Japanese artist Sohei Nishino journeys isolated regions for months, collecting hundreds of rolls of exposed film. By painstakingly weaving photographic fragments of his personal memories, he creates vast, map-like portraits of geographic regions that transcend spatial and temporal boundaries.
For his previous work, Diorama Maps, Nishino drew inspiration from the 18th century Japanese mapmaker, Ino Tadataka. He walked city streets, exploring vantage points to document his surroundings. ‘What I try to do through my work is to map my experiences of the physical world. The work has to be based on personal experience – my perception of different cultures and societies,’ he says. The effect is a three-dimensional, scale-shifting confluence of memory unfolded through space and time. Each photograph is a vignette of its own – with visual storytelling mastery, Nishino combines these microcosmic elements into vast geographical representations of his journey.
In his new works, Everest and Journey of Drifting Ice, Nishino’s mesmeric style shifts to natural landscapes, creating fabling maps of regions that traditionally defy photographic capture.
For Everest, Nishino journeyed for 23 days from Lucla to Gokyo Peak in the Himalaya, shooting almost 400 rolls of film. His photomosaic map of the landscape explores the influence of geography on the lives of local Sherpa communities, for whom the mountain bears a holy, even deified symbolism. Under its pious gaze, Nishino found himself documenting an all-too likely subject: ‘I was surprised to see WiFi even in cabins at 5,000m altitude, and I often photographed Sherpas carrying 100 bottles of beer and big boards to build the cabins on their back, wearing shoes with very thin soles like sandals,’ says Nishino. His work captures clashing cultural relations with the mountain; evidence of his increasingly environmental perspective.
In Journey of Drifting Ice, Nishino ventured to Hokkaidō’s Shiretoko peninsular in the north-east of Japan. He focused on the colossal drift ice formations that flow from distant Siberia, through Russia’s great Amur River onto the Sea of Okhotsk, before arriving in Japanese waters. On this journey, freshwater from the Amur River is cooled by seasonal winds, resulting in swathes of frozen water covering the Sea of Okhotsk, before arriving into the Hokkaido region.
Nishino is interested in the reliance of local communities on this geographic phenomenon. Dependent on the fishing trade, their livelihoods are intertwined with the regularity of the ice floes: ‘phytoplankton attach to the underside of the drift ice and take in sunlight to photosynthesise. As the zooplankton come to feed on the phytoplankton, they reproduce in greater numbers. Zooplankton are then eaten by small fish. As bigger fish are drawn in by the smaller fish, an extraordinary food chain develops,’ says Nishino.
In recent years however, the arrival of the drift ice in Hokkaido has been delayed, possibly due to the effects of climate change. With communities reliant on an increasingly fragile ecosystem, life around these ice floes is changing rapidly.
Nishino also explores the influence of the ice floes on the fraught politics of the region, riddled by territorial disputes over the islands in the Okhotsk sea. The cities of Shireteko in Japan, and Magadan in Russia, both rely on the drifting sea ice for the fishing industry, yet are divided by a national border. ‘The idea of such a border doesn’t exist in the natural world […], with this interest in mind, I decided to make a journey to trace the drifting ice which plays a very important role in both countries,’ says Nishino. In his expansive quest as an artist, Nishino is hopeful that visualising these transnational phenomena will help to combat societal divides.
As environmental challenges accelerate, Nishino is quickly developing his trademark style. ‘I feel compelled to reflect the influence of recent environmental developments in my work,’ he says. Through shifting scales, where pieced-together photos harmonise with his own memories, Nishino’s works are a lasting ode to transient and fragile lands.