Invisible Interview: Yumi Goto, photo curator, editor & evangelist

IPA Invisible Interviews, Photography 17 Comments

In this Invisible Interview we shine the spotlight on photo curator, editor and evangelist Yumi Goto. Yumi has got to be one of the busiest people in the current photojournalism scene in Asia.

Based in Bangkok, her work and reach stretches across the region and beyond. She founded the REMINDERS PROJECT and has been a judge for numerous Asian photo awards. Invisible Ph t grapher Asia is proud to support and partner her latest endeavor – The Tokyo Documentary Photography Workshop. In this exclusive piece, Yumi tells us more about how she got started in Cambodia during her civil war period, and shares with us insights from her unique position today within the art and photojournalism landscape in Asia.

Invisible Ph t grapher Asia: Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?

Yumi Goto: I am an independent art and documentary photography curator, editor, researcher and consultant. I focus on the development of cultural exchanges that transcend borders, and collaborate with local and international artists who work in areas affected by conflict, natural disasters, social problems, human rights abuse and women’s issues. I often work with human rights advocates, international and local NGOs, humanitarian organizations, as well as international photo festivals and events throughout Asia.

How did you get into the business of curating and editing photography?

I am self-educated. I started out in 1997 when I was in Cambodia helping my partner Masaru Goto, a photojournalist. At that time, there were no digital cameras or Internet, and during the civil war period I helped carry his film from the frontline to the capital city Phnom Penh, then to the wire agencies. The images I carried were eventually published in local and international newspapers the next day. I have never prior to that imagined myself to be a part of the photojournalism process. But without me, those images would never have been published. It was a really fascinating experience that I found worth doing.

I later went through all of Masaru’s archives and saw unpublished negatives and prints which were just stored away. I felt it was a waste for those images not to be seen. I asked him if his subjects gave him trust and agreement to be photographed only for his own memory’s sake. I then asked him to scan his prints and negatives. The Internet had just taken off so we went online with the scans of his previous unpublished stories from South America. The pictures and their stories were interesting to me, and I thought perhaps others would be interested as well. That was more or less how I got started in this field.

After few years supporting him, and meeting other photographers and artists who lived and worked in difficult circumstances,  I was moved. I felt a need for someone to help photographers get their work published, exposed and recognized. That’s how REMINDERS PROJECT started. REMINDERS PROJECT was something I found to be very interesting work, and I learnt on my own on how to develop it further.

Since 2001 I have been based in Bangkok. A lot of other photographers and journalists are based here as well, and we meet up and exchange ideas regularly, which allows me to learn more.

You founded pdfX12. Can you tell us more about it?

pdfX12 is a digital monthly free portfolio that presents and features a series of photos by various photojournalists living and working in various communities around the world.

These photos tell poignant stories about people who are facing harsh social, economic, environmental, and political conditions. Featured photojournalists are those, with their own resources and energy, who have chosen to dedicate their life’s work to documenting certain human issues in order to bring about greater attention to harsh human conditions that others would brush aside. It is very important that the voices of these photojournalists, who are living and working in communities that they are documenting, are heard through the online venue accessible by everyone.

We originally thought of presenting this pdf magazine to a Japanese audience only, but we have since broadened it to a worldwide audience. The awareness of various human issues facing humanity is greatly needed in Japan, just as in other parts of the world. Presented are high-quality photos with written stories shared by the photojournalists themselves.

It has been really fortunate collaborating with photographers for 3 years since 2007. We have also had great editorial help from volunteer graphic designers, translators and editors. We have now issued 48 pdfs, but my current interest is for something more physical – to collaborate with gallery spaces or other potential physical outlets. So pdfX12 will now take an online break for a while, but hopefully it will transform into something even better in future.

Besides pdfX12, my colleagues and I started a weekly photo blog in 2010 called I WAS THERE. The blog presents “behind the lens” experiences of photographers and shares their relationship with the subjects and events they have encountered in their work. We do not wish to show the photographer’s “masterpiece” but rather, to present a photograph that the photographer has a personal connection with – that may remind them of a moment that affected them greatly or which may just simply be a story they would like to share. We believe that in presenting this work we will help our viewers gain a greater understanding of the connection between a great photo and the photographer’s humanity. This will be continuing so please visit the blog every Monday.

Can you tell us about the Yayori Journalist Award and the work you’re doing in Nepal?

Yayori was in its first year when I entered in 2005. There are two awards – Yayori Award and Yayori Journalist Award. I got the latter. They had already awarded the Yayori award to usha titikshu, Nepali’s first feminist photojournalist. To get the Yayori Journalist Award, I had to propose ideas on how to describe usha titikshu, along with producing work about her. I really liked the idea of Yayori Award supporting women expressionists. I was also very interested in the notion of Nepali’s first feminist photojournalist. So I submitted and fortunately I was selected.

I visited Kathmandu in 2005 to conduct interviews and photo editing. All her negatives were kept in a few suitcases and needed to be scanned. There were thousands of frames, and many were damaged and not well kept. The pictures were all in black and white. I selected images that revealed the turbulent political conditions in Nepal between 1990 to 2006 as I wanted the Japanese people to know and understand more about Nepal through these images.

In Kathmandu, I met Barta, a female Sarangi player. She had a beautiful voice, but her life journey was difficult and her social status in Nepal was low. I invited her to participate in my photo project by composing a new song (she had only sung traditional folk, never composed her original until then) to accompany usha titikshu’s photographs. The collaboration was finally completed with the exhibition Ongoing Journey featuring usha titikshu’s print exhibition and slideshow with Barta’s original song.

You are one of the instructors for the Tokyo Documentary Photography Workshop. Tell us more about TDPW and your involvement.

I have always wanted an international standard workshop in Japan. It has been on my agenda for a long time. People don’t have much opportunity to learn social photo documentary and photojournalism in Japan. Some leave to study overseas so I thought it was time to do something. With Tokyo Documentary Photography Workshop I hope to share my experience with photographers who need help, and encourage Japanese photographers to work with local subjects/issues.

We also welcome foreign photographers, but they have to start a project in Japan prior to the 5-days workshop. We don’t want the workshop to be like a picnic. There is enough time (almost 4 months) to do research and preliminary photography for both Japanese and foreign participants. We are trying to figure out the best way for international participants to shoot in Japan as it is particularly challenging there to dig deeper into society and develop compelling stories.

TDPW will have two photographer instructors – James Whitlow Delano and Kosuke Okahara. James has been living in Japan for more than 10 years, and I thought his sense and eye of foreign living in Japan will help students to see things from an outsider’s view. Kosuke is 30 years of age, self-taught and working internationally. He photographed Ibasyo, a significant project about self-mutilation among Japanese youth. They are both exemplary photographers for the workshop participants.

We are now accepting workshop applications until 5th March 2011. We are also looking for support to make this first workshop possible. Any support, in-kind or donations are welcome.

What are your thoughts on the current documentary and photojournalism landscape in Asia? Are there currently hotspots in Asia for exciting and interesting work?

I think Asian photographers and photographic communities are growing remarkably, and are a lot more active than ever before. I think their production quality is quite high these days. I personally think the market in general is looking more towards using images produced by local photographers, which hopefully might increase opportunities for Asian photographers.

I think that the work being produced these days is quite mixed. If we talk about trends it would depend on what kind of photography we are looking at. Independent photographers who are more conceptual, and more interested in producing something more artistic will always have their own vision and style, and it is hard to find a trend when everyone is trying to be different. I see this as a very positive sign.

This should be good news to Asian photographers working on self-funded projects – to support Asian photographers, Reminders Project and the Angkor Photo Festival are collaborating, and have announced the Grant For Asian Photographers in November 2010. We will be calling for proposals probably in April 2011.

As a photo curator and editor, what type of photographer and/or work appeal to you?

The photographers I’ve collaborated with are taking risks at different levels to capture moments. Although I appreciate and respect their passion and energy, the question I often ask them is: “Why are you so committed to the subject matter of your photographs?” My question is always expecting an answer – there must be a personal connection to the subject matter. Being so intimate to the subject, what is the secret behind the images? Why do the images have to be brought to the public? Sometimes, they are too personal to share with the public or are even considered taboo.

My photography research has become more centered on finding the answers to these questions, something more fundamental rather than just viewing more projects or series of work. Some photographers’ images reveal the answer to my questions, showing me a new way to look at photographs. This has inspired me to take a much closer look at the relationship between the subject and the photographer.

Do you only work with female photographers?

I have no gender bias working with photographers. I think both men and women face the same difficulties when they are first starting out. Things only become easier when they are a bit more recognized or established, and it becomes easier to convince others to take them more seriously. I think that people in the photo industry should be more open-minded about newcomers and take everyone’s work seriously. I remind myself as much as possible to be so too.

You were also a jury member of the Asian Women photographers’ showcase. What insight and tips can you share with photographers that will help them in editing and preparing their essays and work to show others?

I also had an opportunity to judge the photo competition of Foreign Correspondents Club Of Thailand 2010. I was able to see various works produced in Asia through both judging opportunities. The former is more for press and news photography and the latter is more personal photographic projects.

Anyway, photographers should edit their story objectively. They should edit carefully especially for the essay. Sometimes all it takes is one image to ruin the whole concept or feeling of the essay. Make it very tight and choose only the best edit. If good peers are at hand, try and seek their help.

I help photographers when I have the chance. I do this by asking them to send all the images or a wide edit of a series, from which I edit down to 20-30. I don’t need captions for this process as without captions, the photographer can see how the visual language will speak to others.

Photographers should also keep in mind that any projects they have done can potentially be a great discovery for the judges. I have heard from some photographers that they had nothing to send so they didn’t send anything. But that wasn’t the case as I discovered they actually had some work that might have even been selected if they did. So photographers should never miss any opportunities to show their work.

Lastly, I would also like photographers to remember not to just think about entering contests and awards and work for those only. Self-promotion is very important and I encourage photographers to do it, but that should not be their priority.

By the way, I will be also one of judge for KL PHOTO AWARDS 2011. You will be able to submit between March 1st to 20th so check it out.

What advice do you have for people aspiring to be photojournalists in Asia?

Don’t be lazy. Their job is not just about clicking and capturing the moment. Before clicking, they should think about how they will deliver the message. I believe that each photographer has some responsibility for distributing their own work. If they really want to bring change or good to the people or community they have photographed, they have to think about the distribution – how can their photos reach people and influence them. If they haven’t thought about this, maybe they still shouldn’t click yet.

Many young photographers just want an adventure, to go out into the field and click. That often creates problems, and even puts people in more difficult situations, or even in danger or at high risks. People are not there for the photographers’ portfolio. Sometimes I think, if that is the case, the photographer should just take the money for the camera and the plane ticket and give it to the people instead.

Are there any photographers that inspire you, or whose work you’d like to curate?

Through Asian Women Photographers’ submissions, I got to know Saori Ninomiya from Japan, and her work with victims of sexual abuse. She is a rape victim herself and decided to collaborate with other women who went through the same experience. Her project has revealed to me a new way to look at photographic work, and has now inspired me to take a much closer look at the relationship between the subject and the photographer.

I like work that is related somehow to a photographer’s background. I have become very interested in knowing more about photographers’ roots and their background, especially when they work with subjects connected to their own roots. I want to see how they relate to such personal issues and relationships. Perhaps I can curate or organize a show about this, but I need to do a lot of research first.

You had a camera with one shot left. What will you photograph with that last ever frame?

I will just give the camera to someone who will photograph better for that last ever frame. That should be my role.

If you could travel in time, what year in the past or future would you travel to with your camera?

I would like to go back to Cambodia in 1997 when I started out my career. If I can travel back in time, I will be able to make so much more of a difference than when I was there when I first started.

All photographs and art are the property of the individual photographer and creator, with all rights reserved.


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Comments 17

  1. Pingback: Yumi Goto and Beautiful, Beautiful Books – Photobook Bristol

  2. Pingback: Photo Essay: Ibasyo – self-injury/proof of existence, by Kosuke Okahara | Invisible Ph t grapher Asia

  3. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Invisible Photographer’s interview with photo curator, Yumi Goto

  4. I’m curious. What is a good number of photographs to make a well-rounded, good Photo Essay? I see essays of different lengths everywhere. Curious if there is a standard – 20-30?

  5. Pingback: Intervista a Yumi Goto, curatrice di fotografia in Asia | Not Only Photography

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