one place. These changes have not only affected how I create work but also how viewers look at my work. I persuade the audience to move while they look at the photographs.

BJP: When creating Everest, what was your experience of journeying from Lukla to Gokyo Peak? 

SN: As I reached the top of one mountain, another huge mountain stood in front of me. At first, I found myself flinching at the daunting scale of the new challenge. I started the journey with my assistant and a Sherpa, carrying 250 rolls of film and large cameras on our shoulders. I wanted to photograph the mountains of Khumbu, trekking paths, people living along the routes, climbers, towns, and farms.

For cityscape shooting, I usually have a base from where I travel around to take pictures. But, in the mountains, I seldom took the same route twice. Therefore, I had to be extra careful not to miss documenting particular places. One of the challenges of trekking was getting my body used to the altitude, and during the journey, we were also tempted to walk on the well-worn paths to save energy, but we had to leave them at certain points to shoot specific images, which was exhausting.

Having to choose what to take, or not to take, because of the limited number of films, while struggling to cope with the unfamiliar environment and physical conditions, was an extremely tough experience, but it offered an opportunity for constant self-reflection.

Everest, 2019, courtesy of the artist Sohei Nishino and Michael Hoppen Gallery.

BJP: When creating Everest, you did not follow a linear course to a fixed destination. Instead, you captured your experience from numerous pre-planned vantage points. How did you select these? Collectively, what did you want these various perspectives to say about your experience and the place?

SN: During the trip, I took photos of people I met or images that reflected my feelings based on my personal experiences. I used all the pieces and created a collage. I wanted to photograph “beyond” the symbolic, sacred Everest – to capture instead the kinds of people who live there, how they live, the local flora and fauna, what locals eat, daily life, and so on. I tried to capture how I felt about what I saw. That is why the photos of Mount Everest only occupy about a tenth of the entire work.

I also highlighted my astonishment at the existence of wifi in a cabin located at 5,000 metres, and Sherpas wearing sandal-thin shoes who carried more than100 beer cans and huge planks to build a cabin. While the images capture my surprise at the everyday realities of the mountain, I think my genuine awe is undeniably present throughout — I got goosebumps every time I gazed up at the mountains.

I chose colour films based on my preliminary research. My aim was to highlight the significant shift in colour from around Lukla, at 2,500 metres, to an area around 6,000 metres in altitude. On the mountain, I witnessed how greens recede and are replaced by rocks and snow around 4,000 to 5,000 metres. The change in colour was accompanied by noticeably thinning air, reminding me that I was standing at the verge of an uninhabitable world.

A Journey of Drifting Ice, Shiretoko, 2019, courtesy of the artist Sohei Nishino and Michael Hoppen Gallery.

BJP: For Journey of Drift Ice, what interested you in the phenomena of drift ice and how did you trace it?

SN: The project was commissioned by Shiretoko, a small town in Hokkaido located at the northernmost tip of Japan. As I researched the area, I learned that the surrounding seas are famous for drift ice, which arrives at the town every winter and attracts tourists from across Japan. Despite being a precious attraction in Shiretoko, the drift ice is not formed on the nearby ocean but develops as river water is cooled by the frosty north wind. More surprisingly, the drift ice actually travels from the other side of the ocean – from an estuary in the Amur River, Russia.

I was fascinated by the origin of drift ice — how it forms and its journey to Shiretoko. The urge to observe this led me to travel on impulse to Magadan — a coastal town in Russia facing the Sea of Okhotsk. The trip turned out to be extremely challenging as the temperature of the town was around minus 30 degrees.

Drift ice contributes to the food chain in the Okhotsk nutritionally by carrying a massive amount of plankton attached to the bottom of the ice. Small fish feed on the plankton, becoming food for larger fish. People on both sides of the ocean agree that drift ice is a precious resource but it is decreasing every year due to climate change.

Through my trip to the two cities, Magadan in Russia and Shiretoko in Japan, I learned how the communities live, eat and interact with the ocean. I felt I knew Shiretoko better through my visit to Magadan.

BJP: What does the drift ice symbolise, and why is it significant for you? 

SN: By following the movement of drift ice, I wanted to depict how nature disregards borders and renders the distance between two countries meaningless. Geographically, Shiretoko is one of the closest points in Japan to Russia. However, the two nations’ history has been marred by a territorial dispute over the nearby islands. Because of the lingering effect of the dispute, long-time residents of Shiretoko perceive Russia as a politically distanced, unfamiliar neighbour.

When the photos went on display in Shiretoko, local residents showed keen interest in the town across the ocean and remarked how they would love to visit it. Their feedback gave me a great sense of achievement. Climate change is having an impact on every corner of the world. Greenland is facing severe problems with melting ice, and cities like Venice and Bangkok are in danger of submergence. Many other places around the world may face a similar fate. Japan, an island country, is no exception. It must envisage how its coastal towns and lifestyle will undergo changes in the future.

The focus on the drift ice in this project prompted me to face the consequences of environmental problems and of global warming. This is a theme I want to tackle in-depth in the future.

Sohei Nishino: Everest & Journey of Drifting Ice, was on show at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London.