Crossing the lines: photography without frontiers at Kyotographie 2023 – photo essay | Photography


Borders is the theme of the 11th annual Kyoto photo festival – Kyotographie – though, as the co-director Lucille Reyboz is keen to emphasise, there are no borders here. The festival brings together the work of artists from as far afield as Ivory Coast and the London borough of Hackney, with projects ranging from the trials of migration to the challenges of living with dementia.

The work displayed in each exhibition is complemented by the choice of venue. The tranquil Ryosokuin Zen temple is the space showing the work of mixed-media artist Joana Choumali.

Ryosokuin Zen Temple in Kyoto, the venue for Joana Choumali’s exhibition ‘Alba’hian’

Her photo-based scenes are embellished with delicate embroidery, a technique Choumali has developed to process trauma in her life; in this case the work helped her deal with her grief over the death of her mother. Threading her emotions through visions of dawn blended with images of people in her community going about their daily business, she says: “It was as if my inner landscape was merging with my outer landscape … it gave me the opportunity to make a journal of what was happening to me. Making the work literally saved my life.”

Let It Out from the series Alba’hian
‘It’s the Deep Breath You Take’ from the series Alba’hian
‘Maybe I Grew Up a Little Too Soon’ from the series Alba’hian

By comparison, photographer Kazuhiko Matsumura invites you into a traditional Kyoto home to experience for yourself the effects of dementia on the elderly couple we imagine may live there.

The traditional family home that hosts the exhibition Heartstrings
From the series Heartstrings – a study of dementia

Looking through these misty images placed in the intimate spaces of domesticity, the atmosphere is one of a whisper of a life barely remembered, the melancholy of losing the sense of space and time and the challenges of living with the condition. Dementia touches the lives of one in five old people in Japan, which has an increasingly ageing population.

From the series Heartstrings - a study of dementia

The photography has a poetic quality, with much of the project focusing on the love and support of family. Matsumura’s purpose is not only to raise awareness of the illness but also to show the significance of the care given to those who are affected.

From the series Heartstrings – a study of dementia

Turning into another Kyoto sidestreet, a little boy on a tricycle leads you along an alley, riding right into the rhythmic world of Dennis Morris, the photographer behind iconic images of Bob Marley among other famous musicians. The work shown here, Coloured Black, captures the everyday life of the West Indian community in 60s and 70s London.

Dennis Morris’s Boy Tricycle

Morris was inspired and encouraged to take up photography by the benefactor of the church he attended as a boy growing up in Dalston. He had dreams of being a conflict photographer but instead found his frontline in his own neighbourhood documenting the sound, style and political aspects of his community as they tried to break away from the discrimination holding them back in British society.

At the heart of the exhibition is a recreation of Dennis Morris’s childhood living room
An image from the exhibition Coloured Black
An image from the exhibition Coloured Black

Style and its origins is the focus of Parallel World, an epic retrospective covering 40 years of work by renowned Japanese fashion photographer Yuriko Takagi. The exhibition has been ambitiously curated in one of Kyoto’s most sacred and ancient buildings, the Ninomaru Palace in Nijo-jo Castle.

An image from the exhibtion Parallel World

Throughout her career Takagi has travelled the world documenting traditional textiles, designs and the people wearing them that influence the grand fashion houses of our time. She displays these in tandem with her commissions for the likes of Issey Miyake, Galliano and Dior.

Left, a commission for Dior, right an example of traditional ethnic clothing
An image seen on the reverse side of a shoji, a traditional Japanese screen

Showing the work in such a historic site, where none of the display can leave so much as a fingerprint trace on the fabric of the building, presented the curation team with particular challenges and so in the first space reproductions dramatically tower above you on floating panels made from shojis, traditional translucent Japanese screens, the bonus being that you can see the photograph from both sides. In the other rooms the images are laid out to be viewed only in natural light as is dictated by the sacred traditions of the building’s heritage but this cleverly creates a subtle atmosphere that enhances the ethereal beauty of the photography.

Images suspended on Shoji panels hang in the historic Nijo-jo Castle

  • Top: a commission for Dior, right an example of traditional ethnic clothing. Middle: An image seen on the reverse side of a shoji, a traditional Japanese screen. Above: Installation view of Takagi’s Parallel World.

No conversation on the theme of Borders would be complete without reference to the issues of migration. During the summer of 2016, César Dezfuli photographed the 118 migrants and refugees he met during operations in the Mediterranean to rescue them from a catastrophic journey from north Africa to Italy. This was a time when authorities were focused on the numbers making the journey and there was a distinct lack of empathy and understanding for the migrants, many of whom were as young as 15.

People rescued from a rubber dinghy drifting 20 miles from the coast of Libya in 2016

Dezfuli was so affected by the state of the people rescued, their trauma and lack of sustenance, that he has made it a mission to follow their progress and reclaim their humanity. He began with 23-year-old Amadou Sumaila from Mali who he reconnected with through Facebook.

Amadou Sumaila at the time of his rescue from the Mediterranean in 2016
Amadou photographed in Spain

After spending years in a migration centre Amadou is now living in Spain, a trained plumber and electrician and part-time model. In 2022 he was granted humanitarian protection by the Spanish government which gives him opportunities to work and study. To date, Dezfuli has located 105 of those rescued in that single operation in 2016, and photographed 75 of them again. Some were fleeing political persecution, some from conflict, some from the devastation of Ebola. It’s his hope that telling their stories will build empathy and understanding, an opportunity to be forward thinking and prevent their plight from being forgotten.

On January 2, 2022, Aryane married Binta, his childhood girlfriend, with whom he had maintained a long-distance relationship for over six years of his journey. Their wedding took place in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, with their friends and family. Aryane, who currently lives in Bologna (Italy), has obtained Italian residency, which allows him to travel back to his country. He has begun the legal process so that Binta can be reunited with him in Italy soon.

Kyotographie 2023 runs until 14 May at venues across Kyoto, Japan.