Interview: César Ordóñez

The Spanish master of stolen moments delves into the nuances of his pictures
'Hanabi' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'
'Hanabi' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'
By Annemarie Luck |
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'I'm in love with Tokyo,' says Spanish photographer César Ordóñez. He is not the first to proclaim such a connection with the city, of course, but his artistic expression of it lends a unique quality to the feeling.

The creators of Tokyo-Ga – an ongoing art project curated by Naoko Ohta that portrays the city through the eyes of 100 photographers – recognised this quality in his 'Ashimoto' (Around the feet) series and in 2011 asked him to be part of their campaign. Eschewing the clichés that so many come to believe about the sprawling metropolis, Ordóñez prefers to look for meaning and representation in other places. For starters, pretty feet... 

In your 'Ashimoto' series, you focus solely on women's legs and feet. It's not hard to understand the aesthetic appeal, but I'm sure there is more to the concept than meets the eye?
The story starts years ago, when I was a child. I always thought the feet were a very interesting part of a woman. I thought they were beautiful and should be shown off all the time. When I first came to Tokyo in 2000, I was struck by how Japanese women, especially in Tokyo, take care of their appearance. Their hands and feet are always perfectly manicured.

I was also struck by the diversity in style. In Barcelona, for example, in summer you see only one style of shoe – Havaianas [flip-flops] – but here in Tokyo everyone is different. It's not about fetish or fashion. I have always been interested in portraying the femininity, sensitivity and sensual charm of women, and I feel that these qualities are perfectly conveyed through these images. I completed the original series in 2007 but since being involved in Tokyo-Ga, I have begun adding photos to the collection.

“César

'Shinjuku' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'

Where do your ideas begin?
My ideas usually come from the photos. What I mean is, I don't like to stage photographs, I like them to be spontaneous. When I'm in Tokyo, I like to walk around the streets taking pictures. It's a kind of meditation for me. It's about the experience. I take pictures to understand things; to understand me and the world around me.

I want to understand the relationship that exists between people and the city they live in. The two are connected – the city influences its people and the people influence their city. 'Ashimoto' was a kind of a starting point for the continuous project I am working on in Tokyo. I'm looking at femininity and other concepts like intimacy within a big city environment.

So when you're walking about Tokyo, you spot a feminine foot and snap away? Or do you stop and ask permission first?
It's a bit of both, although I prefer to steal the photo. My concept is stolen photos. Often when I ask permission, the photo then becomes staged and the magic I first saw disappears. For example, one of the 'Ashimoto' pictures shows the legs of three girls standing in a row.

Two of the girls were friends, but the third was a photographer I just met on the street who joined us in that moment. I asked the girls if I could photograph them together but the picture I ended up choosing was a stolen one, a moment in which they were all laughing and chatting together and unaware of my camera. I think you can pick this up in the picture. There is movement and emotion that wouldn't have been there otherwise.

“César

'Chie' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'

It's interesting that you can sense what's happening in the picture even though you are only looking at the feet... 
This is exactly my point. I don't want to show the whole picture. I want to show only a part and from that I want people to create their own stories. The viewer fills the rest in with their imagination.

What is it about Tokyo that captures your imagination?
Whenever I land in Tokyo, I feel at home. It's strange because it's very far from my actual home in Barcelona. I think it’s related to the fact that here I feel like I have a more intimate relationship with myself. In Barcelona I want to control everything in my world – my relationships, the politics, my work. But you can’t. Life happens. If you try to control your life, it ends up stressing you out.

When I'm in Tokyo, there is a lot I don’t understand. Because I speak only a little Japanese and my English is also not perfect, in all conversations I have here, there is a space where I don't understand what is happening. This means it’s impossible for me to be in complete control of my life here, and in a way this relaxes me. I've tried to convey this feeling through my latest project 'Tokyo Blur'. The out of focus portion of the pictures represents this space I feel between myself and the world around me when I'm in Tokyo. It's a positive feeling.

“César

'Ginza-no-hana' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'

Is this feeling represented in your 'Intimidad' (Intimacy) series too?
Yes, but from a slightly different angle. When I present this work in Mexico or Spain, they think of it as isolation because the photographs show people on their own. This is a cliché about Tokyo, which I can understand, but it isn’t my point of view. For me it’s about a feeling I have every time I come to Tokyo… My private physical and emotional space is preserved; no-one enters this space around me without my permission. This is a very interesting feeling for me. I don’t feel isolated in Tokyo, I have friends here, but if I want to be with myself I can be.

Last question... Heels or flats, which do you prefer?
Heels!

“César

'Shinjuku-no-kokoro' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'

César Ordóñez has exhibited around the world and his works are part of important collections including Auer Photo Foundation (Geneva, Switzerland), Fundacio Fotocolectania (Barcelona, Spain) and Fundacion Unicaja (Malaga, Spain). To see more of his photographs, visit his website

For more information about the Tokyo-Ga project, click here.

“César

'Harajuku' © César Ordóñez, courtesy of the artist and 'Tokyo-Ga'

“César

César Ordóñez

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