For six months, photographer Thomas Card sat in his Chelsea studio attempting to reach young Japanese men and women, specifically those always seen in Tokyo’s stereotypical street style photos. His idea seemed simple: to bring these people off the streets and into a studio, to learn who they were and what fashion meant to them. After six months, however, the struggle only escalated. In response, he and his assistant—who conveniently speaks Japanese fluently —hopped on a plane and began a 10-day scouting trip.
The trip sparked relationships with men and women deeply invested in Japanese fashion as an exploration of identity, resulting in an oversized book and what will become a traveling exhibition. The book, Tokyo Adorned, was released on March 11, in commemoration of the three-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan. Multiple essays and a short poem by Card himself introduce the 132 neon-infused images included in the book. “The poem is the artist statement that tells people why I’m doing the work and where it’s originating,” he says. Within the first line of his poem, Card references Walt Whitman, a clear nod to cultural differences between the exploration of identity in America and Japan. The following photographs feature over 30 men and women, three of their houses and even some of their parents. We spoke to him in his studio before the release of the book to hear about his experience and interests, in addition to how this project differs from his previous personal work.
How did you come across this topic? Why was it interesting to you?
At the heart of most of my work is this idea of how we define ourselves and how we see ourselves. This book deals with that in a cultural way. It’s a cultural relationship to the image. Culturally, here, we come from a Walt Whitman, stripping down and running through the woods approach. [The Japanese] look at our culture, draw inspiration, and completely redefine it. They’re exploring identity in this new way that is the complete antithesis of Walt Whitman. We see it as: you see us for who we are when we strip down. They see it as: you can’t see them for who they are until they’re built up.
It’s interesting they see building up as expressing themselves since traditional Japanese culture is so rooted in meditation and natural qualities.
It’s actually that root of understanding yourself from the tradition of meditation that fosters this because there’s a tremendous support mechanism for exploring your identity. There’s no criticism of this extreme stance on how they see themselves. Here, even in New York where we’re incredibly open, when people are eccentric they’re stared at, people say things. In Japan, there’s support for people to explore. It contrasts with insane formalism and structure, fitting in a box and doing the right thing.
A lot of the extreme fashion looks started in the early ’90s when the economy crashed. People felt Japanese culture let them down and they no longer wanted to use traditional Japanese formalism to define themselves. It was counterculture. Twenty years later, however, these girls see it as a realization of Japanese culture. Post-tsunami, they don’t trust the government or corporate structure. They feel they were let down, that they’re perpetually lied to, but they have an incredible sense of nationalism and they see this [fashion] as Japanese. It’s a Japanese tradition and heritage, and they’re proud of it. It’s no longer against Japanese culture; it’s a fulfillment.
What were you expecting when you went [to Japan]?
I was completely unprepared for what I saw. Every main intersection in Tokyo is like Times Square. A thousand people are crossing every time the light changes. The diversity of ideas and approaches to design and fashion—even the fish markets—is breathtaking. One thing that I expected though, were more cohesive [fashion] movements. It’s always been individualistic, but I expected to find groups that were coherent. What we found is that each person sees this as his or her own identity. They may associate with other people, but it’s not a coherent group. They see themselves differently. There’s one genre that has more structure, which is the Lolita. The Lolita will get together more regularly, but they still see themselves as very individualistic.
What does Lolita mean to them?
Lolita to them is just a cool word. Very few know anything about Nabokov. It was originally thrown out in an obscure fashion magazine in the ’80s and people came across it, thought it sounded cool and started using it widely. The girls on the street have no idea what it references. It’s empowering because the girls who push it further and have a stronger sense of identity are idolized and develop a following. We’ve witnessed this happening. One of the girls from the book had a few hundred followers and was working at this store when we met her. Now she’s on her own web TV show and has thousands of followers worldwide. Being able to be in control of how you’re seen and being perceived as you see yourself is an empowering exercise.
You had three [of the girls’] homes in the book, right?
The people working with us in Tokyo said, “There’s no way these girls are going to let you in,” but we actually made it to five homes. I wanted at least one in the book and in the end we settled on three. I feel [seeing the homes] provides richness to the experience.
What was one of the most surprising moments?
One of the amazing moments was when one of the girls came in wearing a classic Lolita dress. I expected she would go directly on set, but she told my interpreter, “I’m so sorry. I had to come from work. This isn’t me. I need to change.” She went into the changing room and we started hearing this [makes noise]. It sounded like fabric was ripping. My interpreter went in to check on her and came back out shaking her head. She was like, “I can’t explain this. You’re going to have to see it.” A few minutes later the girl returns and she’s made shorts and a bra out of duct tape.
Would she actually walk around in the street in her duct tape shorts and bra?
Yeah, that’s what she went home in. She had come to the shoot from work and then went out to dinner and home in the duct tape shorts. She spent the rest of the evening in these shorts.
Did you get to know the girls at all?
There were a handful of girls that we had more of a relationship with and got to know. There was only one girl, Ai, out of the entire shoot that could speak English fluently. She was one of the homes we were able to go to. One thing that I thought was incredible though was the way you would gain trust on set. I didn’t want there to be any outside influence because anyone that’s viewing you causes you to change. Even if someone’s friend walked around the corner it would disrupt the shoot. We kept everyone waiting away from the set. There were no assistants, not even the interpreter. We would go on set and based off of how they saw themselves, different things would help them relax or stiffen up. The key was to figure out what would help them find their comfort zone without being able to speak.
So how would you do that?
Some of the girls reacted well to me giving them positive feedback even if they couldn’t understand it, but if someone was relaxing from the get go I wouldn’t disturb the peace. Some girls came in and found their comfort zone and enjoyed the silence. One or two times, if I said something they would freeze up because they couldn’t understand what I was saying. I had to explore how to keep positive energy and it differed for each person.
I noticed that your personal work is more abstract and a lot is black and white or in muted colored schemes. Was working with such bright colors and portraiture different for you?
It was different and it was a conscious decision. I’m working with a lot of the same ideas I always work with, but I wanted to turn it outward and explore the intersection with an audience. Early in my career I was focusing intensely inside of my own mind. These pieces [points to piece hanging behind him] are coded using numerology and tonal value, these complex systems. I was working with forms that speak to people on universal levels. They understand what the pieces are about and have their own relationship with the pieces, but not from an outward discussion. What I really wanted to play with here was the celebration of starting inward and working outward.