In his ongoing series i-shi (2016–), Tokyo-based photographer Taro Karibe (b. 1988) documents the Aokigahara or Sea of Trees, a dense 35-square-kilometer forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji, notorious for being venue to frequent incidents of suicide for several decades now.
Other than photographing the trees that bore witness to these deaths, and the traces of the transient inhabitants and the deceased in this area more popularly referred to as the Suicide Forest, Taro uses an exposure time of 10 seconds, the length of time it takes, according to him, for people to pass out upon hanging themselves—hanging being the most common method of suicide in Aokigahara.
Through this process, he attempts to recast the place as an analogue to the psyche of those “who come in, stay for a while, and make irreversible decisions in the forest,” and retrace the last image that these people may have seen before dying. “[L]ittle by little I felt like the border between life and death became a blur,”1 Taro says of the images in the series. True enough, the ensuing photographs bare the Sea of Trees to a numinous, almost mephitic light, the vegetation and other ghostly details of the forest taking on a seemingly fossilized presence, as if calcinated in St. Elmo’s fire. As a line from Mallarmé goes, “Nothing will have taken place but the place.”
Other than the numerous suicides in recent decades, the forest is also historically associated to death because of the rumored practice of ubasute in the previous centuries and for being an infamous place of haunting. The aftermath is the locus of i-shi, and the remains and spectral traces layered in Aokigahara, for being a site of trauma, inevitably become potent states of archive. Such a project entails the need “‘to record and represent the grain and patina of place,’”2 and this is what Taro tries to achieve in the series.
In i-shi, Taro strives toward photography that explores the limits of the visible while mining the polysemy of the word ishi, Japanese for “mind”, “human remains”, and “death by hanging.” Trauma opens up space to bring about immiscible codes; the landscape of trauma, according to Laura Cantarella, “seems to acquire a new independent life, outside of human logic and perhaps closer to biological logic,”3 and this succinctly finds expression in the parallel Taro Karibe creates between the psyche and a haunted forest that resists domestication.
1 Taro Karibe. “i-shi: Suicide Forest, Japan.” Personal Works. Taro Karibe, http://www.tarokaribe.com/i-shi-suicide-forest.
2 Pearson and Shanks qtd. in Iain Biggs. “Deep Mapping: An introduction”. Mapping Spectral Traces 2010. Ed. Karen E. Till.
3 Cantarella, Laura. “Topography of Trauma: An Exercise in Comparative Landscape”. Topography of Trauma. Eds. Laura Cantarella and Lucia Guiliano.