In 1977, Gocho Shigeo published Self and Others, regarded as his most influential and distinctive work and one which led Japanese photography in new and complex directions.
Gocho Shigeo was born in 1946. His output was tiny, three books in limited editions, but he suffered from Pott’s disease, a rare degenerative vertebral tuberculosis. This, and the treatment he received for it as a child, meant that he was permanently disabled, never growing to full adult height. He also knew, from an early age, that he would not live beyond middle age. He died in 1983.
Gocho trained as a designer but it was while at the Kuwasawa Design School that he began to experiment with photography under the tutelage of Kiyoji Otsuji, who wrote the preface to Self and Others. Gocho began by producing informal images of those closest to him: friends, family and neighbours near his home, leading to the publication of Days in 1971. This highly subjective and direct manner culminated in Self and Others in 1977 in which Gocho presents apparently simple portraits of individuals and couples looking into the camera. But behind these seemingly everyday images, lies a complex web of relationships between individuals. The title suggests that Gocho is the ‘self’ and the subjects ‘the other’ but our knowledge of Gocho’s illness and his knowledge of his limited life expectancy perhaps renders Gocho ‘the other’. He appears to be looking at his subjects but are they not looking at him? “In his gaze, shaped by the experience of his handicapped self being not only the one looking but constantly also the “other” being looked at, we find an uncontrived view of life co-existing with a deep insight into the workings of the world”.
Gocho’s empathetic exploration of the relationship between the artist and subject becomes clearer when we consider his image of twin girls alongside Diane Arbus’s celebrated Identical Twins.
Arbus focuses on the strangeness of her subjects: we are definitely looking at these girls, trying to read their different facial expressions but their oddness renders them distant. Gocho, by contrast seems to be using the camera to bridge the gap between him and the girls. In trying to engage with them, he is encouraging them to empathise with him thus bringing them closer to us as the viewer standing behind Gocho. Thus, looking at Gocho’s photographs we find ourselves asking who is the self and who is the other?
It is fitting that a major anniversary of this moving book should fall now. Questions of selfhood and identity lie at the heart of contemporary political and social discourse. Who and what we are and who and what we might like to think ourselves as being define the spirit of our age. Self and Others addressed these concerns forty years ago. It is a strikingly modern work.