‘An Outsider’s View’ by Sean Davey on ‘Sentimental Journey’

This great piece on Araki’s ‘Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey’ has come from Sean Davey, a photographer, one eighth of the ‘brokenbench’ collective and a Photo Book Club Meet-up organizer.
– Thanks Sean!

An Outsider’s View
– A Personal reaction to Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey

I remember clearly the first time that I saw the book Sentimental Journey/
Winter Journey. I was sitting in the living room in a friend’s apartment, when
a mutual friend ours, and fellow photographer, had just returned from Japan.
Both my friend and I received a book as a present. I received a book by
Daido Moriyama, while my friend received something rather different, a slimmer,
seemingly more discreet book, which had a bright red cover and no title. The
book came in a cardboard slipcase with Japanese characters on it. I could not
read the title, nor even discern whose work it was. The book itself immediately
intrigued me.

After examining this red book for a few more clues, I resigned myself to simply
look at the photographs. I had no idea what I was looking at, and my initial
reaction was one of complete bewilderment. Opening the cover, the first picture
showed a cat bounding through deep snow, the date ’90 2 1 imprinted in the
lower right-hand corner. The picture was a snapshot and looked like it was shot
in someone’s backyard. Turning the page, two more pictures of the same cat, the
date identically printed on both photographs. This time the cat was inside; one
image showing the cat looking out onto the snow, in the second photograph it
was curled up on the covers on a single bed.

I went through the entire book from start to finish, clueless to the fact that I was
reading it the wrong way (Japanese books start from the opposite end, reading
from right to left rather than from left to right). I felt that something was askew
and while it did cross my mind that I was missing a cultural reference (as major
one as it was), I knew immediately that I was looking at one of the strongest
pieces of photographic literature that I had seen. I went over the book again and
again, front to back and back to front, oblivious to the meaning of the Japanese
characters presented on some of the book’s pages. All I had to go off was the
images and the sequence in which they had been placed. To me this book started
with a cat in the snow and ended with a couple on their wedding day. To my
senses at least, this work was some kind of sentimental diary.

For a number of years I have been less and less interested in what I see as being
trivial components of photography; composition, technical details, and even
subject matter to an extent. What is important to me in a photographer’s work is
not what the photographer actually photographs, but rather what that work says
about them and how honest he/she is about what they are photographing. To
this day I have not seen a book of photographs so honest and personally involved
as Araki’s Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey. The lack of ego so humbly and
beautifully presented in this book emphasises Araki’s understanding that he
himself is neither subject in, nor author of this body of work, but rather an equal
mixture of both.

How terribly sad it is to see a loved one become ill and in the case of Araki’s
wife Yoko, to die. The feelings of loss, anguish and emptiness permeate the
lives of those who remain and who often see, up-close, the pointy end of human
suffering and pain. But there is also, after mourning, celebration and eventually
some kind of personal acceptance and closure, the end of one journey will
always lead to the beginning of another. The power of this book lies in Araki’s
ability to simply present us with a personal diary, a record of events and
personal moments so expressive of so many different themes; love, loss, passion,
happiness, fear, sadness, longing, death, mourning, acceptance, celebration and
isolation, while sequencing the pictures into a cohesive and structured narrative.

Still to this day I have never seen a translation of the text in Sentimental
Journey/Winter Journey, and I’m not really sure that I want to. Perhaps not
knowing the entire story is part of the reason that I find this book so invigorating
and emotionally moving. More recently I have been pondering the landscapes
made by Araki that appear immediately after Yoko’s death (a photograph shows
the two holding hands followed by a gurney being pushed down a hospital
corridor, presumably carrying Yoko’s body). I come back to these landscapes
over and over again, visualising a man who has just lost his wife, driving away
from the hospital and photographing from the window of his car, questioning
everything, absolutely everything that surrounds him, and doing it though
photography. The photographs say nothing but they reveal everything.

Metaphors abound in Araki’s inclusion of his cat Chiro towards the end of the
book, and through these pictures, I sense that Araki is starting to accept the loss
of his wife and is saying his final goodbye to Yoko. If you read it like I first did,
starting from the end (and as I still prefer to do) and work back to the picture of
Araki and Yoko on their wedding day, the photographs of Chiro indeed mark the
start of a very personal and sentimental winter journey, one that stands out as
my favourite photography book to date.

– Sean Davey

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