My Japan

Andi Sapey: From the Eyes of a Photographer

Award winning photographer, Andi Sapey, has helped capture some of the most memorable moments at the Sainsbury Institute. A trusted eye behind the lens and a key asset to the Institute, we asked Andi his links to Japan and what compels him to visit the country over and over again.

© Andi Sapey
© Andi Sapey

Photographs haven’t of course always been regarded as artworks. They have, however, always been treated as mementoes, their emotional significance often far outweighing the apparent contents of the picture. Like most people, I suppose this memento-making impulse was what first led me to peer through a camera’s viewfinder. I wanted to take pictures so as to preserve and communicate experiences that would otherwise be lost or just blurred by fading memory.

Taking a degree course in photography at Norwich School of Art (present day Norwich University of the Arts) helped not only to deepen my understanding of my craft, but also to sharpen my compositional and artistic skills and to open my mind to the possibilities of the medium. Soon after completing my course in the early 1990s, I spent two years travelling across the Far East with my partner, Lorraine. We were so entranced by India and South-east Asia that we never got round to visiting Japan. The best part of a decade slipped past before we made our first trip to Japan. The journey would prove to be a fateful trip, for it gave me a passion for the country and provide me with the inspiration for an ongoing photographic project. In years to come, my interest in Japan led me to form new friendships including with colleagues at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures.

© Andi Sapey
© Andi Sapey

My initial visit to Japan, which took place in February 2008, was prompted by an invitation from some old friends who had been working in Tokyo for several years. Ready for when we arrived there, I packed my Nikon camera and a selection of lenses, not to mention numerous memory cards. I imagined myself filling those cards with documentary images of the sort captured by photographic heroes of mine such as Mary Ellen Marks, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and William Eggleston. Beyond that, I deliberately avoided doing too much preparatory work. I sometimes feel that too much research can burden me with preconceptions. Suffice to say that I was, from an aesthetic point of view, completely unprepared for what I would see during our month-long visit.

Our friends had a flat in Azabu-Jūban, which is a few miles from Roppongi Hills. The area is famous for its high density of foreign expat residents, where many of whom are connected to the embassies and corporate offices scattered across the district. When we landed in Tokyo, I felt as if someone had twiddled all the dials and settings in my brain, and a persistent feeling of jetlag exacerbated this dreamy sense of disorientation. I was immediately captivated by the city’s fluorescent beauty and dizzying pace, and by the juxtaposition of ancient temples and futuristic buildings. I couldn’t help but notice the coexistence of formality and irreverent humour.

© Andi Sapey
© Andi Sapey

What also captivated me were Tokyo’s many teenage tribes. Seeking refuge from the enduring constraints of traditional etiquette, some indulged in an activity so-called “cos-play”. This involved individuals dressing up in lurid costumes of cartoon characters or uniforms of foreign subculture personas—anything from rockabillies to punks, from mods to rockers. The sight of them as we walked or cycled round Tokyo and then Kyoto summoned pleasant memories of my own teenage years amid the energetic and creative punk scene of the 1970s.

I was so fascinated by Japan that Lorraine and I went back there in both February and November the following year. Each time we stayed with our friends in Tokyo for about a month. In the run-up to our second visit, I was commissioned to take photographs to exhibit at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. The consequent exhibition, staged in January 2010, featured work by Andy Crouch, a photographer friend also based in Norwich. Unlikely though this may sound, I felt that his brightly coloured and boldly composed images of Norfolk perfectly complemented my shots of Japan. While he was looking for beauty, humour and strangeness in a familiar setting, I was looking for humour and strange beauty in anunfamiliar setting. I’ve subsequently shown my Japanese photos in a solo exhibition and crave the opportunity to put together a larger show, chosen from my expanding archive of images. For me, travelling round Japan and trying to capture transient moments in those travels has become a costly but satisfying addiction. As the song goes, there might be no place like home, but there is certainly no place like Japan. In a world of increasing uniformity, it is a country that absorbs foreign influence yet retains its unique allure.

Further examples of Andi Sapey’s work can be seen by visiting:

Andi Sapey

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