Roland Barthes once said that a photograph corresponds to the public consumption of the private, to an “explosion of the private into the public”. Dear Stranger, a series of 1998-2000 photographic portraits by Japanese photographer Shizuka Yokomizo, exemplifies this saying with almost shocking clarity.
Each portrait from this distinctive series features a single person, bearing a seemingly distracted, reserved expression whilst staring out a window. What immediately struck me was how, through such simple photographs, such a complex connection can be formed between – and perhaps even forced upon – the subject and the viewer.
Dear Stranger effectively establishes a unique, albeit strange relationship between the two, defined by a simultaneous proximity and distance – a type of relationship reflected, in fact, in the paradoxical name which the series bears. It even seems to me as though the viewer is positioned as an intruder, looking in on the space which constitutes the subject's private life.
Whilst one would not necessarily feel discomforted from staring at these portraits, one certainly would assume the position of voyeur in displaying a somewhat shameless curiosity about these subjects, their homes, their intimate lives.
The process behind each photograph definitely strays from the norm, as Yokomizo was keen to stay truthful to the series' concept. Positioning herself as an outsider, she presented herself to each of her subjects through an anonymous letter, requesting to photograph them in a particular setting and at a particular time: “Dear Stranger, I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know…. I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening”.
She then simply waited outside and, if her subjects were accepting, she made herself visible and photographed them during a brief ten-minute period. Even though this process shows a lack of spontaneity, with both photographer and subject being aware of the photographic procedure, it does not, however, take away from the fact that, by having chosen to remain a stranger to her subjects, Yokomizo quite skilfully preserved this series' concept and the element of surprise.
With these portraits she manages to capture each subject's mysteriousness and frailty, therefore bringing out an appropriate range of emotions
through each photograph. In my view, she successfully makes the viewer imagine, feel, and think whatever it is she and any other stranger is likely to imagine, think, and feel like an outsider. Abbie Cohen