28 June 2017

Retracing the Transformation of Japanese Society

28 June 2017 - Written by Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Giada Ripa uses found 19th century documentation of Japan and her own contemporary work to convey how the country's society and landscapes have changed over the last 150 years.

© Giada Ripa, from the series, The Yokohama Project 1867-2016

Two accidental discoveries at a family house, namely an album of photographs by Felice Beato and the unpublished manuscripts of her ancestor, Mathilde Ruinart led Giada Ripa on a journey through time. She followed in their footsteps and retraced the transformation of Japan over 150 years. The result is The Yokohama Project.

Can you explain the thoughts behind dividing The Yokohama Project 1867-2016 into two chapters?

During the 19th century a common approach documentary photographers had was to create albums that would include views and portraits describing the actual culture and society of the country and territory they would visit. For instance, Felice Beato had this approach while in Japan, where he photographed for over 15 years.

Essentially, I have followed the same photographic, topographic and sociological approach as Beato and Mathilde Ruinart. Based on their explorations, I divided my project into two chapters: Chapter I - Views of Japan, which is dedicated to retracing the footsteps of both Beato and my ancestor, Ruinart in the inner Sea of Japan. Here, the focus is mainly on the views of Japan based on their narrative and visual accounts. Chapter II - Portraits of Contemporary Japan was shot 6 months later with a team of wonderful Japanese people and myself. Through my vision of the project, we cast around 50 locals from different professional backgrounds such as postmen, song writers, tattoo designers, and priests. Some of the selection was based on the portraits Beato had in his album.

© Giada Ripa, from the series, The Yokohama Project 1867-2016

In retracing Mathilde Ruinart and Felice Beato, you have re-envisioned Japan through your own gaze and contemporary understandings of the country. How much influence did their documentation have on how you approached your work?

The finding of Beato's album and the consequent finding of the unedited manuscript of Ruinart was the real point of departure for my project. I’ve worked for an entire year on both of their archives, putting the puzzle together. Once I had completed my research on Beato and Mathilde’s journey - by reading all her journals and correspondence - I was then able to elaborate my photographic approach and initiate the work based on facts, text, and dates.

I would have never initiated anything if it had not been for the curiosity that emanated from the finding of these wonderful narrating testimonies. I am most grateful that some members of the family have cherished these archives over time.

The project includes self-portraits in different parts of Japan, captured as a tribute to Mathilde Ruinart. How was your experience including the self within the story?

Since 2000, I have been roaming the world, using its topographies as a backdrop for my examinations of personal dislocation in both public and private spaces. A great deal of my artistic and documentary practices have focused mainly on Asia. I concentrated on the analysis of space as a means for exploring personal identity, and I have developed a body of work characterised by introspection and experimentation.

In my documentary projects, I often work on two fronts. One close to the general knowledge we have of documentary work; photographing places and communities. And second on a more personal level, often using remote landscapes and territories that have a long story to tell - they form a backdrop for my brief performances during which I confront myself with foreign and distant places loaded with cultural, historical, and geopolitical implications.

I have applied this practice within The Yokohama Project by re-enacting the presence of Ruinart 150 years later across many places she travelled to, based on her accounts in Voyage au Japon. I call these images a “tribute to Mathilde Ruinart”, as it is my own way of creating a solid bond not only between her and our respective journeys, but mostly between the territory in constant change and us. These images record instances of uprooting and of precariousness with a language that is direct in appearance only, respectful of the places yet permeated by a subtle sense of ambiguity; born from awareness of the transitory nature of one’s own presence.

© Giada Ripa, from the series, The Yokohama Project 1867-2016

How did you create the photographic dialogue between the archival material and your documentation in Japan?

When I first found the photographs, I soon confirmed that we had a small treasure in the house. At the time, I was in no condition to travel to Japan and explore Beato's journey for myself. Yet, I started to question how this story had come to our house and what was the connection between Japan in the 19th century and my Italian ancestors.

In the meantime, I focused on research and started to trace the connection between Beato and Ruinart. I knew very little about her and was aware only that she was an incredible painter, since we have one of her paintings depicting her daughter (born in Japan) in the house. I soon found out about her incredible story that took her all the way to Japan in 1867. At that point, I decided to go on a journey and find who, among her descendants, had traces of her stay in Japan. For almost a year I visited family members and rummaged through their archives. Some of them had original correspondence, others photographs, objects, and furniture from her days in Japan.

Would you say that through your project you are revealing unseen aspects of Japanese society today?

No, absolutely not. I think there are unseen aspects revealed everywhere around us. But that was not my aim. What I intended to do in this project was to retrace the footsteps of some of the first European travellers in Japan: one who was the first visual narrator and brought to the old continent the first imagery of Japanese society, and the second my ancestor, Mathilde Ruinart.

Ruinart, as the wife of a diplomat, was able to travel while in Japan. The Italians were sent to Japan mainly to bring back silk worms. The textile industry was very strong in Italy in the 19th century, yet a terrible disease had spread and killed most of the local silk worms and rumours revealed that silk worms from Japan were the strongest. Consequently, I wanted to revisit all the territories based on their accounts, and needed to feel the urban, historical and environmental changes. I was aiming to pay tribute to their work efforts and their relationships to the land and society, by attempting to convey my own perception of Japan today.

© Giada Ripa, from the series, The Yokohama Project 1867-2016

The project also has a video, which very much resembles the sense of a contemporary journey across Japan. Can you expand on the intention of the video in the project?

So far, we have created several objects and small publications and a video around the project that have been installed in our exhibitions. The video, inspired mainly by Ruinart’s journey, has been shot while photographing Chapter I throughout the inner Sea of Japan in the summer of 2015. The video is an important part of the project, as it conveys the mood of my own journey in parallel to Ruinart’s exploration. In addition to my own experience, I also collaborated with composer and cellist, Julia Kent, who through her musical art, immerses the viewer in this Oriental journey.

However, there is still a lot of work yet to be produced around The Yokohama Project. I am currently working toward a short film that will be shot (if we find the funds) in the property where the album was found through the narration of Ruinart, thus blurring the lines between what is contemporary and what belongs to the 1860's account of Japan.

You recently exhibited the project in Japan. How was it received?

We have officially launched the project in Japan and so we were invited by the International Festival of Kyotographie to exhibit there. The installation consisted of a discourse between Beato, Ruinart, and myself. The images are reproduced in large scale transparencies displayed on the windows and walls around the gallery. They serve as backdrop for my colour photographs Views of Japan & Contemporary Portraits, produced between 2014 and 2016, floating in dialogue with Beato and Ruinart's works.

The local press and general audience were very intrigued and fascinated about the project. The response was strong and positive and the press understood that The Yokohama Project was not trying to reveal something still unknown to the Japanese or westerners about Japanese society, nor telling the Japanese what Japan is all about. They understood that the exhibition is meant to be seen and experienced as a dreamy, historical and emotional contemporary voyage / journey.

Another important focus was on Ruinart, who is not known, and yet has an amazing story to convey as one of the first European women to arrive before the Meiji transition, in a country that was extremely isolated and reserved to foreigners.


Giada Ripa is currently based between New York and Milan. After studying at the International Center of Photography in New York, she began working for such international publications as Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, and Republic, among others. In 2015, The Yokohama Project was shortlisted for the Vevey International Photo Award.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers.

Written by

Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Reading time

9 minutes

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