This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
The Diorama series has been shown all over the world to a warm reception from critics and audiences alike. Why do you think people are so attracted to your work?
Historically, I think people have looked at and used maps as a way of understanding and gauging the distance between themselves and their destination, or between where they are, as opposed to where everyone else is in the world; they are used functionally.
My work is not something that works like a normal map, but something which is created using my own memory and perspective. When people see my work, I think they also recall their own memories and experiences. I believe it is the viewer’s opportunity to engage with my work that is its attraction.
The series is a kind of homage to cartographer Ino Tadataka, who mapped Japan on foot in the nineteenth century. How important was it for you to use the same method of walking through the cities?
I have always been inspired by Ino Tadataka, and I greatly admire his passion, pioneering spirit and his patience. I would like to create a map of Japan using a similar method to his but fundamentally, what he did and what I do is quite different. He tried to create a precise map using specialist equipment, whilst I create subjective map-like representations of my journeys.
What gave you the impetus to map so many world cities in this way?
The original idea arose from a desire to trace and document my steps when I embarked on “Ohenro”, a journey of self-discovery that involved me visiting a total of 88 temples.
Since then I have continued with my passion of photography and mapmaking, realising quite early on, that I wanted to create these photographic maps for a living. Indeed, I find the experience of visiting so many cities around the world, and discovering myself within these cities very thought-provoking and inspiring.
Do you plan your route around the city before you go out and photograph it, or do you wander without a particular route in mind?
I try not to think about, or research a city before visiting. I want to capture an impression of each city only when I’m there. What I don’t want is to be prejudiced towards it beforehand, to be forced into thinking from someone else’s point of view.
Normally, when I get to a city I begin by walking around it, spending time familiarising myself with its size. The way I walk depends on where I am, it’s as if I’m absorbing the energy of each individual city.
Over how many days do you photograph a city? Do you strike up relationships as you go, or is it quite a solitary experience?
Normally, I shoot in each city for about a month. I try to communicate with local people as much as possible. I think knowing about the people that live there is important for an understanding of the city itself. This has been the biggest change in my creative processes of late.
When I first started these projects, I did all the research and shooting alone without communicating with anyone. Because most of the early works were shot from an elevated view my pieces focused on architecture. Although I still don’t think negatively of this method, as I continued I soon realised that the city, as a whole, is like a person and that I needed to be communicating and interacting with people to understand it.
Approximately how many images do you take, and how many do you use to create the maps?
As I started to communicate more with people, the amount of photos increased. But it always depends on the city. For my latest project in Bern I used about 6,500 pieces to create the whole work; almost 5-6 times bigger than my first map of Osaka. I use almost all of the photos I take. I do this so that the map reflects the entirety of my memories made in that particular place.
What kind of thought processes do you go through when you arrange the photos? Do you experience the city twice, the first time physically and the second time through memory?
When I arrange each photo on the board I try to recall the memories I made there. I don’t usually think too much as I do it; it’s quite quick and rather impulsive. Since I experience the entire process – the shoot, the processing of the film, developing the photos in the dark room, cutting the pieces, arranging the photos by hand – it’s not particularly difficult for me to bring back my memories of that place. So I agree, I experience the city twice: once physically, and again when I am part of the artistic process.
Many have commented on the sense of disorientation that your work throws up – that your maps are somehow recognisable, yet convoluted and confusing. Do you think this effect is similar to people’s experience of the city as a space, where they are both at home and disoriented on a daily basis, physically and psychologically?
Yes, I think so. I arrange the pieces symbolically according to the emotions I experienced in each place, which makes the shape of the map quite convoluted. I’m not particularly conscious of this when I’m shooting, but after processing and printing the film, I can see what I was really fascinated by at the time.
When we get lost in a city, we hastily try to find our way again, and it is these situations that stick in our minds. It’s almost quite a surreal sensation when compared to our normal levels of perception. The act of arranging the fragmented pieces of my memory is the culmination of both a mental and physical process, so when people look at my work they also re-experience what it feels like to get lost or feel disorientated.
Is there something in cartography which allows you to bring order to chaotic cites?
I think contemporary cartography has become rather mundane. I normally refer to the old maps when I’m working. The ancient maps were very decorative and abstract, like the Hereford map or ancient Japanese Tengiku map.
I think those maps had a strong relationship to people’s religion and way of life, as well as their ideologies; but they’ve gradually been excluded by modern civilisation. I’m not objecting to this, but I am trying to present a new mode of spatial awareness through my work, discovering, in the process, something about the nature of humanity and the countenance of each city.
In this I follow the lead of artists such as Hieronymus Bosch.
You’ve photographed cities all over the world, as well as in Japan. Did you find the Japanese cities you already knew more difficult to re-imagine?
Not really. Of course, the more familiar the city is, the easier it is to navigate. But I think if we open ourselves up to an encounter with a city, there are always new discoveries to be made, whether it’s a familiar place or not. When local people help me with a shoot, they often say that they’ve discovered elements of the city they didn’t realise were there before.
I’m considering making a map of Tokyo again next year, as it will be ten years since I made my first. I would like to see how my recognition of the city, in relation to its physical reality, has changed over the last decade.
How did your experience of London compare to that of the other cities you photographed?
I must say, it was very tough. I had quite a few problems along the way, including a cold like I’ve never experienced before! But against the odds I was able to really devote myself to London, both physically and mentally, and more so than most other cities.
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.