Yumi Goto has the Midas touch when it comes to spotting talent and inspiring ideas. Curator, editor, consultant, gallery owner, mentor – she wears many hats, but mostly from behind the scenes in Tokyo. She has influenced a score of young photographers, mostly Japanese, some foreign, who come to see her at her gallery, Reminders Photography Stronghold, an important venue for new and contemporary work.
Of late, Yumi’s vision finds its expression in the photobook, and she runs two workshops a year, one with Jan Rosseel from Belgium, the other with Teun van der Heijden and Sandra van der Doelen from the Netherlands. Yumi also runs the annual Asian Women Photographers Showcase, sits on international juries and curates for festivals around the world.
Story-telling is at the core of your interest, and you’re always looking at new ways that people can tell stories with photography, is that right?
Yes. When I first started, I was doing a documentary portfolio in a pdf format called PDFX12. It was a monthly publication where we featured different stories by different photographers. Wasif Munem was the first photographer we featured. That was one of the first things that I did internationally in 2004. Originally I only wanted to do this for a Japanese audience because I wanted to open their minds about photography. But then I was told if it’s only in Japanese, it’ll only appeal to a limited audience, so why not make it bilingual? Which we did. We did the portfolio for maybe three or four years, and featured some very interesting people working in the early times.
Then my interest shifted to having a physical space but it was not possible back then when I was in Thailand. Using slideshows was another showcase that I was interested in, but it has to be with photography. What I call multi-layer is possible in the book format, like photobook as an object. You can feel it, you can experiment with it.
Right now a lot of your attention is on the photobook; you run workshops, have a marvellous photobook library, and offer photobooks from exhibiting and workshop photographers for sale.
Yes, we’ve been running photobook making workshops since 2013. The first one was more an introduction to the photobook, learning the idea of it, basic binding and so on. It was a good introduction, but inviting someone from outside just to do an introduction is not enough.
Also, I was looking for a way to use the gallery as a venue for expression. My gallery doesn’t sell prints; it is more about a place of expression for photographers and artists. But I think it is very important to own the artists’ ideas, to have it in hand. So I was thinking, what can we offer the audience, not just to come here and look at the work, but also to bring back home with them? Having an exhibition, and at the same time to sustain the gallery and the artist, we have to offer something to the audience; you have to sell something. I’ve tried selling prints, but it didn’t work out well. If the audience can buy a series of say 10 prints, that would be perfect! But that is not always possible.
You are not just the photographer but a story-teller, so you have to prioritise the subject rather than you as the photographer.
How did you get started with handmaking photobooks?
My very first attempt was with Nozomi Iijima’s book The Scoffing Pig, which we produced as an accordion book. She also did a newsprint and a bag. When I first saw her work in print, I wasn’t immediately taken by it. But when she did her work in book format, it really got talking. For me, her work doesn’t have to have very fine prints or even be a very nicely printed book. It can even be Xeroxed or risograph printed. It really depends on the work and the texture of it. For a first attempt, it was a really good success, that’s why we followed this model for the next show.
You started off with accordion books, but the way you work with photobooks has since changed.
I met Jan Rosseel at a workshop in The Hague in 2013, and we started collaborating on a workshop since 2014. For me, Jan’s book Belgian Autumn is perfect. It is something I’ve really wanted to do for a long time. The format, content and story; everything, just perfect. So many books are being published every year, but this one is socially relevant and also very personal. Even the edition number has a special meaning. It’s all very detailed. I also got the idea from him that it doesn’t have to be just your photos. Since you are a story-teller, you can use any kind of material if the story can be told well.
Like with Kazuma Obara’s Silent Histories, there are not only his own photos in the book. He uses found photographs and propaganda magazines to support his story. You are not just the photographer but a story-teller, so you have to prioritise the subject rather than you as the photographer. We don’t just want to see your photographs, we want to know about the story. I don’t really see the point of just showing the beauty of the photographs.
Do you think all projects are suited to using archival or other materials?
It really depends. It’s helpful when it helps to tell the story, but not all photobooks have to have all those material. When we do workshops, we encourage our participants to go through everything of what they can use. You really have to think about that, to really make a good story-telling book. I am finding it increasingly difficult to make photobooks just with photographs. I’m convinced that photographs alone don’t tell you much of a story. For the book, if you have some kind of story, you have to go in deeper and deeper. Then you’ll notice that maybe you have to rely on some other material to support the story.
Does this mean you are no longer interested in the traditional photobook?
For me now, it’s not really about the traditional photobook anymore. To me, the traditional book is like using a slide projector for showing photographs.
You have supported or showcased the work of several young photographers. What valuable traits do you see in these photographers?
With these people, they are always doing or working on something. They never stop. Even if they are very experienced, they are always eager to learn. That is very important. Some people have just one photobook, it is a very big success and it makes them a big deal. Once you become an important figure in this market, you will frequently produce books, which is amazing. But for me, it is like relying on your popularity and you’re not really focusing on the contents. You really have to be careful with what you are producing.
Seeing as you’ve been involved with photography in Asia for over two decades, how do you think it has changed over the years?
It’s a big change. Twenty years ago we didn’t know many Asian photographers. I’m sure in your country you have your own famous photographers and artists, but back then, it was very difficult for outsiders to know about them. But now, it is very easy. The quality has also improved a lot. With access to the Internet, it is easy to view and study good photography online. Back then, you didn’t have that resource or the access. There was no easy way to learn good photography or even about the trends in the industry.
You sit on a lot of juries for photography competitions and awards. Do you think that it is important for photographers to enter competitions?
I always participate as a jury member because it is really interesting to see submissions. Even if someone is not the winner, I might work with him or her sometime in the future. And this idea works the same way with the applicants. They might not win, but there is a possibility that they can work with some of the jury members in future.
But participants also have to think about what they are looking for. You should think about which is the best place to submit your work. To enter competitions is not essential, but I think it may be a good opportunity. It’s not only about winning, it’s also a chance to show the work and gain exposure. There is nothing to lose if you enter a photo competition, except for some money if you have to pay.
I’m currently working on a number of book projects through the workshops and it really helps, even if the book is shortlisted. Even if you don’t win, you can get published. Like Kumiko Motoki’s White Fang was published by a German publisher after winning second prize at the Kessel Dummy Award in 2015. Hiroshi Okamoto’s Recruit won second prize at the same award the following year, and he’s already been approached by a publisher.
Since you work with photographs so much, have you thought of doing photography yourself?
I have a camera but my purpose is not to do personal projects. I am more interested in giving other people ideas. When a photographer shows me or talks to me about something, I get very excited and have so many ideas. I can imagine what’s next. It doesn’t work the same way for myself. If I think a certain photographer can do a particular project really well, I’d suggest it to him or her. I like to give someone else a mission.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.