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A little inside info: we were going to include Gary McLeod’s work in last month’s Art Issue. Ultimately we decided that, because of its significance and because of the sheer amount of planning and thought that has gone into it, Gary’s work deserved to be looked at separately and on its own terms. So here it is: a perusal of a few of the 57 (and counting) teachers of English who have posed for this photographer’s unique shoots, and a natter with the inspired artist behind this project. To learn more, I asked Gary McLeod "Why? How? Where? And did you know that Japanzine loves English teachers really, in spite of the strategically-positioned jibes?"

JZ: How did you come up with the concept for this project?

Gary McLeod: I have been working from Victorian photographs of the Japanese landscape for the past few years and had spent a fair amount of time revisiting and documenting them as they are today. Many photographs of native peoples were also taken but instead of collecting modern images of native people, I wanted to turn the Victorian gaze away from them and archive the people that also inhabit Japan, albeit temporarily: English Teachers. As an artist, my work has always explored my position between places, and having come here as an English teacher myself in 2003, I felt there were parallels to be drawn between artists and transient workers. A sentiment echoed in 1990 by the philosopher Vilém Flusser when he wrote “The nomad who emerges from the Nineties will more likely be an artist than a hunter or herdsman”, which is perhaps why we find so many teachers with creative or cultural backgrounds.

JZ: You’re using very old technology together with modern equipment: what kind of results have you been able to achieve using this method, and what was the motivation behind it?

GM: I use an 1878 wide-angle British lens, which was made in the Victorian era where the world was viewed differently. It’s all fine and well using new lenses with new cameras, but I think there is something to be learned from looking at the modern world with ‘old eyes’. I could have used the original wet-plate process with the lens (which would have taken about 20-25 minutes), but that would have been too nostalgic. I wanted to interpret the old view with a modern brain, which prompted me to use a digital SLR. The consequence of this combination was that the digital SLR didn’t receive as much information as the lens could see, meaning that in order to see what the lens could in its entirety, the digital SLR had to be moved around the lens and about 300 separate pictures had to be taken and later pieced back together, producing a fragmented result. Ironically, the process still took about 20-25 minutes to take, but I like how it introduces time back into digital photography, which is, quite frankly, too quick these days. We are rather ‘time-poor’.

JZ: I imagine there’s a lot of post-production work, too, then…

GM: Each photo shoot has taken around 45 minutes on average, including the front and profile views and the accompanying interview. In addition to that, the pieces of the pictures have to be built back together again, which can take anywhere between four or six hours. Having so far photographed 57 teachers twice (for the front and profile views), that’s about 114 hours of shooting and 570 hours of processing. There are also more volunteers to photograph over the coming months in Kagoshima, Nagoya, and Hokkaido. 

JZ: It’s fair to say that you’ve covered a broad spread of English teachers so far, photographing teachers from many different parts of the world. Is that in part to show that English is a global language? What are the other motivating factors?

GM: After placing an advertisement on Facebook, a large number of people volunteered, and the project so far shows a large variety of people from different countries as well as ethnic backgrounds. Obviously it shows that English is such a global language, but I like to think that it also shows how diverse in background English teachers are becoming. It shows that Japan is very much part of a large network of cultures from which it would be hard to remove itself. It also shows a variety of approaches to teaching, some schools preferring their teachers to be dressed more casually and others more formally. Interestingly enough, some people even volunteered because they felt they were not considered typical English teachers. All in all though, they all have an ability to speak English – which most would agree is the reason why they were hired.

JZ: What types of response have you had from the teachers you’ve photographed? Have their students also seen the photos?

GM: One volunteer likened the process to being pinned, as you would when collecting butterflies, which I thought was certainly Victorian in essence. Also, taking a photograph could arguably be thought of as a violent act (hence the use of the word “shooting”), but some stated that this process was more akin to being scanned or even cleansed. At times, for me, the process feels a little like a doctor talking to patients. Needless to say, I too have learnt a great deal from the people that I have spoken to. Everyone is interesting in some way or another. As for students seeing the photos, I haven’t had any such feedback yet, but I might well do when the exhibitions happen.

JZ: You’re planning to exhibit the photos this September – do you expect other teachers to come out and see the photos, or are you aiming more for a local Japanese audience?

GM: The photos will be exhibited in Tokyo in September and in Osaka in July as installations, which will show the entire collection of images. I wouldn’t want to give too much away as that might spoil the surprise, but I am planning to have students of the English language read out quotes from the teachers as a soundtrack to the whole thing. Word about the project is spreading around the foreign community, and showing in Japanese art spaces will introduce the project to a Japanese audience. The Natural History Museum in London (where some of my previous works are also held) have agreed to accept the photographs as part of their Anthropology collection, too, and I am keen to introduce this project to an audience outside Japan. All in all, this collection of photographs wouldn’t be what it is without those taking part and I feel honored to have met and talked with each of them.

Aside from visiting the upcoming exhibitions in Tokyo and Osaka (look out for more info soon), you can also keep up with the progress of ‘Privilege’ via Gary McLeod’s website.