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Photographer reviews our small, small world

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  • Honjo's tilt-shift photography gives aerial views of familiar places a toylike effect
  • "The sense of fakeness is what makes people wonder whether it's real or not"
  • "I use photography as a way to feel reality, for example by shooting cities"
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By Cherise Fong
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Japanese photographer Naoki Honjo is known for his cute representations of familiar places, shot to look like miniature models of the real thing. He achieves this effect by using the tilt-shift technique, which creates a very narrow line of focus. As he writes in the afterword of his book "Small Planet" published in 2006: "Small changes in point of view can lead to big changes of consciousness. I think this is the role of photography."


Japanese photographer Naoki Honjo uses the tilt-shift technique to create miniature representations of reality.

We spoke to the 30-year-old artist during his recent visit to Hong Kong.

How did you come to discover tilt-shift photography?

In 2002 I started to use a traditional 4x5 camera, at first taking straightforward photographs while experimenting with various techniques. I began to use the tilt-shift technique to tilt the focus on a narrow line, with the rest of the picture blurred. That's when I discovered that it created a "toy-like" effect.

The first place I photographed using this technique was a green waterfront, an artificial area in Tokyo on the way to Haneda airport. As I shot the photo from above on the bridge, I thought the people, the texture of the water felt unreal, like a toy. At first I didn't know why it looked that way. Then I developed the photos and explored how to make them look more miniature.

How do you determine where to place the camera?

There are two methods. Ideally I fly in a helicopter, where it's easier to find the angle. I can go as high as I want, all I have to do is ask the pilot. Otherwise when I'm scouting out a new place, I walk around looking for a flat surface and an interesting spot. I locate the tall buildings nearby, and then I approach the building and ask if I can take a photo from the rooftop.

How does your relationship with a place change after the shoot?

I guess I do feel a bit closer, as I really scrutinize the place when I'm shooting, so it's stuck in my memory. In general you don't see like that with your own eyes, all in one line of focus. So when I shoot I discover things I didn't see before, and it amazes me. I just want to share that with people.

What kind of settings do you look at for a shoot?

My initial interest was in cities, so I like to photograph urban areas most. For example I was in Miami, Florida, at the end of last year. It was fascinating from an artistic point of view, because you could see exactly how the city was being developed from the beginning, step by step. Miami's urbanized areas are artificially developed to a great extent. The new areas are already marked with a big square, so you can see exactly where they'll do the same thing next.

Is there any place that you dream of photographing, but can't?

There are so many. For example I imagine shooting the Beijing Olympics would be very interesting, but very difficult. Or I would love to photograph the military during wartime, but that would be almost impossible. Or people in North Korea, as they're so systematic, always making lines. I'm curious about these places, but I know it's difficult.

How do you tackle portraits?

Occasionally I'm asked to do portraits of people, like celebrities. Sometimes I don't even know who they are, but I just want to make them happy. I know they want to be in my world, so I choose locations that I like personally, cute, pretty places, and I place them in my world.

In general, are the people in your photographs part of a fictional world?

Not at all. People have commented that the photos look like a fiction, but actually I feel they emphasize reality more. Their fake appearance makes people concentrate on a limited focused area, so in a way brings them closer to reality.

It looks like fiction, but it's not fiction. It looks fake, but it's real. The scene is real. If you take a straightforward photograph of reality, people won't care. The sense of fakeness is precisely what makes people wonder whether it's real or not. And the answer is: real.

What is your personal relationship with your own everyday surroundings?

Living in a city, everything is given to you. Ready-made products are all around you. Especially in Japan, which has no natural resources, but where you can get everything. With such a variety of goods, you forget that you're living in Tokyo, that all these things are not from Japan. Why do I accept this so naturally?

That's why I like to photograph containers. I'm trying to find the answer to where did all this stuff come from? I'm also interested in shooting natural resources, like places where they mine coal. This is how I question my daily life and connect it to my art.


Do you worry about the environment?

In general, yes, it's something we all need to think about. Losing nature is not good, but there is only so much we can do at an individual level. More importantly, I want to understand what's going on. What scares me is how much I accept, without knowing what's really going on. I use photography as a way to feel reality, for example by shooting cities. In the beginning there was no city. Photographing the city is my way of expressing what is really going on.

Naoki Honjo's "Small Planet" is showing at Harbour City's Gallery by the Harbour in Hong Kong until May 18

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