Pure passion, still bleeding and forever young - a conversation with photographer Goro Bertz
This conversation is the result of quite a few e-mails sent between Goro in Tokyo and me in Stockholm. Rhonda Prince has been of a great help in correcting some English errors. - Mr Urbano
Ulf Fågelhammar: You were born and raised in Sweden but have been photographing in Shinjuku and other places in Tokyo for about 4 years. That's quite a long time. Why did you go to Tokyo and Shinjuku? What were you looking for?
Goro Bertz: I wanted to get away from Sweden. Japan suited me well because of my mother. I have relatives here and have been in Japan now and then since I was a little kid. Like many other people I am interested in Japanese culture and around the same time that I was forced to escape from Sweden I came in contact with the Japanese photography.
What was struck with me then, when I saw pictures of some Japanese photographers, was that they lived a life I wanted to live: On the road. You can really see that they manage to create meaning and adventure in a meaningless, harsh world and then take pictures of it.
So I already had a relationship with the country in question and it felt natural to be attracted to Japan instead of some other country.
Ulf Fågelhammar: What do you mean by being forced to escape from Sweden? Who or what forced you?
Goro Bertz: I don't really know; just felt that I had to go away for a while. So no one but myself forced me. It was an incredible relief to come to a country where you did not understand a word. Not being able to read what it says on the first page of a tabloid. Not getting a lot of crap and worthless knowledge thrown in your face.
Ulf Fågelhammar: Looking back on these years - did you find what you were looking for?
Goro Bertz: More or less. I’m still searching. I have experienced exciting, strange and also very sad things here. Meanwhile, most of what I have experienced in life has been illuminated by a comical perspective.
Anyhow, I promised myself before I went to Japan that I would focus 800 percent on my pictures, so the day I might return to Sweden I would not have the feeling that I didn’t do my best. Still, I'm not satisfied. You just have to continue and take care of all this, your dreams and what you believe in otherwise you are not an artist.
Ulf Fågelhammar: How do you manage your everyday life? Are you photographing all the time or do you take a break from it once in a while?
Goro Bertz: I never take a break from my photography. Such does not exist. My photography is a process in progress 24 hours a day. Every day all year round.
Ulf Fågelhammar: How do you make a living?
Goro Bertz: I jump around between various part-time jobs. I think I have had thirteen different jobs over a period of three years. The problem when you're doing what I do is that you are constantly broke. I cannot say that I tried to do some kind of career in another field or that I even have tried to live as a photographer. So far, I only have been taking pictures that mean something to me.
Ulf Fågelhammar: But I guess that your part-time jobs have taught you something as well? Is it something that has been reflected in your photography? I mean meeting a lot of different people etc.
Goro Bertz: No, I don’t think so. You get different kinds of experiences. And perhaps that’s good enough. But most people I've met at work here have been complete idiots. Not everyone, but many.
I cannot say that it has been good to my photography just because I have had a lot of different kinds of occupations. Once I took a job in a hostess bar just because I thought I would get a chance to shoot inside there. But of course I realized once I started that it would be impossible to do without getting fired.
Ulf Fågelhammar: You have called your pictures "graffiti tags" or "quickly captured snapshots taken in passing". Is that a way of making pictures that you practice in other places too, or is it mainly connected with Shinjuku?
Goro Bertz: It is mainly linked to my snapshots from the streets but I use the same technique, the same speed when I create my other images. It was probably born out of photographing in Shinjuku.
The brain is completely disconnected. I notice through my dick, stomach and heart. It's pure intuition. I never dwell on an image for more than a few seconds. It helps if you have a child's eyes. Therefore photography fits me well. I'm wild and have not really matured yet. That’s why I’m still wearing this baby face.
In the case of my photos from Shinjuku, I have to act quickly. I want that energy to be visible in the pictures. The reason I call my pictures from Shinjuku graffiti tags is because I do not have any deeper message in them than just raw and energetic power. In my quieter images, such as my nature pictures I still use the same speed when I create them but leave another expression. I want them to mean something more than just pure observation. But of course, without a lot of pretentious crap written between the lines
Ulf Fågelhammar: You are concerned with Style "I’m always looking for a nice surface, that the pictures are moving and framed in a toxic, elegant and brutal way "What do you mean?
Goro Bertz: Just like I said. But maybe I should have use a different word than surface. But you know, I deal and put equal value in how a picture looks like and what it contains. It is important to me that a picture is nice looking. If it then has a strong expression it is a big plus. So I want my pictures to carry on a kind of danger and toxicity whilst they're aesthetically pleasing. My pictures from the streets should be brutal and heavy as German industrial rock music. I do not pretend that I succeed but at least I try.
Ulf Fågelhammar: You have shown me some very intimate pictures of women. The beauty of these pictures struck me, and that you have depicted the women like real persons - rather than "nudes" or "models". I regard them as some of your best pictures. They are sincere and very moving, but perhaps not with the look of "quickly captured snapshots". What do you think about this?
Goro Bertz: It is very much quickly captured snapshots. But unlike my snapshots from the streets, I can not just throw up a flash in the face of the people I shoot and for the next second be gone. Here I am stuck with people I shoot. And very close. I'm always tired when I take these pictures. But that’s because of the time at night when they were produced.
I call this project "Follow The Cops Back Home". It is a back street lullaby from the areas around Shin-Okubo in Tokyo and is set in the small, cheap and dirty love hotels. Interesting environments for a guy like me. I find these images very exciting and interesting. You really get the feeling that you're there.
I think this project is a derivative of an absence and lack of many things in life. A song called Pierrot The Clown by Placebo inspires this project. It is a beautiful and a sad song that I find is about yearning, alienation and loneliness. It also describes a kind of intoxication. I really like the song because the lyrics shows a certain empathy with the character. And that's what makes it human. In my pictures, it's me who is the protagonist. It sounds corny but you can call it a soundtrack of my life here in Tokyo.
I have spent a lot of time with women here in Tokyo but I haven’t managed to get any close male friends. The women I have spent time with may have acted both roles for me. Which means that when something runs out, which always happens, you're very lonely again.
Ulf Fågelhammar: Have you made any female friends then? It seems that you are drawn to women, not only as sexual partners?
Goro Bertz: They come and go. Of course, I like being with women, not only as that kind of a partner. I simply like being with people. And I like being alone as well.
I photograph women very good. It probably depends on the high voltage of electricity that occurs in those situations. My emotional registers expand.
Ulf Fågelhammar: You have said that there are only two ways to shoot a picture; "Good or Bad" I think you have an important point in this simple statement. But who will decide about your pictures (if they are "good" or "bad"). Will you listen to a curator at a museum or gallery or to an editor of photo books? Or do you feel that it is your responsibility to decide about it?
Goro Bertz: I have not thought about it but I guess I want to decide what works and what does not work when it comes to my pictures. It is like you getting this from me then you can think and say what you want. I may not listen anyway. Sure, I can listen to critique. I will listen to it but it depends on who it is that says it.
The more experienced you are in photography, the more you see what is true or not. You see the difference between bad and good photography.
Anyway, what I meant by that statement you mention is more about something else. With those words I make clear to everyone that I’m not especially unique photographically. It is hard to come up with something completely new, something that has not been done before. Anyway I don’t think it matters so much as long as it is done well.
Ulf Fågelhammar: What are your plans for the future? Do you want to make a photo book or are you looking for an exhibition. I mean, it is evident to me that your photos should be presented in a proper way to a larger audience.
Goro Bertz: Obviously this is something I hope not will end up in a drawer. I have high ambitions with my pictures. But it may take the time it takes. I have realized the importance of not rushing anything. I take it easy right now. I had a period last year, and the year before when I tried to contact people in Sweden but I never got any response.
I can take if someone says that what I am doing is not good enough but I can never take a silence as an answer. If you have done as I have done, put my entire life on this you should be worth a response even if the answer is a bad.
This is not a fucking three-month project with scholarship, which later wins a prize, and then all are happy and blah blah blah. Those people who have not responded to me are the same people who later will show up if things start going well for me. I'm simply too strong for them.
Anyway, I am grateful for the friction. That means I will have to take this to extremes. That this is about life and death goes without saying it but I also get the chance to really take it to a bit higher altitudes. And that's positive. I just have to prove something now and give those ignorant individuals a kick in the ass.
Ulf Fågelhammar: What you say makes a lot of sense to me and I think you have come to the right conclusion. Perhaps you should exhibit in Tokyo, Paris or elsewhere before conquering Sweden?
Goro Bertz: Yes that would probably be the best way to do. My next exhibition will take place in Japan this summer anyway, so why should I really care about Sweden.
Ulf Fågelhammar: You have presented a couple of excellent collages here on 591 Photography. I get the feeling that some of your work is very well suited for this technique. Is it something you plan to go on with?
Goro Bertz: Maybe. The thing about college is that you can get away with SO-SO pictures there. It works a bit like you're hiding and mixing some pictures with some other, better pictures but are still able to make it look good. Collage is quite simple really only one big picture in the end. But nowadays I try to use those pictures that also are able to stand alone.
Ulf Fågelhammar: What is your opinion about using text along with your photographs. Is it important to you and why?
Goro Bertz: No, it is not necessary but it may be fun for the viewer. A good text can lift up a picture. But one of the reasons that I do photography might be because I am not sufficiently verbal. I'm trying to say something without having to resort to words.
Ulf Fågelhammar: What is the status of the art of photography in Japan if you compare it to Sweden?
Goro Bertz: I think the Japanese really take photography seriously. What the status is here I would not dare speak about. But there are some photographers here who maybe could be counted as real stars.
I am not sure but I do not feel that photography has a high status in Sweden. If it is because we have too many boring photographers or not is unclear. Japanese photographers reach out to people who are not involved in photography or art in general. It doesn’t seem to be like that in Sweden. And it is a passionate scene here. It’s more real, more hardcore.
You cannot give away something as important as photography to the geeks and the untalented. It's embarrassing that it is a shitty magazine like "Kamera och Bild" that reports important events in Swedish photography. But we’ll probably get what we deserve. Maybe we just don’t have enough good photographers.
Ulf Fågelhammar: Is there any Swedish photographer that you like? I mean, after all there is some tradition with people like Strömholm etc. or are you referring to the contemporary Swedish photography?
Goro Bertz: I'm talking about the present. I don’t know. It is my personal taste. Of course there are a lot of good photographers who are good at what they do but nothing that interests me personally.
Ulf Fågelhammar: You have depicted many people in Tokyo - the pictures are often closeups. How do people react when facing you and your camera? You say, “The goal for me when I shoot is to become a runaway train on amphetamine"
Do you want people to interact or do you prefer to capture them off guard. There is a picture in one of your collages showing a man taking a position to fight - perhaps with a desire to punch you in the face? Could you tell us about what happened at that occasion?
Goro Bertz: I cannot remember what happened after that picture but if he had punched me I would have, of course, remembered it. Actually, I have never encountered any fights or any other dangerous situations as long as I have been photographing.
I'm lucky because I'm extremely afraid of violence and I am totally useless in fighting. However, the camera acts as a weapon for me. When I come walking down the streets of Kabukicho and Golden Gai in Shinjuku it is as if I turn into a big tomcat who is not castrated. It feels like I'm growing a few centimeters, and I no longer have any fears. It is fair to call me cocky as hell during that time.
I go into situations with both feet and then just bang! and before anyone knows the word for it I'm gone, then I am on the next alley. I'm just too fast; people cannot keep up with my pace. You have to build up yourself mentally and get into a flow, get the timing to be sharp. Then you get everything else for free. I do not think I draw too much attention to me anyway. They are too busy with their own shit. They might see a half Asian guy who goes around with a camera in one hand and a beer in the other. Then they may think: he cannot be serious.
I never say to people how they should act or be or look like. I just shoot. Then I get what I get. I prefer to catch somebody in as real situations as possible.
Ulf Fågelhammar: You make me smile - it is a great and honest description of the way you work. But there is perhaps a paradox, don't you think? You want your pictures to be dangerous, toxic and raw like graffiti tags - but you say you are extremely afraid of violence? How do you explain that?
Goro Bertz: Well, I simply just like an aggressive expression and an energetic aesthetics in art. Just because you're playing punk rock it doesn't necessary mean in a literal sense that you want to kill everyone. I think it's all about what you wear on the inside. If you have 30 punk rock concerts in your stomach there is a risk that it also shows itself in the final creation. And then it has turned into something constructive instead of if you would go out and beat someone in the face.
Ulf Fågelhammar: Do you feel acquainted with contemporary Japanese photography. Do you go to the galleries in the city? Do you read photo books that are published in Japan?
Goro Bertz: No, not anymore. There is a bunch of young girls here in Japan that has become big now, I have seen some of it, maybe it’s good but it is too hollow, superficial and silly for my taste.
Ulf Fågelhammar: Are you planning to return to Sweden in the near future?
Goro Bertz: Difficult to answer. Nothing that I have planned yet anyway. I have to continue on what I have begun.
All photos © Goro Bertz Blog: gorobertzworld.blogspot.com
Interview © Ulf Fågelhammar