“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”
– Ansel Adams “A Personal Credo” (1943)
For all intents and purposes, Kai has no life.
As the sole owner of a small, 50-year-old photo studio and print shop (which he inherited from his late father), his is a life of simple function: he takes photos; he edits photos; he prints photos. This can range from one man (Inomata Toshiaki) asking for a quick blow-up portrait to a woman (Koinuma Toki) requesting extensive touch-ups for her match-making photo. Kai then heads home, feeds his pet mantis, and eats a frozen pizza. The next day is expected to be the same.
He has no life. He appears to have no voice. Hell, his name isn’t even uttered during the entire running time of the film.
A lifelong shutterbug himself, he’s taking shots in the woods when he happens upon a woman above him fell into – yes, into – a tree. Her name is Kyoko (Otaki Itsuki). She’s a social media influencer who fell into the tree from the hill above as she was taking a staged shoot in a yoga pose. The fall leaves a large, noticeable gash across her chest. Fortunately, Kai’s editorial skills make them disappear.
This may just be me, when I thought of this social media influencer getting stuck in a tree, I couldn’t help but think of how they’re really low-hanging fruit for any contemporary commentary. True, their aesthetic is artificial and they’re essentially getting paid for merely existing, but they’re still human beings with lives away from the camera. It’s easier to punch down at them than it is to take well-deserved shots at the Ben Shapiros, Alex Jonseses, and Candace Owenses of the world who do real evil. That doesn’t mean influencers are inherently good people, but being influencers doesn’t make them lacking in good.
Soon after helping Kyoko, she winds up staying at his tiny place. No other friends or family of hers are ever seen or mentioned she cooks meals for he and his only guest – the aforementioned portrait man – has him take and edit photos for her feed. He goes along with this pretty easily. She’s very accepting of their one-sided conversations.
Probably because she initially sees him as everyone else does: as a vessel for her photos. With his help, her photos take on a more noticeable, non-selfie polish, but she actually winds up losing Likes and sponsors. One sponsor tells her that she has to be what her followers want, not her true self.
And what is one’s “true self”? Photo manipulation has existed nearly as long as the medium itself, so what makes Kai’s digital editing tools any different than his father’s literal airbrush? How can a photo be derided as artificial when photography itself is an illusion? Kyoko watches as Kai edits and re-edits the match-making woman’s headshot, as she’s never satisfied with the result. When Kyoko asks why she doesn’t just use an untouched photo to find a partner, the woman tells her, “We love ourselves only through each other’s eyes.”
Mind you, I’m not advocating for unregulated manipulation, nor am I trying to feign ignorance of the harm done by manipulated photos. I’m merely acknowledging the fact that all photos – like all stories – are manipulated, even in the most subtle of ways.
Kyoko eventually regains followers by posting an unedited photo with her scar, but she fears that this new-found appreciation of her “true” self may be part of a need from her fans to see her damaged before she could be appreciated. And that’s before she runs into problems with the TOS bots who flag her photo. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
And during all this, Kai seems to slowly understand his role in the life of someone whose life is their stock and trade. Whereas he sees other clients a short time before they walk out his door, Kyoko’s residency in his home allows Kai to witness the positive and negative repercussions of his work when it’s out of his hands.
I appreciate the film as the story of two disparate souls who had no reason to meet, but did. I would have appreciated it more had we learned more about who Kyoko is. We know that she’s a ballerina who’s performed to large audiences. How that evolved into social media becoming her only apparent source of income is unknown, but I think it would have added to the story.
With fine direction, natural performances, and stunning cinematography – because a film about photos had better capture well on the lens – Woman of the Photographs is a fine character study about human interaction via a form of technology more-than-a-century-old. A bit more character work would have made it perfect, but – at the risk of making a bad pun – the image as a whole developed nicely.
Woman of the Photographs is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 1 hour 29 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.