Sainsbury Institute Undergraduate Essay Prize: Interview with winner, Jiwoo Han

Oliver Moxham speaks to winner of this year’s Undergraduate Essay prize winner, Jiwoo Han of Amherst College, about her essay titled Re-Elevation Through Exposure: How Shomei Tomatsu’s Photographs Convey and Heal Individual Trauma of the World War.

Interview transcript

Oliver Moxham (OM) interviews Jiwoo Han (JH)

OM: Hello, Jiwoo. Thank you for joining me today.

JH: Thank you.

OM: So I’d like to begin, as I do with my podcast episodes. First of all, we’d like to know a bit more about you. Can you tell us about your area of expertise and how your interests have brought you there?

JH: I’m an undergraduate student majoring in Psychology, and psychology is the field that I decided to pursue after realising how relevant and applicable things that I learned in a psychology classroom were to thinking about my own life and who I am as a person. Because of that, I’m particularly interested in personality psychology. I also want to get more into psychoanalysis. These two fields are different in approaches, but both of them really help me self-reflect and get creative with understanding myself and also others in a way that uncovers things that I wasn’t really aware of before.

I really like psychology [because] it’s so versatile and interdisciplinary, so you can apply it to any academic field and then shed light on something bigger. Last winter, last January, I decided to take my first art history course, and it was on the history and the theory of photography. I simply took that because I personally like taking pictures myself. But this class was so much more than just learning about taking pictures – it opened up a new way of thinking for me – so thinking theoretically about what it means to be taking a photograph, more abstractly on how photographs convey things that are not apparent on the surface level or formalistically. I really loved that mode of thinking and I just enjoyed that course in general. The summer after that course, I reached out to my art history professor from that winter and asked her if she could supervise me on an independent research project that’s based in art history. I was also thinking about how I could possibly apply my background in psychology to this project. I realised [that] understanding and learning about the artist as a person reveals a lot more layers within their works, and my background in psychology could really help with understanding that. I think that’s how I delved into this interdisciplinary work of psychology and art history. It was really eye opening for me to think about psychology in a more abstract way and just making connections between the two fields, like what is within an artwork, and also literature and psychology.

OM: It’s fascinating – I never heard of photography and psychology being talked about in the same paper before, so it was really interesting to read. Your Sainsbury Institute undergraduate essay, the prize winning essay – congratulations by the way – explores the poetry of Shōmei Tōmatsu and its capacity to heal wartime trauma. Can you introduce us to Tōmatsu? What was his experience of war and how did this manifest in his work?

JH: Shōmei Tōmatsu was born in 1930 in Nagoya. It’s a city in Japan, and he was eleven years old when Japan declared the Second World War. Throughout his childhood, he witnessed a lot of firebombing and a lot of war violence at a young age. A few years after Japan announced its defeat, he got into photography in college, and so he was naturally taking a lot of pictures of his community that was hit by poverty and inflation, just distress coming from the war. His works were, I think, really good at capturing not just the objective landscape of this postwar Japan, but also shedding light on the emotions that he and other Japanese people are feeling that wasn’t just anger towards America, but a complex, mixed feelings of sadness, confusion, deprivation, maybe also a sense of appreciation and ambivalence. His photographs really exposed a Japan that had been changed not only physically but also culturally and psychosocially as well.

In my essay, I try to make connections between the war violence that he was subject to and also was forced to see during his childhood with what appears in his photographs of postwar Japan. The field of psychology really emphasises the influence that your childhood has on your future career and life, things you end up doing and making. I use that idea as a basis to explore how there are certain themes or motifs from his childhood that resurface in his later works. I guess by motifs I don’t really mean physical things necessarily, but more in an abstract way – like perspectives or angles of seeing America that took over Japan, or emotions he had felt towards adults as a child. Understanding his experience of seeing the war as a child really enriches the meaning of his works, I think, because it allows you to see how childhood trauma continues to make its way to the future, and also how wartime trauma continues to persist in a postwar society. I think my paper is just all about answering your question of how his childhood experiences with war really show up. You can read that [essay] if you want to read about it more.

OM: Great. I’m kind of curious – Tōmatsu’s photography seems to be very personal, grappling with his own experience of war and US occupation as he was growing up. Was he consciously trying to capture the sentiments of others going through the same experience as well? Or was this more of a by-product from his perspective?

JH: I don’t think I can really say what his true intentions for his photography were because I’m not him, obviously. But he did indicate how he was fascinated with the influence of the US military presence in Japan, which to me indicates how a part of his work was just trying to embody the experiences and sentiments of the postwar society as a whole and other people who are part of it. I don’t think the ‘documentary-esque’-ness of his work purely stems from his goal of showcasing his own personal, specific background and experiences. At the same time, he rejected the claim that he was a photojournalist, which is obvious from the intense emotions and subjectivity that come out of his works. Taking these together, I want to say he was trying to capture not only his but also others’ complex emotions and ambivalence coming out of the US occupation, and it wouldn’t be possible for him to do so if he personally didn’t have experiences of the war and US occupation. I think he was consciously trying to capture the sentiment of others but it was largely successful because of his personal experience with war and the society he was working with. Another thing I realised is how my essay maybe makes it sound as if Tōmatsu’s main and conscious goal of creating photography was for himself and for him to make sense of his childhood or experiences, but I want to make clear that my arguments and essay are very hypothetical. I was just playing around with being theoretical and abstract, [and] I wanted to convey the possibility that even if Tōmatsu might have been consciously trying to capture others’ experiences and the landscape he was in, he could have been unknowingly, unconsciously driven by his desire to work through his childhood trauma and his personal experiences with the work.

OM: Given that his experience is one shared by many at that time, then it’s impossible for others not to relate to his work to some degree. You suggested in your essay that Tōmatsu’s photography was a form of individual healing but from my untrained eye it seems like his frequent visiting of his traumatic childhood sees him carry his trauma with him through childhood to adulthood. So, where is the healing in this?

JH: I definitely agree that he frequently revisits his traumatic childhood and I think what I wanted to convey through my paper was [that] it was through that frequent revisiting of trauma itself that could be seen as an attempt towards healing. ‘Working through’ is a process in psychotherapy where it is believed that constantly repeating and revisiting trauma by talking about it or artistically working with it helps to lead to accepting that memory and minimising any defensiveness towards that memory that could cause worse effects like repression. It’s almost like freeing yourself from something by facing it directly. Freud also talks about how working through helps the traumatic memory from continuously harming the individual and allows the individual to have more power over that memory rather than vice versa. I wanted to use this concept to see and also interpret Tōmatsu’s works in a more optimistic way – even if Tōmatsu might not have known where photography might have been helping him revisit and work through his traumas from childhood. I think this becomes really convincing, as you can see in his photographs that contain elements coming from his childhood. This I also elaborate in my paper as well.

OM: You reference a lot of his interviews as well. Does he ever expressly state how photography has helped him?

JH: There’s one mention he later goes on to – a lot of his early works are black and white photography, but he later moves on into colour photography. In talking about those works, he does mention how his kind of obsession, like fixed obsession with taking pictures of the US occupation in Japan, it weakened or it changed in a way that it elevated him to another different space, if that makes sense. I want to see that as a form of healing and because he’s not fixed in his traumatised state anymore, which is my interpretation. I’m not sure if he explicitly says ‘because of photography I was healed’, but that’s what I would like to think.

OM: Well you certainly make a convincing argument in the essay. So Tōmatsu’s works seem to capture the zeitgeist of US occupied Japan, that strange switch from seeing the USA as the enemy to the benevolent occupier. Do you believe the trauma captured in his photos endures today? And is there still a healing capacity for those in Japan viewing his work?

JH: Yes, I think that also goes back to what you were saying, photography elevated him to this new space or zone because [I don’t know] if trauma ever really goes away, and I don’t think healing necessarily means the complete erasure of what happened or bringing back the individual to the original state of condition. I want to interpret healing as more like bringing the individual to another state that is not completely trauma, but not also completely back to normal, if that makes sense.

I think the trauma captured in his works are still there. It is still persisting, even if it might not be in the same exact form. I think the effects that the war and the American occupation had in Japan are not reversible, and generational trauma is also a real thing. I can’t speak on behalf of Japanese people today, but I know as someone who grew up in a Korean household and was born in Korea, I feel like I’m still being affected by the war trauma and postwar cultures and violence that not only my grandparents went through, but also my parents. A lot of Shōmei Tōmatsu’s works make this idea of generational trauma really salient because a lot of his works depict children who I’m assuming are probably adults today, and growing up in this postwar landscape that was marked by poverty and this strange occupation, by strange cultural changes, I’m sure it led to its own trauma of sorts, but also traumas are all, I feel, interrelated and connected in their own ways. Another thing, in the broader sense, Shōmei Tōmatsu’s works really capture the problems and issues of power dynamics that are particularly racialized, which is obviously still a big issue today. In that aspect as well, I think the trauma he captured is very relevant still in today’s society.

As for your second question, I think my paper focused on the possibility that the act of photography may have been a therapeutic act for Tōmatsu himself as an artist. I’m not entirely sure about the Japanese audience and whether they would have felt necessarily healed by his photographs, especially because everyone sees and interacts with artworks differently, but I do think that it is possible that today’s audience in Japan might be able to maybe work through their own memories of the war and postwar Japan, and feel understood and empathised by viewing Tōmatsu’s works.

OM: Definitely – I mean, regardless what Tōmatsu’s intentions were, if there was a gallery showing his work around US-occupied Japan, it creates a space where these memories can be revisited.

I was fascinated by your discussion earlier about healing as being a process rather than an objective to be completed, and then that’s it. It’s more like tending a garden, something that needs regular maintenance.

Well, once again, congratulations on winning your Sainsbury Institute Undergraduate Essay Prize, and thank you for joining me this evening.

JH: Thank you so much.