Photography Is Imagination: an interview with Koji Kitagawa

Koji Kitagawa works in Tokyo, Japan, and is best known as one third of SPEW, a collaborative project between himself, Daisuke Yokota and Naohiro Utagawa.

One day when searching online, I came across a website showing scans of some particularly unusual and enigmatic books, without any explanation or context. Kitagawa’s books and zines have a raw, visual tactility to them, and it’s immensely satisfying to fall into their repeating forms and cascading patterns. It’s through just elaborating upon a particular process, subject matter and often a single-word title that his books become engaging — Kitagawa’s embrace of repetition and ambiguity is really what allows his initially abstract work room to maneuver. Rather than asking what he was exploring project to project, I wanted to know about how he thought about making work itself. 

We messaged via email over a couple of months. I have translated, edited and lightly reordered our conversation for readability.

CB: I imagine that someone with a bit of a preference for traditional forms of photography and art could be a little hostile to work like yours.

KK: I’ve had that experience. I have those feelings in myself too, but rather than acceptance, continuation is my biggest priority, and so the process of keeping on making work is really important. Fundamentally, my stance is that when you want to make something, you try to make it. Your work will change and develop, and from that people will get your work. I think that’s the ideal situation.

You experimented a lot as part of Spew — I remember seeing one exhibition with a lot of 3D, sculpture-like work. But fundamentally you’re interested in the photographs right?

It’s not important to me whether or not the final work is a photograph. Whatever work I make, I think of myself as a photographer. I’m fond of the book form, so recently I’ve been putting the final work in that format.

I think photography is imagination. The more and more diverse ways of seeing/making it I can get, the better. 

Do you want to explore the medium itself? How much does the process side of it play a role in what you’re trying to achieve?

I get a lot from the process itself. If the image is complete before I’ve fully worked on it, it doesn’t hold much meaning for me. Either way, I find I can learn a lot from the completed work as well.

The inspiration always comes from within my own life. Rather than from other people’s art or photos, I get a lot of ideas from music and film. I’m always exploring a lot of ideas at once, but it’s important that I take time to become able to think about the work objectively.

Does that objectivity come to you in a flash, or is it something you explore thoroughly? And just out of interest, what kind of music do you enjoy? 

Both are significant, I think. There’s an order to what I’m doing — most important is to ask myself “what do I want to create next?”. I’m always advancing several projects bit by bit, but sometimes an idea will come to me just like that. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic work. I feel a sympathy with artists who explore various ways of expression and who are constantly developing their work.

It was important for SPEW to be a test of what could be done in a short, concentrated period, rather than allowing it to continue for longer.

Rather than shoot and shoot, you seem to spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re doing, but you’re still aiming for that ambiguity, even if you start with a particular intention?

I want to remove my intention from the work as much as possible; the ambiguity is an essential component. I think photography is imagination. The more and more diverse ways of seeing/making it I can get, the better. I want to move beyond theory and style — becoming totally free from it is my ideal scenario.

I’ve got many ideas about work, but I’ll only put something I believe has a wider meaning to it into a book. In that sense, I’m thinking about my relationship with society and the role I play in art.

I know one musician, a guy called Vomir, who hands all of his design, titles etc over to the record labels. He doesn’t pay any attention to it at all. I know your process isn’t exactly the same, but have you ever done anything like that before?

I’d be open to letting a third party handle all of that. Up until now, it’s mostly been me making such decisions, but I think that the title is very important, and focus on that a lot. 

Have you changed how you’ve chosen/thought about how you choose titles throughout the various works you’ve made? Some are more direct, whereas others are pretty hard to figure out next to the images.

How I choose a title always changes depending upon the nature of the series. Sure, I’ll sometimes choose from something in the work, but I’ll often write a lot of words I want to use in a notebook, and select one that I find matches with the visuals. My daily life and my work are always tied together, so what’s going on in the work is always a hint to what I’m thinking about as I go along.

How do you think about sequencing your books? Often your books are pretty long, and there ’s a lot of repetition in subject matter and process — when do you decide to publish?

The sequencing is important to an extent yes. I don’t want there to be any story or artificiality to it; having one correct interpretation isn’t important, and that openness is something I want when looking at other people’s work. Neither are essential for one’s imagination.

Usually, I’ll make quite a lot of images, and then select only the ones that really suit what I’m doing. I like the “visual book” factor, so having a good balance of pictures is really important — if I feel something isn’t right, I’ll just omit it.

Nowadays you publish many shorter zines in the form of the Temperature series. Is there a particular concept behind the project?

In terms of the overall theme, it’s about diversity, both in photographs and in one person. Taken separately, each zine can have its own story but I’m aiming at bringing them together, equalised into one format.

What kind of creative development led you to working like you do in Temperature? Your early projects up until Sports are quite enigmatic…

It was a good time to try a different way to do things. At that time I stopped working commercially, and drew influence from the self-publishing movement.

Temperature is probably the ideal approach to making work. I think I’m in a good situation right now where that’s concerned. I did think about drawing a line under it after Kyoiku and Sports — I wanted a new challenge, and I think my immediate circumstances and the people I met played a part.


SPEW were notorious for releasing an enormous amount of large, experimental zines and photobooks over the course of just a couple of years. Just like with Kitagawa’s own titles, it’s in the name: he wanted a short, sudden deluge of experimentation and projects. Other members wanted to continue the project, but ultimately, all remaining print stock was drilled into, ripped apart, burned and glued into large wall-sculptures for their final show.

What kinds of roles did everyone play at Spew? I recognise Mother Mother 2 as yours, but in other projects it seems like all three of you were involved.

While the three of us were active, we would spend every day discussing ideas together. We were all aiming at the same goal, so it felt like each of us were just doing what we could at the time.

How was working with Yokota and Utagawa? It seems like you’ve returned to your own projects now, but do you all keep in touch to discuss ideas?

My time with them was really exciting. But continuing to work long-term in a group with such talented individuals isn’t a simple thing. That being said, even though Spew has come to a close now, there are a lot of CDs and DVDs left over. I think they will get another look in the future.

For me, it was important for Spew to be a test of what could be done in a short, concentrated period, rather than allowing it to continue for longer; I knew that it would need to end the moment I started it. It was really thrilling to make work like that.

I understand the challenges to that kind of project. But do you have any ideas for future collaborations? 

I can say that SPEW was pretty irregular activity for me. And it was successful.

Running such a project alongside your own work/life is difficult. Over a short period of time it has potential, but I don’t find it so attractive in the long-term. 

Koji Kitagawa

All Rights Reserved: text © Callum Beaney & Koji Kitagawa; images © Koji Kitagawa & speweditions. Thanks to David O’Mara for his assistance.