Pascal Vossen is a 31 year-old Dutch photographer currently based in Uppsala, Sweden. With his latest series The Nail That Sticks Up Will Be Hammered Down, Pascal explores the transformation of contemporary Japan, where individualism is creeping in in a conservative society traditionally orientated towards the collective good.
Hello Pascal, thank you for this interview. What are your main interests as a photographer?
Thank you! Photography is a way for me to understand myself better through other people and their experiences. I can say that I am predominantly a people photographer with a particular interest in the relationship between humans and their environment.
I was raised in a conservative and quite protective family; for me photography is like a fresh start, it gives me the opportunity to walk into any new situation and have a chance to blend in, taste a different reality.
What is your latest work The Nail that Sticks Up Will Be Hammered Down about?
It is about the paradox between individualism and collectivism in what is left of Japan’s conservative society.
Young Japanese are increasingly aware that times have changed and demand more space for self-development and individuality. One of the origins of this trend is the bubble asset crises of the late 1980s / early 1990s, which put an end to the traditional lifetime employment contracts and, with it, financial security for many young people. It brought forward the desire to work on a more flexible basis and a shift in lifestyle, one where individual well-being is more important than that of the collective population. Both men and women increasingly deviate from their conservative preset roles, a change that has led to the declining importance of the traditional family, falling birth rates and the increased popularity of pop cultures.
The irony is that strong individualism is only made possible through strong collectivism, sparking its development. It is this intense feeling of having to fit in that has made it necessary for the young Japanese today to ‘stand out’, wanting to find an alternative way of being.
What exactly does the title The Nail that Sticks Up Will Be Hammered Down mean?
It is a Japanese saying that depicts the rejection of individualism by the conservative and collectivist part of Japanese society. Older generations of Japanese in particular see the growth of individualism as a selfish and weak development.
How long have you stayed in Japan to work on this series?
I stayed in Tokyo for two months during the summer of 2014.
Can you share some insight into your approach to the subject matter, both in terms of imagery and aesthetics?
As you might see from the images I didn’t intend to make a conventional documentary series. I often searched for the bizarre and maybe even uncanny in a situation, trying to show the unfamiliar in the Japan as we currently know it. The thing that came to mind when deciding on the aesthetics of the images was to sometimes use hard and direct flash as a sort of shock treatment against the confusion caused by the paradox.
Is there any image in The Nail that Sticks Up Will Be Hammered Down that you deem particularly significant for the work?
That would be the image of the two girls in their school uniforms. It tells a lot about the current state of Japanese society and the confusion it causes among the younger generation.
The image was taken on a Sunday afternoon at Harajuku, Tokyo, the epicenter of Japanese youth culture. The girls told me that they wear their uniform because Japanese men like them, and they wear it in a non-conforming way, incomplete and with rolled up sleeves and a loosely buttoned shirt. Arguably, you could say that it is a more individualistic approach to a rather conservative tradition.
I also liked the way they choose to present themselves in the picture; tied together by friendship and a tradition, but also different, with the girl on the right giving away an intense, but almost uncomfortable gaze towards the camera.
What impresses you most, both positively and negatively, of contemporary Japanese society?
Their ability to turn every Western dish into a better version of itself – even Belgian waffles tasted better in Tokyo! No, seriously, what impressed me the most was the amount of respect people have for each other. It is in my eyes the best out of many great things in Japan and a product of their rich and collectivist culture and ideal. It makes for a safe, comfortable and dignified society.
This is also indirectly the problem with (contemporary) Japanese society. It allows for things to be unsolved, suppressed or denied out of fear for the loss of face, fear for shame. Another thing I believe to be negative is the fact the Japan is still predominantly a homogeneous society, where immigration is often looked upon negatively. But then again, maybe the positive aspects are a product of the negative ones or the other way around.
Tell us the story of this photo.
This photograph was taken in the middle of the night inside the Capsule Hotel Shinjuku in Tokyo. One of the guests has left the curtain of his sleeping capsule open and his feet are exposed to the corridor light.
This capsule hotel is very popular among the Japanese businessmen who decide to end their day at the nearby pleasure and entertainment district Kabukichō, or have maybe just missed the last train home from work. I checked into the hotel because I wanted to try sleeping in a capsule, a seemingly claustrophobic experience, but mainly my intention was to look for an image describing the feeling surrounding the place.
Now you choose a photograph from The Nail that Sticks Up Will Be Hammered Down and share with us something we can’t see in the picture.
This image was taken inside a karaoke bar in Tokyo’s Golden Gai district. For me the colored horses symbolize the individuality or growing diversity of individuals in their society. After I shot the image I joined the two drunk businessmen at the bar for beers and western pop songs, great night!
Mention the skill that you think is fundamental to have for a photographer.
You need to be curious and willing to step out of your comfort zone, and not afraid of rejection when you’re trying to get the picture you want. Other than that I think patience and the ability to listen to people is very important.
If you could change or improve one thing about the photography industry, what would it be?
I would like to see a more original and artistic approach to commercial photography; at the moment it is often too superficial and boring. A photographer that does a great job at making e.g. fashion photography interesting in my opinion is Viviane Sassen.
Think of the last time you saw something and you couldn’t resist taking a picture – what did you see?
When I stepped out of the plane at Arlanda Airport, Sweden I saw a massive flock of birds flying over some planes and parts of the runway. Together with the evening light and clouds it would have made for a nice photo but I didn’t have my camera ready and my Iphone battery was dry, like it always is around that time of the day.
Do you have any other passion besides photography?
I love tasty food, wine and great company. It’s not very original but an essential part of my everyday life.
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