Charles Fréger 
Interview on rituals, traditions, and projections 

 
 

You have many projects centered on mythical creatures or religion, portraits, and symbolism in different cultures. How did you begin to work with this theme?

 

I started with "community" in general. I began photography in 1998 as a student in fine arts school. Typically, the photographs were of traditional communities— sports, military, schools, and few religious. During this phase, I was also interested in the uniforms each of these groups donned. Progressively, I discovered certain groups who wore more interesting uniforms, costumes, outfits, and suits. This list included the sumo wrestlers in Japan about 20 years ago. I went to China to work on Chinese opera and also visited Brazil in 2008-2009 for a project. 

Eventually, I began to engage with groups and rituals. I was hanging somewhere in between being part of a community and partaking in the rituals.

 

In fact, I didn't really get into anything dealing with folklore. Also, folklore is a word not well used, in my opinion. With time, I also began to encounter masquerades and rituals in certain groups as well. These rituals were sometimes really strong, particularly in groups such as the military. Even in groups that look normal and modern, you can find strong rituals. I started to work on these masquerades because of this very strong community aspect. I started WILDER MANN, and then soon after that, YOKAI NO SHIMA, and CIMARRON

It was easy to jump into WILDER MANN because it seemed logical considering the work I was doing. I worked on WILDER MANN in the same way as I photographed all my other series. The big difference between my work in 1998 and 2008 is that initially, I photographed indoors, like with the Sumo wrestlers in Japan. When I started working on WILDER MANN and FANTASIAS,  I began to work with landscapes as the background. So, the particularity of my work in such projects was centered on how I would photograph someone in the landscape. It's not just about putting someone in a landscape, but there's a way in terms of attitude. By looking at the picture, the viewer knows that I was the person behind the camera because of the way I photograph the people in the landscape. 

Even if the subjects are from different cultures, they seem to exist in an alternate connected world because of how you photograph them. What is your creative process? Is there a message you want to tell, or do you let the subjects speak for themselves?

It's strange to talk about the message of an artist. If you have to deliver a message to someone, then you have to speak directly. The artistic process is humbler than that. It's like a collection. I go somewhere and want to capture these traditions and these groups. But more than that, I want to photograph them the way I see them. So, I'm not documenting the tradition itself. I'm staging and organizing the photo. I don't control everything because, of course, there's a lot of compromises with the weather and other factors. But I play with what I get at that moment. It's really joyful, and I find my way in the context. I arrive in a village, meet the people, and then say, "Ok, let's do it there." We walk around the field, and I combine the colors, the attitude, the type of characters with the background. There's nothing magical. It's very humble in the way I work. Under a particular light and a specific angle, I photograph them, and the accumulation of these aspects makes the photographs look the way they do.

Do you also capture the ritual in your projects?

No, I don't. I don't need to because it's not my style. I usually photograph the people when they are not occupied with the ritual. Because when it's in progress, it's impossible to capture much because people are just too busy with their traditions. However, for YOKAI NO SHIMA, we had to do it a few times in Nagasaki, Hakuzeki Island, and Miyako Island. We were at the location three times when the rituals were happening. It was complicated because we had to deal with the stress of the crowd, so we couldn’t completely focus on the shoot. So, I prefer to go when things are happening out of the context of the tradition. But sometimes, we must photograph on the day of the ritual as a few costumes are made with natural materials.

"The people visiting, the people watching the ritual are as important as the people doing it. They are part of the ritual in a way. It's always a community thing, always like this synergy. "

Right, like the masks made with the mud of Paantu?

Yes. In Miyako, the tradition was just two days long, and there was no option. And with the Boze in Hakuzeki, the people made costumes with the leaves of a specific tree. When the costume is created with something they cut on the same day as the customs, we must go and work with what we have. 

Sometimes, when people dress up with natural materials, we are required to finance them. So, we must find ways to buy the material. Or they may come to us with dry materials. Sometimes it takes them 10 minutes to dress up, and then we can go outdoors and photograph, and sometimes it's more complex and includes more rituals and superstitions. Some groups are easier than others.  

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Were there any difficulties you faced with your subjects because of any superstitions, reasons, or religious reasons?

I feel that the traditions in Japan are becoming more for entertainment, like part of a festival.

Yes, and it usually depends on the depth of the tradition or the ritual. I would say if it's more religious, it's more complex. For YOKAI NO SHIMA, we found a way to compromise most of the time, and we found a solution with the group itself.

Yes, but it doesn't matter if it's entertainment or not. You have a layer of entertainment, and then inside, under the layer, you still find the rituals. So, it doesn't matter if the objective is touristic or not. Often the tourism keeps this tradition going. They can't do it anymore in certain areas because there's not enough population to do it. That’s what's happening in certain villages in Japan and certain islands as well. When you're going to an island where there are 250 people, then it's challenging to find a group of 10 young men to do it. And if there is no interest in the population of the villages, then the tradition disappears. And this is not only in Japan, but it's the same in India or South America.

The people visiting, the people watching the ritual are as important as the people doing it. They are part of the ritual in a way. It's always a community thing, always like this synergy. It's like something is happening together. And in Japan, when you go into a temple, you have all these people with cameras waiting at the temple's exit to take photos. It's too much. They all have the same photograph. That's been problematic, but on the other hand, because these people are taking these photos and posting them online, they keep them alive.

One tradition we captured in Japan ceased to exist after the tsunami on the East Coast in Iwate. Because of the earthquake in that area, a lot of people died. Half of the village was underwater. So, they began to rebuild a part of the village with some concrete to protect the village against the next tsunami. The costumes were stored in the local school for some years. That was in 2015. So, we went there, and that was the first time they took the costume out of the box. We photographed them in January 2015, and then the year after, they restarted the tradition.

There is a film by Ayumi Hasegawa whose team followed me on this project. The film is interesting because I think it shows the complexity of such moments.

That's beautiful, how it shows a ritual or tradition can die but also can be reborn again.

But you know all the traditions are not disappearing. Many people from cities believe that certain traditions from certain villages will disappear. But what I'm seeing is the opposite. It's just that people from big cities often don't know about the existence of traditions in the countryside, and many people in cities have no idea what the countryside is in general.

"...rituals may start with very simple things."

 

Regarding the masks, there are similarities in the design and the unique personalities of each country. I'm interested in how the evolution of these designs is going to change in the future. 

Oh really? That's interesting to have the link.

It can go up or down. It can go back to the past or transform into something new by combining them with new materials. It's difficult to say. For example, in Norway, there's a tradition called a Julebukk. It's a Yule Goat coming at the time of Christmas. You can find Julebukk in Finland as well with a different name. And you can find it in Sweden too. It's slightly different, but in Finland, there's one character called Nuuttipukki. The tradition is pretty old, dating back to the 19th century, maybe earlier. We don't know. I mean, it's tough to say, but you find the representation of such traditions in books and children's books and popular representation and so on and. Visually, it's a guy dressed in a coat and wearing the mask of a goat, holding a stick and a bag, visiting a house. It's meant to scare the kids. It's also a bit like the Namahage or the Suneka. You know, the tradition of the Namahage is very much from the West.

So, the traditions changed in the 60s and 70s and became more Americanized. Only the kids began wearing just a mask on the day of Julebukk. Not a mask of a goat, but any mask, like a plastic mask. It was a bit like a Halloween mask, and they would knock on doors as people do for Halloween and Christmas time. There was a mix between Halloween and Christmas, and the Yule Goat disappeared. 

But two or three years ago, some guys from Norway started doing it again. They began to do it exactly like the traditional way, almost copying the representations from the books like it was in the 19th century. I found some guys from Stockholm doing it and some guys from the middle of Sweden, and one family doing it in the south of Norway. They did it as traditionally as possible with an old coat, wool coat, socks, traditional material like straw, fur, embroidery, etc. 

And so, you see, they didn't make any changes. These people went back to the way it looked 100 years ago. But the people in the 70s followed it but by evolving, and maybe it was a messy evolution, which was more about the Americanization of Europe.

So it depends on the people who do the ritual if it is either the hybrid or the traditional way. 

Just like you said, it won't die.

Absolutely.

Well, it can die, but it doesn't matter. It's part of the process. The ritual disappears, and then there's some other ritual coming. People are doing new rituals with their mobile phones with their social media groups on Instagram or Facebook. There are now new ways to create rituals.

So, rituals may start with very simple things. We always believe that rituals are deep and have to go into the roots than focusing on superficial things. One of the reasons why people do these rituals is that they want to be together as a community. They want to spend time together, and they want to have fun together. They want to have fun together with parties, festivals, celebrations, and they want to flirt with each other. Many of these rituals also express the strength of some young men aged 17, 18, or 19 years in villages. There's a certain pride in being part of such a tradition, whether you are in Greece, an island, or Finland.

Japan is a country with many layers of social masks. We are facing issues of loneliness and depression, maybe because of this mask culture. In the past, perhaps people were able to do the rituals together more?

Often, I've seen this complexity. I mean, you have all the tools to get together. You have people working at companies, which is so important to a person’s life. You have the school, and you have the sports clubs, etc. In all these communities, you are together. Once you're back home, you are really alone. That's what I've seen with many Japanese people; it is a little difficult to get together. There is difficulty in managing to touch each other. It's strange, in Tokyo, you can be in touch with the body of someone, like standing on the packed train and having some physical contact with another passenger, and still, you manage to be distant from others. 

First, when I worked in Japan 2002~2005, I was mainly in Tokyo. Then I worked in Kyoto and Osaka in 2007. Then I came back a long time later to work on YOKAI NO SHIMA. Suddenly I discovered the people from the countryside in Japan. And then I felt it was very different. That's when I knew the gap was enormous. I could start to see some people in the countryside were living it easy. That is, simpler in some way.

Now, since the digital platform has become our second nature, I'm intrigued by how it influences us human beings, why we do rituals, how it's important to us, and how our lives unfold more with the physical and the digital world.

Yes. Even if the virtual world can become a world where you can sense another person, you still don't know if that person is real. It can be a bot or some AI. So, until you are with them or touching them, you don't know.

I like things where they are real when they are really real. Like, here, right now. You can sense that you have someone in front of you for real and sense the others. The chemicals, pheromones, smell, it's a mix of what you see, what you hear, what you smell, all of this together. All these virtual worlds don’t have that. At least right now, they haven’t found a way to express it. It's very subtle and complex. At the moment, the media are not that complex. It's full of layers, full of techniques, and possibilities. But, until you meet someone for real, you don't know that person.

So probably what I came to photograph in Japan is the opposite of what's trending these days with this virtuality; I'm not virtual at all.

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"I like things where they are real when they are really real. "

Is that why you chose photography as a medium?

It's one of the mediums that I'm using. Less these days because of covid. But when I photograph, I have this attitude, which I think is really mine. And this attitude makes my photographs look the way they are. It's not just the technique but also the attitude. It's very physical- the way I am, the way I am taking these people somewhere. The way I dress up, the way I introduce myself before I produce my photograph. It's not something you can teach at school. It's not a style but an attitude. Maybe that would not work in a virtual world.

You also have a connection with that person in that space, in the landscape. 

Yes. I had a commission one month before covid for a shoot I could not do. And I decided to go ahead with the project by guiding a photographer who was in that location for me. We installed two cameras in the room. I was controlling the camera of the photographer myself. There were two assistants. One assistant was handling the flashes, and the other one was moving the camera and focusing for me. I could change the aperture myself and so on. The models were entering the room, and I could talk to them, and they could see me. I instructed the two assistants to move the camera, and then I managed to shoot the pictures like that.

Did the picture come out as you intended?

"You can't explain these things, but they are the reason why we do that—the very little moments. "

I would say, considering all the superficial aspects, yes. The result was good, and it was not so different from my work. We had to make certain compromises to successfully click photographs like that. I could control the camera in a specific space, but still, I was not there. I don't have a memory of being there.

It is not the same experience as the cold breeze on the beach in Akita, when it started to snow on the seaside with the Namahage, and the rain. The way someone was stressed before I photographed him, the moments before the people began dressing, looking at each other, or the moment after, where we are sitting together and drinking tea. You can't explain these things, but they are the reason why we do that—the very little moments. 

My last big trip was in Feb 2020. Since then, I have been waiting to travel again. During that trip, I had to do 23 different shoots in India. Some sessions were like 2 hrs. Some moments with certain groups were so short but so precise. Eating with the people, or the way they look at you and when you look at them. The curiosity of the people. The mix of bad smell and good smell together. It's like perfume and the smell of sheep next to each other. The stress of the crowds and the high temperature and humidity. And sometimes, there's some sensation of not doing it well and some sensation of doing it right.

Photography in that way is an experience. There's no recipe. You go somewhere, you expect something- or sometimes you don't know what exactly you expect- and you try something. Sometimes you are just exhausted after trying and not getting what you want. And suddenly you get something, and you think you touched upon something, and yeah, that's complex. You photographed things you didn't understand and tried to react with your knowledge—using your cultural background. You are using your culture to try to respond to a culture that you don't know. 

When I did YOKAI NO SHIMA, I didn't know the culture, and I didn't understand many things. And I reacted to what I saw based on my understanding of my own culture. I try to respond and reflect on the culture, so I don't become Japanese when I photograph. I often understand better after I photograph. After completing the book, I started to understand what I've done. But the moment I photograph it, I'm just a European photographer. 

All these things can't be done and experienced virtually. 

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"You are using your culture to try to respond to a culture that you don't know. "

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Did they seem like they were acting or not acting?

What I liked during these photograph sessions were these people, who do it as they do it, and they do it seriously. They take care of it with a certain intensity. It's not about what they believe or what they don't believe. I don't know what they believe in, but when they do it, they do it seriously. They do it with a certain passion and intensity. 

When you came to Japan to do your Yokainoshima, what kind of surprises did you discover during the shoot?

Japan is very theatrical. YOKAI NO SHIMA is much more theatrical than WILDER MANN. In WILDER MANN, you photograph the transformation of someone. Someone really gets transformed into an animal. Not in Japan. In Japan, you have a mask that covers just a part of a face. It means that when you look at someone from the profile, you still recognize the person. We rarely photograph groups wearing masks and gloves to hide their skin, so they don't try to hide. They are dressed as Namahage, the Suneka, but you can recognize them again because you can see the face and the profile. There are these masks in Nagano, where the mask is on the forehead. So, when the guy has his face down, you see the mask. When the face is up, you can see the face of the guy. So, of course, it's very theatrical. Of course, there's this way to act. This is what makes it very different from the European traditions I photographed, where the people somehow tend to believe that they transform to become an animal. And in Japan, they act like an animal, but they don't want to be the animal. They are acting. That's a huge difference. 

When I came to Japan, people were expecting that I would do the Japanese Wilder Mann. But it was not. And after the first trip, I could already say what I see here is theatrical, and it's not the transformation of someone into a beast.

"...it's really in Japan that
I discovered theatricality."

In WILDER MANN, how was that transformation? How would you describe it?

In Europe, they try to hide behind the mask and try to become the animal. They have a different process to become one or to behave differently.

Was there a ritual that they needed to go through?

Sometimes in Europe, they may just drink too much. In Japan, they drink after.

In Japan, traditions are under control. The theater is a ritual. The theater is a room where you sit or stand up, and you have someone in front of you and on stage. You want to believe in what you watch, like when you go to the cinema. You know the story you're watching is not real, but you follow, and you accept. That's not virtual. That's the reality. You watch a story, and you are ready to react with your emotions. It's a compromise between the actor and the public. The audience is as important as the actor in such a moment. The Namahage also knows perfectly. Everybody is acting when the Namahage is coming. The father is receiving the Namahage at home, and the father is acting. He behaves that he's impressed by the Namahage, and then the kids are impressed. But they know perfectly that the Namahage is not going to eat them. It's like a dance. And that's the beauty of such a moment when everybody gets into that dance and acts together. The kids are five years old and are acting. And that's beautiful. Of course, they may be slightly afraid, like when I watch a movie and when it is really emotional, I start to cry. I know that it's just a story. It's the same with the kids, they know it's not real, but they're ready to believe for that moment that something is really touching their emotions. So, I think it's really in Japan that I discovered theatricality.

"It's like a dance. And that's the beauty of such a moment when everybody gets into that dance and acts together."

Nowadays, there are stage performances with robots programmed by scientists. The shows are usually sold out, and the people cry watching this show. The robot scientist said that the most crucial aspect is the audience's heart, not the stage performance itself.

We can do that with shadow theater and puppets as well. It doesn't matter if someone is doing it or if it's done by a machine or software and data. In the end, there's someone behind the machine. Someone is using the data and is somewhat incorporating some emotion into the data. When programming a robot or artificial intelligence, someone includes or reflects his own emotion into the robot. That's the same with puppets, with pets, or with animals. People are transferring their own emotions to the animals. We imagine they are reacting to us with a particular interest and so on. But maybe not. Maybe they don't care about us. 

It's a projection.

 Don’t you decide what is real or not?

The projection is very strong. The important thing here is what we are ready to believe. It doesn't matter if things are real or not. It's like you go to a museum and you look at a copy of a painting. If you don't tell the people that it's a copy, people will be impressed by the painting. Once you say it's a copy, then they will lose interest. Yesterday, I was in Versailles at the castle. We went to the bedroom of Marie Antoinette. Suddenly, everyone was looking at the room, at the bed of Marie Antoinette, and began to project their imagination because behind the bed. There are two doors in the wall, which are hidden doors. This was incorporated so that the queen could go from one bedroom to another secretly. And then you see all these people who start to look at that and try to imagine this. They try to get something from what they see. But what they see is a room with a bed in the middle, like an IKEA room, just with more gold and richer details on the wall. This is the room of Marie Antoinette, the Queen. And then people are projecting all their fantasies and how it was to be a queen to wake up in the morning surrounded by people looking at you, and you could not spend one minute alone. The projection is enormous. Probably that's what's more important now, the projection. Also, sometimes the reality is weak.

You decide what you're ready to believe, but you don't decide what is real or what's not real. Probably you're not real during this interview. I'm talking to my computer. I'm looking at my screen, speaking alone in my room. There's nobody else here. I could say this image is just a projection. I'm the artist. Then once I go through that white door behind me, I will go to the kitchen and cook for my daughter. Then I will be the father cooking. And when I go to bed tonight, I will be another person. I still am the same, but we are made of several layers. The complexity of one identity is like the skin of onions with different layers, and sometimes you see one layer, sometimes you see another. And sometimes you or I decide to show a certain aspect of yourself and not another. The mood is also how we react to the situation. 

In the end, whatever we do- wearing a mask for a ritual in Japan or Europe, or wearing a uniform to go to school, or dressing yourself to go for a party- all these masks we are wearing are just tools that we use to live with others and make it feel ok. Just to go through life and manage to keep going on. Whether it's virtual or real doesn't matter. We find ways to keep feeling joy, and that's very important. 

And to be playful. 

 
 

Maybe. At least, to find a way to survive in the complexity of this world.

This is an edited version of a video interview that was conducted in August, 2021