As DX (digital transformation) has accelerated, E-commerce has become a part of our lifestyle. It goes without saying, Amazon is one of the most prime service platforms of it all and it is a convenient boon, however, on the flip side, there have been reports of bizarre occurrences happening with it.
Photographer Shunsuke Shiga is one of the people who knows all about it having been the experiencer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
In February 2020, the first Covid-19 State of Emergency was declared in Japan. Soon after, Shiga began receiving unsolicited packages from Amazon every day. He didn’t know who placed those orders nor what was inside the boxes, and his concern over the leakage of his personal information exacerbated. While he was dealing with the uncanny situation, around the same time, he has also been ruminating on what his capabilities were as a photographer.
“I received loads of random packages from Amazon I didn’t recall ordering. While I spent days unboxing to see what’s inside the mysterious packages and my burgeoning curiosity was turning into unfocused anxiety and anger, I thought about recording this chain of intangible event. I thought if I took photos of them by myself, my negative feelings would reflect in the photos, so I contrived ways to shoot without being subjective and came up with the idea of shooting them unboxed using an X-ray machine.”
This was the starting point for Shunsuke Shiga producing and releasing his new art collection, Hi There.
Receiving a sudden unexpected package—it could happen to anybody. What would you do and feel if you encountered such mystifying event out of the blue in your normal day-to-day life?
The fragment of the experience is emanated through the slew of photos in Hi There.
I’ve been seeking to determine my own distinguishing creative expression that’s with a different approach than photography
ーーSo it all started from you suddenly receiving an anonymous package from Amazon?
Shunsuke Shiga (Hereinafter Shiga): Yes, it was out of the blue. It started in May 2020, where I received a beginner’s fishing set. I actually love fishing, but it was just hard to believe that it was a surprise gift from someone. I called the customers service and they told me that it’s no mistake that the package was for me, but they can’t say who it was from since it’s personal information. So, I just returned it and that was it with the first time.
ーーIf it’s a one-time thing, I would just think that it’s a simple mistake.
Shiga: Yes, but the thing is, I received another one the next day. The second one was a fake Ear Pods. I returned it again, but another one came the next day.
ーーSo that means, it happened three days in a row!?
Shiga: Yes. And the third one came while I was calling Amazon customer support. So, I told them that it was too odd and asked them to explain what was going on. I was also worried about my personal information being leaked. But still, they told me that they couldn’t tell me anything. I wanted them to handle the issue as it was also a lot of work for me to return the products every day, though they only advised me that I can just throw them away.
ーーIn the end, how many packages did you receive in total?
Shiga: It was about 30 boxes and I kept 20 of them. I opened the boxes but didn’t look what was inside. I stopped receiving after the State of Emergency.
ーーWhy did you decide to turn this series of unsolicited packages into art?
Shiga: At my previous exhibition (bugs, in February 2020,) the theme was “bug” and I used various different mediums to convey strange things happening around myself. Obviously, the artworks shown this time are different from those at the previous exhibition, but they both showcase “uncanny phenomenon” in common.
ーーI feel like the meaning of photos and means of photography change over decades.
Shiga: I’ve been working as a photographer, and every time I get a job offer for a photo shoot, it makes me question what my true role is. As smartphones became common and there are increasingly many photographers, I often think to myself, “does it really have to be me behind the camera?”
My father is also a photographer, and he has high skill level when it comes to taking still photos. I sometimes get commissioned through my father, but if the client is expecting the same quality as my father, it makes me wonder, “do they really need me?” Anyway, I’m always seeking to determine my own distinguishing creative expression that’s with a different approach than photography.
ーーAnd would you say those thoughts are ongoing from the previous exhibition?
Shiga: Yes. After my previous exhibition, I was on a hunt for new subjects. And in May 2020, the theme of this solo exhibition was delivered from Amazon. I was nothing but horrified and worried for the first 3 days receiving the packages, yet after all, I managed to shift my mood and came up with the idea of creating something out of the experience.
Making myself will-less as I press the shutter
ーーHow did you come up with the idea of shooting photos using an X-ray?
Shiga: First thing that came to mind when I received the unordered package is that I should beware of what’s inside. I wanted to know what was inside without opening the box, and in order to do so, I thought an X-ray would do.
Initially, I was thinking of scanning the packages, print those pictures, and stick them directly on the respective boxes, but it was technically hard to do so. Though an X-ray made it possible to achieve what I wanted to do, as it can both trim and develop the images.
ーーYet, wasn’t it hard to get the images the way you wanted to, as it’s only a machine that it’s quite impossible to control in ways you intend or aim for?
Shiga: In fact, that was the good part of it. I had to make myself will-less when pressing the shutter and taking the photos of the packages from Amazon. That process was done outside of my conscience, and it wasn’t subjective at all. I also wanted to see how the results of the images were going to impact the concepts of my past photos, which links to the theme of this collection.
ーーAmazing. By the way, I see X-rays at places like the airport. Where and how did you find one?
Shiga: I went on the internet and typed, “X-ray Rental” [laughs]. I found a vendor and contacted them and tested the one they had provided me. Normal X-rays only function as a scanner and their data format is often in 3MB, but fortunately, the one I rented saved images in TIFF format and made possible to develop the scan images.
ーーThat’s true, X-ray pictures aren’t usually this clear.
Shiga: Before opening this solo exhibition, I thought that a lot of people were going to come up to me like, “so, what was inside those boxes?” But ultimately, instead of putting the spotlight on that tangible matter, I wanted to translate the news-like incident into artworks and create a buzz by showcasing them to the public. And those highly obscure X-ray images were perfect for that narrative.
ーーSo, in other words, if X-ray images were high-res, they wouldn’t have worked out and would be against the theme.
Shiga: That’s right, and in that case, I would’ve selected a different device. Because the pictures are low-res, people have to get close to see what they are. Actually, these photos may be hard to tell what they are even if you see them closely [laughs]. I thought that it would be nice to provide people some time and space to think with my works. By the way, there are some pictures that look like skulls.
ーーYou also show a video of packages going through the X-ray scanner one after another. So, were these packages scanned the entire time they were passing through it?
Shiga: That’s right. Regarding the 20 boxes, someone else had scanned them about 4 to 500 times. I chose the ones that I thought looked cool in the frame. So, I should say, my will is slightly embedded there.
I’m fascinated with things that are not only designed to be enjoyed with your eyes, but can also be used
ーーIn this collection, there are X-ray scan images each printed on a light box. Why did you decide to use the light boxes?
Shiga: First, it’s because I genuinely like light box as a product. Throughout the history of photography, cameras have been deemed the most paramount tool, but on the other hand, light boxes have been underrated. Including so, I thought light box would be one of the important representations that shows the evolution of the history of photography.
ーーYou’ve collected quite a lot of light boxes. And I’ve noticed all their sizes are the same.
Shiga: It’s just coincidence—I found a lot of these used light boxes for this exhibition. The large sized ones are all gone out of the market. Sometimes, the suppliers would find the big ones out of nowhere and tell me, “We have 7 big ones now!” [laughs].
ーーHow did you print the images on light box?
Shiga: The lab that helped me for my previous exhibition had conducted multiple testing and found out that the printing can be done with a device called UV printer, that can print on acrylic panels.
ーーWith these light boxes, the photos seem to embody a different value than conventionally printed photo works.
Shiga: In the modern art market, photographic artworks don’t sell well. I’m personally fascinated with things that aren’t designed only to enjoy with your eyes but can also be used. So, I hope my works are enjoyed as lamps more than just photo works. I soldered the LED tape lights, so that they can be used for a long time.
ーーThat’s impressive how you customized the preinstalled lights in the light boxes.
Shiga: There’s another purpose for it. In the old days, Nam June Paik had made artworks out of CRT TVs. But there are unfortunate problems with his works of not being able to fix these old TVs once they break, since the parts themselves aren’t made anymore. I wouldn’t want the same thing happening to my works, and considering the people purchasing my works, I want them to enjoy my artworks for a long time, and that’s why I replaced the lamps with LED lights so that they would last long.
ーーWas there anything that sparked your awareness from releasing this collection?
Shiga: Fundamentally, I let the machine scan and do its job, so my will isn’t embodied in these works almost at all. Due to that reason, I didn’t yield much awareness, but instead, I had noticed the difficulty in assembling things that lie outside of my conscience into one.
However, that difficulty didn’t pain me, and in fact, it made me realize that I’m better at directing things while seeing myself objectively, rather than being the one behind the camera, taking pictures. I’m hoping this experience would lead to broaden the scope of my creative expression.
ーーDoes this link to what you were saying earlier about questioning the reason why you take pictures and augmenting your photographic expression?
Shiga: Yes. I’m obviously still a photographer, but speaking of work, I feel like I’m choosing based on who I’m working with more than what I’m working for. Basically, I want to create fun things with fun people.
But lately, I haven’t got that many opportunities to work with those fun people, as they become sought-after or decided to take different paths. And not to forget mentioning about my father—My career started from being my father’s assistant, so since then, we have this mentor-apprentice relationship and now that I became independent, we are two professionals in the same field. I’ve never felt uncomfortable with our relationship, but I can never beat him even if I did the same exact thing as him. In that sense, I guess I have a complex from him.
So, I want to face photography once again, do what I can with my own different approach, and challenge in augmenting my photographic expression. It would be cool if I can work with my friends who I used to work with or be able to share the same view as my father.
ーーIt’s very interesting how you took the first step with the mysterious Amazon packages you received during the pandemic.
Shiga: In the beginning, it was nothing but scary as I didn’t know what was packed inside and because of the fact my personal information was leaked. Eventually, I found out that these unsolicited packages are “brushing scams,” which is a new type of scam intended to boost ratings of products. The payments are borne by the fraud group, yet I guess they think it’s more worth getting high ratings. My family and I were horrified in the beginning, but I took it as a chance and turned the experience into art.
――So, the eerie incident brought you a chance. In the future, what kind of works would you like to produce?
Shiga: There are many more images left in the X-ray scan data, so next time I can maybe use a table or other furniture to showcase these images. I want to improve the level of the work’s quality, and I’m thinking it would be cool to study about spaces and release installation pieces.