Mikiko Hara photographs the small stories in the bigness of life

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A modest and poetic collection of photographs by the Japanese photographer provides an alternative vision for street photography

Snatching fleeting impressions of people, places and things in and around Tokyo, Mikiko Hara’s photographs might be described as studies in observation. While this is not necessarily wrong, it is incomplete. What makes Hara such a precious voice in photography is how she has jettisoned and liberated herself from the conventions of composition, focal point and subject. Holding the camera at chest level and shooting without the aid of the viewfinder, she lends credence to Roland Barthes’ idea that “the photographer’s organ is not his eye (which terrifies me), but his finger.”

“I want to capture moments as they are,” says Hara. “Or, put differently, I would like to photograph as transparently as possible. By this, I am referring to not only the wish for the subject to not notice that they are being photographed by me but something more nuanced about my wish to escape my own consciousness. It is of course very difficult, or even impossible, for anyone to escape consciousness, but I would like to remove my filters, such as the idea that one photographs this subject in this way.”

© Mikiko Hara.

Hara’s journey into photography was, in many ways, one of learning and unlearning. “I became interested in the medium through little triggers,” shares Hara. “My father’s old camera was always lying around, and I had many friends who were photography enthusiasts. So, I entered photography school without the intention of becoming a photographer. Although I was a rather obedient student, after about three years, I began feeling stuck with my assignments.” In search of her own direction, Hara acquired a 1930s Ikonta camera, whose narrow viewfinder made it difficult to frame the shot how she desired. “This was when I began shooting from the chest. It allowed me to incorporate chance into the image.”

Chance has therefore governed Hara’s approach since the start, and that is a very poetic thought indeed. Taking her eye away from the viewfinder means Hara is giving something over to the camera’s mechanical insight: the camera sees what she does not. “It is true to say that, after a long process of developing negatives, making contact sheets, selecting frames and making prints, it is ambiguous as to how much I saw and how much the camera saw,” says Hara. Yet, you feel she is always present: an assembler of an open and ambivalent circuit of gazes: what’s out there, Hara’s camera, Hara’s looking, our looking. “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” states Hara, quoting her hero, Gary Winogrand.

© Mikiko Hara.

Hara has just published Small Myths with Chose Commune, a very beautiful and modest collection of photographs dated between 1996, the year Hara staged her first solo show, and 2021. People pass by, within the blink of an eye. Fish orbit a tank. Uncanny window reflections. A random ray of light. They are nothing-special shots, devoid of any self-conscious artistry or high drama, but captivating in the best and original sense of the word. They grab us for their distinctive and particular visions and persuade us that what Hara’s camera saw was both worthwhile and true. 

“My work is probably like a murmuring in someone’s ear,” says Hara. While her signature indeed resides in her aptitude to image indescribable ambiences, the book itself has its own aesthetics of noticing, with very deliberate attention to form, colour and mood. The sequencing feels intuitive yet somehow learned, which is partly the achievement of publisher Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi. “I take photographs as if I were doing automatic writing,” explains Hara. “Yet, when it comes to making selections, I cannot help but make my own assumptions. Therefore, by working through the senses and sensitivities of others, namely Ms Poimboeuf-Koizumi, I was presented with something new through decisions and sequences that I would have never made myself.”

“I welcome the diverse interpretations that arise from the viewer’s individual sensibilities,” continues Hara, who resists disclosing any overt statement about her work. “Like the phrase ‘reading between the lines,’ I hope that viewers can sense something between the photographs. After all, photographs are just fragments cut up from reality, but I hope they are connected to what is outside of the image, too. I realise that to face the world so carelessly and blindly with my camera is to also face myself.” If anything, Hara shows us that the world is experienced introspectively, and this is the most human part of it all. 

Small Myths by Mikiko Hara is published by Chose Commune.