Kyotographie: An International Photo Festival in Japan’s Ancient Capital


French photographer Lucille Reyboz launched the Kyotographie International Photography Festival in 2013 with Nakanishi Yūsuke as a way of drawing attention to the world of photography. Now in its second year, the festival is helping to raise the profile of photography in Japan and encourage dialogue among photographers around the world.

Lucille Reyboz

Born in Lyon, France, in 1973. Spent childhood years in Bamako, Mali. Renowned especially for portrait photographs and produces work in a range of fields, such as magazines and CD jackets. Lived in Tokyo from 2007 to 2011, when she moved to Kyoto, where she still lives today. Organized the first Kyotographie International Photography Festival in 2013, together with Nakanishi Yūsuke. Solo exhibitions of her work include Source (New York: Phillips de Pury, 2007) and Belles de Bamako (Tokyo: Chanel Nexus Hall, 2011).

An Unforgettable Trip

INTERVIEWER The second Kyotographie International Photography Film Festival that you organized was held in Kyoto from April 19 to May 11, 2014. How far back does your connection with Japan go?

Books featuring photographs by Lucille Reyboz (clockwise from top right): Batammaba bâtisseurs d'univers (2004), featuring close-up coverage of the Tamberma people in Togo; Impressions du Japan (2013), photos of Japan with text by Hirano Keiichirō; Belles de Bamako (2011), scenes of women at weddings and of everyday life in Bamako, Mali; Source (2007), a collection of photos of Japanese women in hot springs baths.

LUCILLE REYBOZ I visited Japan in 1999 with my friend Salif Keita, a Malian singer who was performing in Sakamoto Ryūichi’s opera Life. That trip to Japan left a deep impression on me. I was surprised to find that traditional culture and primitive faith remained strong amid the hi-tech trappings of everyday life. On returning to Paris, I put together a proposal to take photographs comparing African animism with Japanese Shintō, and with a grant from the Hachette Foundation, I started traveling between Japan and France.

In 2007, I moved to Tokyo and produced the photo collection Source, made up of photos of Japanese women in onsen, hot springs baths. These works were also exhibited at the HSBC gallery during the Paris Photo fair in 2008. And last year Impressions du Japon was published—a book I worked on with the writer Hirano Keiichirō. It includes a number of my photographs of Japan, along with explanatory text by Hirano.

Photography Underexposed in Japan

INTERVIEWER Why did you think of holding an international photography festival in Kyoto?

REYBOZ After the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, I moved from Tokyo to Kyoto. That day changed many people’s lives and it was also a big turning point for me. My partner Nakanishi Yūsuke, with whom I organized Kyotographie, moved from Tokyo to Kyoto at the same time. The two of us shared a strong desire to bring something unprecedented to as many people as possible.  

Kyoto’s fabulous streets spurred us on. If you live in Kyoto, you make new discoveries every day. For a photographer, it is extremely stimulating to encounter the traditional beauty of Japan every five minutes. Our feeling that we just had to start something got stronger and stronger. That is what led us to come up with the idea of hosting an international photography festival.

INTERVIEWER Japan holds very few international photo exhibitions. There is the Higashikawa International Photo Festival in Hokkaidō, but not many other examples.

REYBOZ Despite Japan’s reputation as a camera giant, photography has a low standing here compared with the situation in Europe. It’s unbelievable considering how many photographers have emerged thanks to Japanese cameras. And that high level of technology still supports artists today. After World War II, Japan produced big names like Hosoe Eikoh, Moriyama Daidō, Araki Nobuyoshi, and Ueda Shōji, as well as Kawauchi Rinko and numerous younger photographers, but their works are only on display in a few places.

This lack of exhibition venues naturally results in low public awareness. Several photographers are famous overseas, but almost unknown in Japan. Since only a limited number of people can be showcased on the international stage, you end up seeing the same faces. That was something I was aware of while living in Europe. It inspired me to create a space for people from different countries to discover Japan’s talented photographers.

The opening party held in the Museum of Kyoto on April 18.

This idea had a natural connection with Kyoto, as a city attracts tourists from around the world always. And we tried to exhibit works in the city’s traditional townhouses, temples, and shrines, not only in the typical white-cube galleries and museums, to make the visitors feel the beauty of Kyoto. The concept of Kyotographie was thus born—a festival to which we’d invite photographers, curators, and representatives of festivals and other institutions from around the world, as well as a place where these international participants and Japanese photographers could communicate with each other.

Much Effort to Make It Happen

INTERVIEWER Kyoto is known to be conservative. Was it difficult to get permission to use traditional townhouses and temples as exhibition spaces?

REYBOZ When we first moved to Kyoto, we felt we were strangers. But that feeling made us want to create a place where we did belong. That’s the goal we had in mind and we went for broke to make the Kyotographie festival a reality—throwing ourselves headlong into the search for venues and everything else we had to do.

The fact that neither of us comes from Kyoto may actually have worked in our favor and helped us to win opportunities. It’s true that Kyoto isn’t always open to outsiders. But we had a firm desire to put on a high-quality festival. First, we chose photographers and then we looked for the ideal locations. I think that our unwavering insistence on prioritizing the photography connected Kyoto people to us.

In its second year, the festival displayed works by photographers from nine countries in fifteen venues throughout the city, including shrines, townhouses, and galleries.

Nature in Tokyo, consisting of works by 13 contemporary Japanese photographers selected by M, a magazine supplement to the French newspaper Le Monde. The venue for this exhibit at Kyotographie was the Kōdōkan, a school established by the Confucian scholar Minagawa Kien in 1806.

Still Crazy, with photos by Hirokawa Taishi of nuclear power plants in contemporary Japanese landscapes; displayed at Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, normally not open to the public.

Japanese Photobooks Then and Now (left), featuring photobooks from the period following World War II until today, at the Asphodel event space in Gion. (Right) Eternal Japan 1951–52 Werner Bischof (right), an exhibit of photos by the Swiss photographer presented at Mumeisha, a Kyo-machiya, or Kyoto townhouse, built in 1909.

INTERVIEWER Did you take inspiration from any other festivals?

REYBOZ In France there are two world-renowned photography shows: the Paris Photo fair, which is centered on commercial buying and selling, and the Arles Photography Festival, which focuses more on exhibitions. It would be great if Kyotographie could grow into something like an Asian version of the Arles festival. Like Kyoto, Arles is a city with a rich history, and the festival uses churches and other historical buildings as venues.

New Angles on the Environment

INTERVIEWER Last year’s exhibition featuring photography maestros Malick Sidibé and Hosoe Eikoh had an impact on visitors. Why did you choose the topic of “Our Environments” this year?

REYBOZ I think that there are few countries where people are so attuned to nature as in Japan, but a nuclear accident happened here and the country was forced to confront environmental issues. However, we didn’t want only to focus on the negative side, so we put together exhibitions examining the environment from a number of angles, including the animal world, nature, humanity, and space.

I first saw Tim Flach’s work in Victor, a magazine produced by the Swedish camera manufacturer Hasselblad. His animal-themed exhibit, More Than Human, appears at first glance to be just a collection of beautiful photos of animals, but in fact he is also denouncing humanity’s reprehensible treatment of animals. For example, his studio photo of a rooster with no feathers is based on the experiment for the commercial breeding of featherless chickens through genetic modification [photo below].

Tim Flach’s More Than Human exhibit. The venue, Shimadai Gallery, housed a sake wholesaler and raw-silk merchant from the mid-Edo period (1603–1868) before being converted into a traditional townhouse in 1883.

Last year at the Arles festival I saw Mars, a Photographic Exploration, and wanted to bring the photos from that exhibit to our festival in Kyoto. The photos were taken originally by NASA’s Mars probes and came to the attention of Xavier Barral, chief editor of the art publishing house Éditions Xavier Barral. He is a top photo editor, and we are honored that we could work with him closely.

Standing in front of the high-definition monitor used for the Mars, a Photographic Exploration exhibit are (from left to right) Oliver Franz, the exhibition designer; Xavier Barral, the curator; and Takatani Shirō, the artist who prepared the video installation.

We contacted the Kyoto-based artist Takatani Shirō and he agreed to prepare an installation piece using the photos of Mars. Takatani applied the technique called “toposcan” to display the high-definition images of Mars on a four-by-six-meter Sony monitor, one of the world’s largest. We created a new exhibit, different from the one at Arles. We hopes that this kind of exchange between Kyotographie and other photo festivals and fairs will expand in the future.

Kyotographie International Photography Festival official site:

(Interview conducted in Japanese by Yata Vattani Yumiko. Banner photo and portrait photo by Ogino Naoyuki. Photos of venues by Ōshima Takuya.)

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