Art and Its Surroundings

Two Years’ Worth of Photography

written by Takeshi Sumi
translated by Shimizu Chatori

I lost my camera and an external hard drive the other day. 

I tried to suppress my confused thoughts and to gather up the pieces of my memory. I must have lost it in the long-distance bus, which I have used for an exhibition in the countryside. I called the bus company to notify the driver. I felt quite optimistic while I was waiting for them to call me back. It is a long-distance bus after all, not where an unspecified number of people come and go. However, I was informed by the phone call from them that the waist pouch containing my belongings was nowhere to be found. I was also informed that a college student sitting by the window opposite of me was seen getting off the bus with the waist pouch I described.

I instantly thought about the consequences of losing my belongings. I can give up the camera. I will still be able to buy the original one if I pay a lot of money, including the lens that I have lost together. However, there was no way to regain the contents of the external hard drive.

The hard drive, boasting a capacity of 4TB, contained two-years’ worth of my photography. It perhaps accumulated to more than 500,000 photos, and I lost it in a snap of fingers. I kept as many photos as possible in my camera’s memory as a back-up, just in case trouble arose with my external hard drive. However, I did not expect to lose both the camera and the hard drive all together. I was screwed. 

The hard drive contained photos of client works, as well as my own creative works. Firstly, my thoughts went to how I should apologize to my clients. Our thoughts wander first to where the damage is still small. The client works, which has already been delivered to the clients, can be managed. However, I had to apologize to my clients where I have not yet delivered the photos to. In the worst-case scenario, they could cut the contract with me, but nothing could be done about that. As for the data of my creative works, the ones stored in the printing shop can still be recovered. Since I took most of my creative photography works with a film camera, I will be able to recover those with film scanning – even if it takes a lot of effort. Nonetheless, there was a lot of data which I could not recover. I had to give them up. I was able to push myself to think that I could give them up.

When I start throwing out what I can give up, the things I cannot give up become visible – my child’s photos.

I have a child who is four years and eight months old.  Even with optimistic thinking, I have lost all the photos of him from the age of three. I have lost not only the photos, but movies as well, stored in the hard drive. The memory of his two years of growth, including his sports day, recital, daily life, him playing, the gradual growth of the depth of his speech, all disappeared in an instant. I didn’t even feel disappointed – I was only empty and lost. 

After several ponderings at sleepless nights, I passed many regrets, and I suddenly felt that this was, in essence, like the “loss” of a work of art.

Throughout our history, countless works of art have been lost. At the time of my crisis, I resonated with Robert Capa’s “Invasion of Normandy” photographs, as a close example of the “loss”. This is a group of photographs taken by Capa as a military photographer in the Normandy landing operation in 1944. He was literally betting his life on this. Although Capa was able to return home alive, most of the photos were lost, and many of the remaining photos were blurred and much of the information was lost. It is said that this happened because the engineer who developed the film was so excited that he raised the temperature of the developer too much. It’s the same “simple mistake” as forgetting my camera on the bus.

Much of it was lost for such a dumb reason, however, some of the photos which were not completely lost have been released to the world. We now can witness those photographs; however, the damages are inevitable. Details have been lost, and the background is blurred to an extent that no concrete shape is visible. I have always wanted to see it without the loss of the details, however at times, I get different feelings. For example, let’s talk about the picture of a crouching soldier. Is he during assaulting the enemy, or is he the one shot and unable to move? What does his strangely calm gaze tell us? As I am unable to know anything just by looking at the photo, I use my imagination to supplement the details of the story. From seeing the back of the assaulting soldier, it is somewhat daydreaming-like – if I was not told that it is not a picture of a war, it may even look as if it is a photo of people traveling towards “heaven”. Nonetheless, this would not be possible with a clear photo. The will to make up for the loss is linked to my life, and sometimes presents me with a richer imagination of the world. As a matter of fact, the photographs of this Normandy landing operation are “masterpieces” of the photographic field, an indispensable piece of puzzle in the history of photography.

Vénus de Milo is probably the most famous example of such a loss that can be imagined and sublimated. Many have imagined what kind of gesture the statue presented us with, or how the arms were stretched. Rather, without his arms, it would have been simply one of the “beautiful Greek sculptures”. Because she has no arms, each viewer can imagine the “ideal figure of Venus”. As a viewer, I can say that this may be a blessing for me.

I might have to come to a resolution with the loss of my son’s two years’ worth of photographs in the same ways I have mentioned above. Instead of the lost records, I have no other choice but to imagine, recreate, and fill in the void. That is what I probably should do as an artist. 

Fortunately (?), I have already been creating works using this perspective. The series is titled “slit”, and I create my work by making hundreds and thousands of slits on a piece of paper with portrait photographs printed on it. When shining a light from the back of the print, light passes through the slit, and light dwells in the facial expressions, body line, and clothes of the subject. The series also originates from the intention of discovering the form of each viewer by imagining a part of the subject that disappeared due to the line of light, but I did not imagine that I had to use this concept because of the loss of my son’s photographs. I think that “allowing oneself to imagine how to fill the void” can be the only salvation from a loss.

Recently, I started to re-imagine and draw the face of my son for the periods of loss. I think the biggest difference between a two-year-old and a four-year-old is the tension of the cheeks. This is the period when puffy cheeks like apples turn into adult-like, slimmer cheeks. I sometimes wonder whether my fingers still remember the touch of his cheeks. When I am successful in drawing his cheeks, I imagine things like “this might be my son’s cheeks when he was three-years and ___ months”. This is of course only a product of my imagination; however, I am happy because it feels like a piece that connects the lost period has emerged. While I am in front of my computer writing this draft, my son watches Youtube without knowing my thoughts. I imagine what his expressions were like one year ago.

The more you imagine, the subject moves into you. When I think of my son’s lost period, I conversely feel that his existence is forever in me. 

Ten or so years later, my grown son will ask me about the two years of void in his photos. Then, I wish I could apologize to him about losing the data, while being able to show him how much I have been thinking about him in order to fill the void. If the work has the magnitude and strength to go beyond the photographic records of a person, it may last longer than the life of my son.

Photo:Takeshi Sumi

Words from Yukari Misawa (Editorial Board/translated by Shimizu Chatori)

・I have reevaluated the words “the deceased in heaven…”, spoken by believers of non-monotheistic religions, and would like to put a spotlight on this in my series on Buddhism. Thanks for the idea!

・I believe that the author has already adopted different kinds of backups, but I felt a strong urge to introduce cloud backups to the author before. This was an essay which I could really submerge myself into the text. Like a sudden malfunction of our computers, misfortunes can happen to us anytime!