Kayo Ume

Life Cycle

Kayo Ume’s street photography is a hit in her native Japan, where her first book – 2006’s Ume-me – sold over 130,000 copies. What makes her work so popular is arguably its sense of fun: it captures those split-seconds of absurdity and contradiction that make up the fabric of everybody’s daily life, if only they noticed. ‘Every moment,’ she explains, ‘from the time I wake up in the morning to the time I go to bed at night, is a photo opportunity’. The necessary speed of her point-and-shoot approach means that there are no second chances: they might not always be painstakingly composed, but her pictures are vibrant, immediate and honest.

Although her work often provokes laughter, Kayo herself says she doesn’t seek out scenes that strike her as funny so much as ‘startling’. 

The photographs are often amusing but never mocking: they are a celebration of the unique quirkiness of human beings. ‘Our world wouldn’t be what it is without everyone,’ Kayo said in an interview with Time Out Tokyo. ‘It’s thanks to everyone.’

Kayo’s role as photographer isn’t entirely voyeuristic either. The pictures here provide an intimate life-cycle, from eagerly performing schoolboys to her beloved grandfather, who died while we were organising this feature. He is the subject of her project Jiichan-Sama (Long Live Grandpa) which she began in her teens: ‘As long as I’m photographing [him],’ she thought, ‘he won’t die.’ These images, an homage to him, are full of typical Kayo Ume humour and absurdity. They are also a little melancholy, as they plot the passage of life from boyhood to manhood to death.

Your massively successful book Ume-me, sold over 100.000 copies in Japan. That is pretty much unheard-of in the west for a photo book. Why do you think that is? Why was that book so successful and why doesn’t that happen in Europe or the States?

It was published at the right time and at the right price. It was an easy book to buy, a book of funny photographs under 2,000 yen (15 euros).

Do you only work in a snapshot mode ? Do you ever stage your work?

I always set my camera at P mode. They say P stands for “programme” but I call it “professional mode”. I sometimes ask my subjects what to do when I shoot for magazines.

Accidents in everyday life are often present in your work, what are they trying to tell us?

I enjoy accidents in everyday life. They are funny and scary at the same time.

How much is your practice based on “capturing the odd moment” and how much is you going how to see a certain subject matter?

Even without my camera, without thinking, I stare at people. I have always been looking for funny moments.

You seem to photograph many young kids in your work. They are vulnerable elements of our society…but also the cutest. What is your interest?

I really like what they say and what they do. They are excessively self-conscious, and that is funny. I think it is their vulnerability that makes them self-conscious.

In the series Danshi, you collaborate with a group of elementary school boys. We love this series. Can you tell us more about it and how this collaboration happened?

This can happen only in Osaka. I used to see them often on their way home from school. They did funny things when I tried to photograph them. I had always respected school boys because they are so funny and stupid. I was 18 or 19 at that time, older than them but younger than their teachers. They must have thought I was strange as well.

Now that you are no longer a teenager do you still feel a connection with the young subjects that you once photographed?

Those boys and girls now have their own children. I feel like a grandmother.

There are some images of your family, specifically of your grandfather with babies. Who is this new addition to your family?

That is my sister’s baby you saw in my work. My niece is not just a baby. She is my family like my grandfather, and I have a special feeling when I photograph her. I started shooting children more than 10 years ago, children meant primary school pupils for me. But now I am 33 years old, and now even university students are young enough to be children to my eyes. I am getting old.

People are constantly taking photographs or videos with their smart phones. What do you think of contemporary photography in the context of the digital age?

It is good and fun. There are so many photographs in the world now. People take photographs but they don’t probably even look at all of them, I guess. Sad thing is that you don’t have bad photographs any more, like photographs of a bad moment with bad hair style or photographs of when eyes are half closed. Those bad and funny images are deleted at once. Sad!

Humour is always important, but not only for Japan. It saves the world.

Long Live Grandpa!, published in 2008, is an ode to your grandfather. How important has he been in your life and development?

I started taking his photographs wishing him to live forever. I just could not accept the idea of him dying one day. Now he is 98 years old. Grandmother has passed away, and grandfather has lived a good life. Now I understand that he has to go sooner or later. It is good for him.

Grandfather also supported my career as a photographer when I started. He was my patron as well as my model.

What are you currently working on ? What new subject matter are you photographing? And what projects/plan you have for the future?

I just keep taking photographs.