Harajuku Jam

James Gracey meets photographers Craig Smith and Terri McManus

Photographers Craig Smith and Terri McManus have documented their experience travelling though Tokyo in 2006 with a new photographic exhibition in Belfast's PS2 entitled Harajuku Jam. The images on display capture their encounters with the ‘visual rebellion’ of young adults there, specifically in the district of Harajuku.

The youths photographed in Harajuku Square come not only from the local district, but from far and wide to assemble themselves in what the photographers describe as a visual protest of creative expression.

Embracing various guises from a number of styles and genres including manga, gothic-lolita, costume-play, punk, traditional geisha and counter culture, the ‘Harajuku kids’ use their creativity to express their devout individuality and non-conformist aesthetic.

In more recent times, Harajuku has been synonymous with cutting-edge fashion and has become a by-word in pop-culture for definitive and radical styling. It can be difficult to retain sight of the fact that the roots of this stem from a visual insurrection of youths desperately trying to retain their identity and individuality in a society seemingly intent on initiating uniformity and cohesion.

Most cities throughout the world at some time will have had collectives of radical youths ‘hanging out’ and being part of a ‘scene’, and the young adults featured in McManus and Smith’s collection of striking photographs are one such collective.

Even in Belfast there exists a sub-culture of youths who feel alienated and detached from society. Clustering around the likes of City Hall and Laganside swathed in black and often appropriating dark eye make-up to startling effect.

While, ironically, they seem to have created a uniform for themselves, and many dwell in the category (whether they like it or not) of Goth or EMO, they essentially see themselves as different and detached from the norm. As they see it they are staring unflinchingly down the barrel of conformity and resisting with every inch of their gloomy threads.

The essence of this is also at the heart of the gathering of youths at Harajuku Square in Tokyo every Sunday. People gather to see and be seen. Something McManus and Smith commented on was the overtly voyeuristic atmosphere of the place. ‘We were involved in this spectacle; while you are watching people, you are also being watched.’

To further illustrate this idea of looking and being looked at, the photographers have installed mirrors in the PS2 gallery. As viewers look at the images they are also looking at themselves in the mirror, thus invoking the dual voyeurism of Harajuku.

While these youths embark on their weekly pilgrimage to Harajuku to express themselves creatively and maybe meet similarly minded people, it is not a social event for many of them. Often individuals there will not engage with their peers, they will sit or stand calmly in a place by themselves. This accentuates the notion that they are there purely to be seen and to present themselves as they are to the world.

The uniformity and compatibility of Japanese culture is perhaps due to the sheer density of its population. Maintaining order and structure allows for so many people to coexist in such a small place. Courtesy and respectfulness are also necessary and McManus and Smith noted that this custom is also blatant in Harajuku, despite its ‘angsty’ gathering of young people.

McManus claims, ‘When we were there we noticed that they were quite respectful and considerate of one another, obviously they probably have to be because of the density of the population.’

‘They weren’t noisy or boisterous,' notes McManus, 'But as the Japanese culture revolves around the aesthetic, visual information is an important part of their society. The fact that they are even expressing themselves visually is significant and creates such an impact.’

Another aspect of the subjects featured in these images was their comfort in front of, and their command of, the camera lenses surrounding them. This consciousness of the camera and the subjects’ desire to interact with it was something that pleasantly surprised Smith.

‘I was expecting maybe lots of cheeky grins or perhaps a certain degree of shyness,’ Smith recalls, ‘But there was a certain calmness to it all. They’d obviously been going there as a weekly routine and they were comfortable with it. It was a pleasant change for me as a photographer to engage with this.’