Eric Block

Anders Edström’s on ‘Shiotani’

Swedish Anders Edström’s latest project, Shiotani, was 23 years in the making. Running to over 700 pages, this photography book-cum-family album chronicles the lives of his wife’s family in the remote Japanese village of Shiotani between 1993 and 2015. With only 47 inhabitants, the majority of whom continue to live on traditional farming methods, the village seems like it should exist outside of the passing of time. Yet while it is undoubtedly a slower pace than the rapid development seen in Tokyo for example, this book reveals that not even Shiotani escapes the slow passage of time. I had the opportunity to discuss both Shiotani, and Anders’ approach to photography in general with him after the launch of the book at Claire de Rouen books. 

You say you didn’t start out photographing Shiotani as an artistic project. What was it that made you realise its potential as one?

Yes, I usually never start out photographing things as an artistic project. I photograph things that draws my interest for some reason, usually it’s because of the light. It became a habit.

In the case of Shiotani, I just photographed the place for memory. It was my first time in Japan. I was there with my girlfriend who later became my wife. We were visiting her grandparents, who had lived there their whole lives. In the years to come we went there again and again and each time I took some more pictures. After a few times I got more used to the place. I always went for long walks with my camera and as I got to know my wife’s family better I took more pictures of them. They got used to me too and let me take pictures without changing what they were doing. They learned to stay the same, without looking into the camera.

The years went by and around 2006, obaachan (my wife’s grandmother) asked me if she could see some of the pictures one day.

So, in 2008 I made a photo album for her with pictures from all those years I’d been to the village. That’s when I realised, that this could become a book. So, I started to go there more often, even without my wife and kids.

It was 23 years in the making. What were the major changes that took place during this time?

One major change was when the government decided to cut up the land and divide it between the farmers. This was stupid because everyone in the village knew exactly what land was theirs. My wife’s grandparents used to have their land close to the house. Now, all of a sudden, they had to walk further away. And the nice dirt paths were destroyed, new asphalt roads were built instead.

Other big changes were when her grandfather died in 2005, her grandmother in 2011 and my wife’s father, Junji, died in 2014.

What was the process for creating the book – what made you pick certain images and not others? How did you finally decide it was complete?

When I started to edit everything I put up all pictures chronologically on the walls of my flat. The whole place was covered with numbered pictures from floor to ceiling. There were a little more than six thousand pictures.

The editing went on for years, I was living with all these pictures around me. Sometimes moving a picture to the new timeline. It went on like this, back and forth countless times. I constantly got interrupted by other work, so I decided I would let it take the time it had to take. I had to make rules for myself in order to be able to finish. One rule was that the pictures needed to be chronological. I wasn’t allowed to switch the order. But I cheated sometimes just at the end, for it to be a bit smoother, or sometimes more jarring.

When I pick images I tend to go for the weak ones. I find that weak pictures are easier to put in a sequence but they also, I feel, live longer. You don’t get tired of them as fast. But sometimes I like to go for a strong one. If there’s a sequence with very weak pictures for a while, and then all of a sudden you want to make something happen, even a small something will feel quite big. So I like to play with that. Also, the passage of time, I like to play with slowing down the time, and sometimes to speed it up. I like when you have ten pages and only a few seconds have past, and then all of a sudden the next picture will be of the same motif but a year later. Things like that. The viewer might not register all these things but sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not. Anyway, I like to play with pictures in this way. You never know what will happen. It takes time to see. And the reason it takes a long time is also because I want to make sure that it feels interesting to me. To know that it doesn’t just feel interesting because it’s new.  So I have to live with the edit and see it every day in order to minimise those kind of mistakes.

At some point you have to decide that it’s done. If you want it to come out.

Does this project link to your previous photography books, like Hanezawa Garden, which was also photographed in Japan?

Yes. Not only because it was also photographed in Japan but the way I think about pictures and what I try to do with the pictures. They are both made over a long period of time with the repetitions and the way of editing. Actually I think all my books are linked together. They branch out in different directions but they all come from the same place.

Your day job is as a fashion photographer. Do you find that this affects how you shoot these projects, or vice versa?

Even though fashion shoots are more commercial I still want to be able to stand for them somehow. It’s all about framing and sequencing and problem solving. I don’t think my artistic projects get influenced by my fashion work but technically it’s good practice. If I was totally free to do whatever I wanted to do the whole time I might not do it as much. I don’t know, but when I have commercial jobs, I’m really looking forward to going back to doing the pictures I want.

How did the work lead to your 8-hour film The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) ?

Curtis, (C.W. Winter) and I previously made The Anchorage together. It’s actually Curtis who brought me in to filmmaking in the first place, so in 2010 we were talking about making a new film. We wanted it to be a fiction film, so I brought Curtis to Shiotani, to see if we could find an angle or a story. We spent ten days there and we were driving around and going for long walks. One evening, when we had dinner with Tayoko and Junji, my parents in law, Tayoko expressed her frustrations about her life. Her frustrations to do with growing up female in this society. That became the seed for how we could start making a film.  

Image credits: Shiotani, 2021 © Anders Edström

Shiotani by Anders Edström is available for purchase here.

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