Published in 1000 Words Magazine Issue #7
“As someone who never experienced the real office worker’s life, I have tried with photography to show the contrast between a worthless individual and this unknown world,” says Bruno Quinquet on The Salaryman Project, an ongoing series about Tokyo’s unknown office workers.
In the Japanese society, a “salaryman” represents the archetypal normality. The term often carries associations of long working hours, low prestige in the corporate hierarchy, lack of competitiveness, initiative or originality. For Quinquet, who moved from France to live in Tokyo in 2006, “this apparent normality hides a fantasy world to which I have no access. All I can do is catch a glimpse of this mystery with my camera.”
Having spent the past three years shooting his subjects in Tokyo’s public places, he always has two basic rules in mind. The first one is; the salaryman must be unidentified. This is a Quinquet motto, and precisely what makes The Salaryman Project so appealing. Snatching details of their bodies like pieces of evidence that amount to a bigger picture turns an anonymous individual into a more universal character. Of course, these salarymen could well recognize themselves in most of the pictures, but that said, Quinquet always depicts them with a crucial degree of empathy. Nevertheless, The Salaryman Project is not a social critique of the Japanese society filtered through an outsider’s eyes, but rather a poetic vision of business folk lost into the cityscape, and at the mercy of the seasons.
Visual elements, such flora and graphic urban landscapes create an atmospheric and minimalist setting for Quinquet’s cast of characters to merge into. The idea to incorporate the way in which seasons are affecting social life in Japan came after few months of shooting the project. As somebody who knows the Japanese cultural tradition of “Hanami” (cherry blossom viewing), a celebration which occurs in April, or the custom of eating unagi (a japanese seafood) on “unagi day” during Summer, spotting salaryman who flock to the park or restaurant on such days was eveidently a fun exercise. As Quinquet explains: “in some places you can bet that a salaryman will show up within ten seconds."
The enigmatic appearance of the office worker in The Salaryman Project series is emphasised by the sense of loneliness that looms in every photograph. Obviously, it is a way to describe modern life in the city, which also serves as Quinquet’s second rule when shooting. That is, to make sure he captures a single subject within the frame. In some of the pictures, the presence of another salaryman in the background shares a raison d’être with the flowers on the foreground; it is as if he was there only by accident.
Bruno Quinquet seems to have other tricks in his camera bag too. One of them, is the silent mode and adjustable screen of the small digital camera he uses. He rewards the Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama as a major influence in the way he approaches his models. “When I was studying at Tokyo Visual Arts, viewing videos about Moriyama snapping pictures surreptitiously in the street has been a liberating experience” he confessed.
Consistently concealing the faces with the aim to rendering them anonymous has been a challenge says the photographer. Clearly, the tensions between public and private space, and by natural extension, laws relating to people’s constitutional rights to their image, are not lost on him. For Quinquet, a French born, could not ignore the concept of le droit à l’image within French law and the dissuasive effect it had on street photography in Robert Doisneau’s country. Back in Japan, Quinquet has been made acutely aware of the case surrounding Seto Masato’s Silent Mode project, a series of candid portraits of women on Tokyo’s subway, published in the Japanese photographic magazine Mole Unit during the 90s. The publication was eventually forced to close down after few issues as the result of legal implications.
“Snapshot manners” campaigns are now very much in place in Japan whereby photographers usually must obtain to photograph in public. More and more, privacy concern in public space wields a sword of Damocles for photographers working in countries affected by such legislation. But surely if such a ban were projected retroactively, it would deny the public one of the most valuable traditions of our cultural inheritance. However, the fact remains, that in our post 9/11 world, an atmosphere of photophobia is rapidly emerging, presenting a potent threat to the idea of photography as a free artistic expression. In any case, using subterfuges and discretion, like Quinquet has done in The Salaryman Project, is in fact not in violation of any right-to-privacy law, and as such, is highly recommended.
Ultimately,The Salaryman Project is the story of an obsession. It is a story a salaryman otaku plucking his working class heroes from the streets of Tokyo, and then week after week, meticulously compiling pictures of them, alone, suited and booted, side by side, into the pages of a business-organiser. Quinquet’s overly obsessive nature is probably a perfect alibi to escape a daily life at the office.