Lena C Emery constructs a vision for a sustainable future

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All images © Lena C Emery.

Travelling across the Japanese archipelago, Emery envisions a future where humanity exists in harmony with the natural world

In Japanese mythology, the story of Japan’s creation, Kuniumi, reads like so: in the beginning, when Earth was without form, two divine deities were summoned from Heaven to conjure a land for mortal beings. Upon a floating bridge, between the light clouds of Heaven and a dense mass that oozed beneath it, the gods, Izanagi and Izanami, churned the ocean with their holy spears and out of the salty droplets emerged a small island named Awaji. In time, 6851 more would be created, forming what is now known as the Japanese archipelago. 

Lena C Emery was travelling through Japan when she first learned of the Kuniumi story. In the visionary architecture and otherworldly landscapes of the Japanese countryside, Emery sought to picture an alternative future, where the built and natural environments could sustainably co-exist. As she arrived in Awaji, crossing over the bridge that looms over the Naruto Strait – a narrow waterway that is home to the world’s largest whirlpools – the pieces began to align. Just as the deities built bridges between Heaven and Earth, Emery is ”trying to build a bridge between the present and the future,” as she puts it. 

Tenchi is Emery’s fourth body of work made in Japan, with images gathered over annual visits she took between 2015 and 2019. ”What I’ve always appreciated about Japan is its humble, pure and reciprocal relationship with nature,” she says, referring to Japanese folklore and the belief that spirits inhabit natural phenomena such as forests, trees and waterfalls. Conversely, western folklore tends to depict forests as dark and evil dwellings for witches and wolves.

”We’ve demonised the natural world. Perhaps that is part of the reason why we have lost this connection,” says Emery. Japan’s intrinsic dedication to preserve nature is reflected in its track record of conservation. While Japan’s forests cover 68.5 per cent of its land mass, in the UK, the same figure is just 13 per cent. 

Translated as ’heaven and earth’ in English, Tenchi vividly pictures a world where human civilisation exists in harmony with the natural world. The project will be published next year, as an epilogue to a trilogy of photobooks, which she describes as ”a journey of consciousness”. Rie (2016) dissects our understanding of the female body, attempting to expel the preconceived ideas that society affiliates to the female nude. Yuka & The Forest (2018) examines our connection to nature, and our place within it. The final book, titled I Undressed to Climb a Tree, due to be published in early 2021, considers our current condition: city-centric lifestyles that are wildly disconnected from the environment.

”I wanted to confront people with an abyss, a dark, sombre image of where we are,” says Emery of this final chapter in the trilogy. ”This is important to include, because we need to be confronted with the darkest consequences of our actions, to be called to action.”

By way of contrast, Tenchi is a vision of harmony. The photobook combines existing structures from our built and natural worlds with portraits of Japanese young women, who represent a new generation of the values that Emery believes are vital in building a sustainable city.

“Sustainable solutions are out there. In part, they’ve  existed for centuries in vernacular architecture,” says Emery, referring to traditional Japanese houses, for example, which were designed for the shifting seasons, and to maximise air flow and natural light. Following on from the three titles that ruminate on our relationship with the world around us, “Tenchi is the first book which shows how things could be better,” says Emery. “If you’re ready to jump, here is a vision of what we need to explore.”

There is a sense that many aspects of Emery’s upbringing have influenced her practice and led her to where she is now. German-born, she spent the majority of her teenage years in Singapore, where her father worked for a corporate firm. In the early 1990s, her father and his friends came across a cluster of deserted islands in southern Indonesia called Wakatobi. They learned that its surrounding waters were heavily overfished, and proceeded to fund a diving resort and conservation programme. Now, the islands are a Unesco-protected marine reserve, with the largest number of fish species in the world.

Emery moved to Wakatobi straight out of high school, and it was this early experience of living in contrasting urban and rural environments, witnessing the devastation caused by forest fires and flash floods, that nurtured her desire to find solutions. ”I learned early on about how different environments, cultures, climates and spaces can influence our societies and affect our individual lives, our daily habits, our connection to nature and even our health,” she says.

In 2005, Emery moved to Berlin, after studying fine art in Paris, and began to pursue a career in fashion photography. By 2012, she was living in London, shooting for high-end clients such as British Vogue, Chanel and Tiffany & Co – but ”it wasn’t a job that reflected my character, or my ideals,” she says, ”I always noticed there was a bit of a contradiction”. In the last five years, Emery’s personal and commercial work have collided, evolving into both a personal and shared journey of exploring our relationship with the environment.

”I feel like I’ve found a little more of my voice,” says Emery, who now lives in Hackney, London, where she has created a sustainable home and workspace out of a former 1920s shoe factory. Her life, work and artistic practice are finally aligned. ”I feel like I’ve got the magic code, where I can make it work without having to sell my soul.”

The spectacular, otherworldly images of Tenchi feel utopian, but Emery insists that they are not intended to be seen as fantasy. Producing such pretty images comes with a concern that their critical context may be lost. ”When I came back with the negatives, I was disappointed, and a little disgusted, by how beautiful they were,” she confesses. ”I wasn’t sure if the places, because they were so beautiful, became distracting.”

But in visualising an issue like climate change, which is overrun with shocking images that show the devastation caused by crises such as flooding or mass farming, perhaps we are in need of a new visual language. “I wanted to create images that feel reassuring,” she says, “to share a vision of possibility in order to fuel an aspirational approach of how we conceive the places we call home, and the way in which we occupy this planet altogether”.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.