The vibrant colors of Charles Fréger’s work caught my eye a few weeks ago as I walked up rue de la République, one of the main streets of Arles, a sunny city in the South of France. Inside the 17th Eglise des Trinitaires, striking portraits of human monsters big and small contrasted with the solemn, vaulted church ceiling. The photographer’s exhibition “Yokainoshima” is a highlight of this year’s Rencontres d’Arles festival, which celebrates the best of contemporary photography. And that’s exactly what draws you into Fréger’s documentation of ritual Japanese figures: just how contemporary tradition can be.
Roads & Kingdoms: Hi Charles, where are you calling from?
Charles Fréger: I’m in Rouen, I just came back from India yesterday. I was in Delhi working in schools on the idea of school transportation. In neighborhoods like Chandni Chowk, where you can’t navigate by car because roads are so narrow, people use school rickshaws to transport children. I was looking into the communities of Delhi through that lens. It’s a sort of portrait of India and its social classes, which are growing further apart.
R&K: How do you usually prepare for these projects? Do you have a team on location?
Fréger: Yes, I went with an assistant and I had three Indian assistants on location that had organized meetings with schools and that helped me contact certain groups. The preparation for each trip is much longer than the shooting time. We need to find the subjects but also the place, and then contact them and create a schedule, which takes time. I’m always preparing many projects at the same time, five or six trips that might or might not work out.
Kusotare: Ogawaji, Uozu, Toyama Prefecture.
R&K: How much time did you spend on the project Yokainoshima?
Fréger: Not very long, I took five trips in two years. The book is called Yokainoshima, which means the island of yokai. A yokai is a creature that is strictly Japanese and that can be a monster, a ghost, even an object, and that shows up on Earth to poison people’s daily lives. It’s very complex, because some yokai are also divinities. The Namahage is a yokai, and also a god that descended from the mountains to bring a message and to scare children. The oni are demons. They are also gods. All of this is a question of how you consider each creature, how they are embodied, and what the context of the celebration is. “Yokainoshima” is not a real island. I came up with that title because throughout the project I always thought about being on an imaginary territory. We visited 20 islands, and we didn’t know what we would find on each. In a way, it’s the story of Japan. We see how figures and traditions that come from far away have migrated, how they’ve transformed, or how they created themselves on their own. There are things that resemble what you would find in Cambodia, in Korea, in China, but there are also things that resemble European masquerades. So it’s all very complicated.
R&K: You specifically looked at Europe’s winter traditions in your book Wilder Mann. Were you looking for the same types of celebrations in Japan?
Fréger: In Yokainoshima, I look at all the seasons. At first I started working on one tradition that had a strong resemblance to what I had photographed for Wilder Mann: the Namahage. That was my first trip, but when I decided to continue this project, I actually started with the summer. We are not in the same mindset of what I found in Europe—carnivals and masquerades. Japan’s traditions accompany the inhabitants of a town or of an island throughout the rhythms of life and of nature, and also remind them of their responsibilities towards the community. There is an educative element to them.