Meg Hewitt is one of Australia’s leading contemporary photographers, renowned for her series Tokyo is Yours, which was published as a photobook in 2017. She is running a 5-Day workshop in Tokyo from March 28th-April 1st, 2019.
You can follow Meg’s work here:
Hi Meg, thank you very much for joining us! Could you start off by introducing yourself to the readers and telling us a bit about your work?
Thanks! I’m from Sydney, Australia, I was born in the ‘70s so I still remember a time when you could drink on the beach and go out dancing until 6 am. I went to art school in the ‘90s to study painting and sculpture it was a great way to develop the capacity to see and explore possibilities of interpretation. I didn’t stick with it as a medium but the general processes I developed remain with me. I only discovered photography in 2010 and I fell in love deeply, I quickly learnt everything I could about the technical craft of making photos, shooting, developing, editing, printing, and then put that aside to work intuitively.
What first drew you to photography?
With painting I could not successfully express the magic I observed in reality. Moments of synchronicity unfold in front of me and the first thing I do now is reach for my camera. I also love black and white, I love the textures and contrast, dodging and burning to expose the details in an image is so exciting
Your photos are visually striking and you get close to your subjects. When you are walking around, with camera in hand, what thoughts generally are going through your mind? Do you seek interaction from the subject?
Yes I thrive on interaction, I like to get in the zone and really participate in what is unfolding in front of me. Not just shapes and textures but narrative. I wander the streets with curiosity and wait for something or someone to speak to me visually and then I interact with it or them until I feel I have captured what fascinated me in the first place. I remain open to whatever comes up through the process. It’s a bit like interpretive dance. There is nothing going through my mind in particular, but I do thrive on the fear of not capturing what I see. It pushes me to work hard, I work with what is in front of me until I am completely exhausted, I never assume I have already made the best frame. If you do that you limit yourself.
“I thrive on interaction, I like to get in the zone and really participate in what is unfolding in front of me. Not just shapes and textures but narrative. I wander the streets with curiosity and wait for something or someone to speak to me visually…”
Do you have a clear idea, project or body of work in mind before you begin photographing in a new place? How did the idea to photograph in Tokyo and - more recently - New Orleans come about?
I wanted to photograph in Tokyo as I was struck by its proximity to the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, it is only 262km from the nuclear reactor which is closer than Sydney is to Seal Rocks. I wanted to know if you could feel what had happened in Tokyo and how it had affected the people there. This was the idea but I remained open to what I would find.
More recently I was invited to New Orleans for a residency. America fascinates me it feels so dangerous compared to Japan. I only spent a few weeks there, I want to go back and work more on a series based in New Orleans or even America as a whole.
You undertook an internship with Magnum photographer Jacob Aue Sobol, how did you find it? What did you learn from Sobol?
Yes, I assisted Jacob in his studio in Copenhagen in 2016/17. He is a very complex person, recently he revealed in an article that he suffers from a variety of mental health issues and there were a lot of ups and downs. He doesn’t believe in luck only in hard work, he expects a lot of people and is often let down by them or even by himself. Even if you are a Magnum photographer it is hard to get by on print sales and Jacob rarely does assignments. He is great with social media and selling books/ posters. I learnt a lot about editing and sequencing he is very particular about it and can be quite harsh. I think I am harder on myself now, I imagine that I am going to show my work to somebody really critical and it helps me to cut out the flack.
Can you tell us a bit about your project Tokyo is Yours and what it’s like shooting street in Tokyo?
Tokyo is amazing. The city is a labyrinth, there are so many layers to it. You look at a grey office building and then if you take the time to explore its layers you will find pedestrian tunnels and tudor-style coffee shops in the basement, sure some offices, then maybe a country and western bar with a log cabin interior on the 5th floor or a sleeping space with pulsating, coloured walls on the ninth and guy with a 10,000 piece record collection on the roof. It is nuts. The people are so friendly they are really passionate about whatever it is they are into, they give it their all. The culture can come across as conservative and polite but they really like to let their hair down too. One whiff of alcohol gives them permission to let loose. They have a great culture of bars, there are a million different bars some which only fit five or six people. Once inside one of these you are forced to interact with everybody, you walk out with five new friends.
How did you find the process of turning a body of work in Tokyo is Yours into a photobook? Can you tell us more about the concept, edit, and design processes? What are the biggest challenges in creating a photobook?
I decided I wanted to make a photobook after my first trip to Tokyo. I had a dream to make a graphic novel like a manga. I looked at a lot of books to decide on the format I wanted and then started to work towards that. I wanted the design to be full bleed and the printing to be tritone to really give a good quality to the blacks. When you are making work towards a book you become more conscious of the orientation of your images. You might start to look for details that enhance the other images in the editing. You are also very conscious of the middle of a horizontal image as that’s where the gutter will be when printing full bleed.
Sometimes you need to leave some good images out because they just don’t work in the flow of the edit. You also worry if any body is going to buy it. It is a big investment to print a book, you want to make sure that it is not just your friends and family that are interested and that your subject has reach beyond your own borders.
When you self publish you need to commit time to marketing and distribution, you are a one man band.
You are hosting a 5 day, all inclusive workshop in Tokyo in March, could you tell us about what it focuses on and what you hope students will get out of it? What kind of teacher are you?
Yes once a year I run a workshop in the Tokyo Spring. Japan is magic in Spring; the light is good, the temperature is mild and the city blooms like the cherry blossom. As a bonus, food and drink is cheaper than Australia and their public transport system is amazing.
I really encourage participants to make a series of images that work together and I push people to work hard. Everyday I focus on each participant’s individual needs. I want people to go beyond just good street snaps and people in markets kind of stuff. Sure, a good photo is partly about composition, but it needs to make me want to look again, I need to question it, engage with it, it should tell me a story.
I ask you what you want to see in Tokyo and offer advice on how to find it quickly and get to the essence of it. Tokyo is large, multilayered and with the language barrier it can be hard to penetrate quickly. Given that I have been there so many times I can help you get there quicker. On the first morning we do a group review of everybody's portfolio prior to the workshop. We do a night together where I show you some of the quirkier sides of Japanese life and introduce you to the haunts of the Japanese photographic community. I also spend time on the street alongside participants one-on-one if they have challenges they want to address. My favorite thing is witnessing how much people can grow in a week.
“I want people to go beyond just good street snaps . . . a good photo is partly about composition, but it needs to make me want to look again, I need to question it, engage with it, it should tell me a story.”
This year the workshop includes Japanese style accommodation. We all share the same house for five days so I am available to the participants 24hrs a day. At the end of the workshop we make a presentation of the images (and have a small party) Obviously when you get home you can share your slideshow with others and add it to your portfolio. You also leave with a bunch of new best friends.
What is your favourite photo of yours right now and why?
I made a photo in New Orleans recently that I call Saints and Sinners. It is the exterior of a bar on Bourbon street. When I stumbled across the scene the people looked like they were in a stage play it felt perfectly choreographed like they were all told to be a certain way in a particular spot. I remember the feeling I had when capturing the frame, I live for that feeling when you squeeze the shutter release and you just know.