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Friday, April 24, 2015

Fujiwara Atsushi: "Poet Island" (2015)

The first of the altogether 61 black-and-white photographs we encounter, when opening Fujiwara Atsushi's photobook Poet Island (2015, Sokyusha), is that of a door. The wood is visibly weathered and structurally damaged more or less beyond a state worthy of repair - much like the building's wall to which it belongs. While the door's rails are still somewhat intact, its panels are almost all missing. Thus, the a large electronic device, placed right behind it - possibly the back of a refrigerator or the like -, is partly visible. The door, one could argue, has lost most of its functionality. Others might reply that it still hangs in its original frame and prevents access to the building's interior. Its main function, it could then be reasoned, is therefore unchanged. The further one leafs through the book, the more obvious it becomes that this kind of dichotomy of positive and negative assessment, on the part of both the photographer and the viewer, is of major importance to the individual understanding of the work's meaning and significance.


Fujiwara Atsushi: Poet Island (2015).

The "poet island" documented by Fujiwara is located in the southeast of Okayama Prefecture and originally called Nagashima. It was there that in 1930 the National Aiseien Sanatorium was built by the Japanese government with the purpose of treating people suffering from leprosy (Hansen's disease) as well as to prevent further outbreaks. Once diagnosed with an infection, patients of all ages were brought to Nagashima via trains or other vehicles, under special safety precautions such as heavy use of disinfectant, and were thereupon kept in absolute isolation from the rest of society indefinitely. The dreadful living conditions were not only due to the physical suffering, caused by the progression of the disease, but also because the sanatorium was chronically overcrowded. According to Fujiwara, his initial contact with the island, the sanatorium and the fate of the patients was at the age of eight during a family visit to his uncle who, at that time (around 1971), was the general manager of the sanatorium. "Though deeply impressed by the untouched natural beauty of the island", the photographer writes retrospectively in the book's afterword, "I also recall the anguish I felt in my young heart at the sad fate of its inhabitants (patients)."


Fujiwara Atsushi: Poet Island (2015).

Surprisingly, as Fujiwara reveals in the following lines, there existed yet another emotional bond between the island and himself; a connection that would only become apparent to him when he revisited Nagashima as a photographer 35 years later. During that second visit, Fujiwara came across a poem he knew to be the motto of Japanese New Wave film director Oshima Nagisa (1932-2013) and which he had likewise treasured as a young man in his twenties who, as he continues, "struggled yet to find sure footing." The poem reads:


Like luminescent fish dwelling in the darkness of the deep sea, 
there is no light until I alight from within. - Akashi Kajin

Discovering that these words, which had given him comfort and inspiration during his early adult life, were by the poet Akashi Kaijin (1901-1939), who was forced to live on Nagashima since he had fallen ill with Hansen's disease in his early twenties, created a strong admiration for the artist's achievements. Despite the fact that Akashi had lost his eyesight and eventually needed a tracheotomy in order to be able to continue breathing, thanks to his devotion to poetry, he was able to keep his will to live by exercising his mind - the only part of him that had been left untouched by the disease. He had realized that the beauty of life comes from within one's mind and soul. With this in mind, Poet Island can be understood as "a tribute to Kajin Akashi", as Morioka Yoshiyuki rightly states in his afterword. "What Fujiwara saw", Morioka adds, "was the ’grace‘ that expressly gave rise to poetry."


Fujiwara Atsushi: Poet Island (2015).

The photographs comprised in this book all without exception lack the physical presence of people and thereby constantly remind the viewer of the isolation once 
surely felt by Akashi - not necessarily from human contact per se, but from friends, family and society at large. Fujiwara is documenting the traces of his human presence which is still visible today in the form of left behind furniture, medical records or hand writings on the wall. The photographer deliberately printed his pictures in a dark tone by noticeably bringing down the highlights. In doing so, he was able to give them an ambiguous quality. Whether landscapes, the interior and exterior shots of the sanatorium's buildings or close-ups of various objects - including old photographs that depict Akashi before and after the disease distorted his outer appearance -, the mood created by the tonal quality of the photographs all in all is rather gloomy and somber.


Fujiwara Atsushi: Poet Island (2015).

By putting an emphasis on the bleakness of the living situation at that time, rather than calling attention to possible beneficial aspects of being hospitalized on Nagashima - e.g. special medical attention or the natural environment as a possible source of artistic inspiration and spiritual healing -, Fujiwara forces the viewer to try to imagine the poet's mindset in times of physical suffering. As we learn from the afterword, Akashi was able to find happiness in himself, by accepting his fate and making use of the potential he had left while struggling with leprosy. Ultimately, Poet Island appears to be a reminder to all of us to embrace life - in good and bad times - as long as we are fortunate enough to have it. Now, looking back at the beginning of the book, many of us might conclude: It is better to have a weathered and damaged door than having none at all.



Fujiwara Atsushi: Poet Island (2015).