In 2010, growing tired of the seven-day grind of running Kawa, an organic café in the artist’s hometown Sydney, Meg Hewitt hit the streets with her camera in the hope of capturing characters and cultural peculiarities. Those familiar with her predominantly black-and-white photography will know that Hewitt is no stranger to seeking out humans in their most, well, human form. Some examples include a bronzed middle-aged man wearing nothing more than a pink thong, withdrawing cash from a ‘GAYTM’ at Sydney World Pride or the ‘Hasidic kids’ sitting on plastic crates, hanging out in Williamsburg, New York. It’s photographs like these that have earned Hewitt many nominations and accolades since picking up the camera, among them a gold medal from the Tokyo International Foto Awards 2018.
Between 2015 and 2017, the artist, who studied sculpture, painting and media, spent a lot of time travelling to Tokyo, during which she set out on hour-long walks, camera and flash at the ready. From those trips emerged a photo book entitled Tokyo is Yours (2017), and a retrospective collection of the same name, which has toured Arles, Sydney, Tokyo – and now Berlin. For her Germany debut, Hewitt is exhibiting at the Photo Foundation, part of Chaussee 36.
If you were going off the press pack alone, you might feel slightly underwhelmed by what could be overlooked as simple black-and-white shots. However, the photographs are worth observing in person; the collection features some outstanding works that really highlight the heartening resilience of mankind. “Although I’m from Australia – a land of floods and bushfires – living in Sydney, you’re kind of in a bubble. Tokyo seemed different,” the artist says. “So I was looking for symbols and metaphors to explore how the city had been affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the consequent Fukushima disaster.” Hewitt’s photographs show symbolic remnants of the disasters – safety ladders, hose pipes and buckets – hidden in the midst of Tokyo’s newfound bustle.
Let’s take ‘Golden Gai’ (2017), shot in Hewitt’s favourite part of Tokyo’s underbelly, an invitation-only artists’ bar. A poet lives alone upstairs in a room surrounded by Haiku sheets of paper. The trans bartender wears a penis-shaped wooden mask. “In Shinjuku, there are these little bars that feel like you’re popping in and out of people’s doors. Every time I came, I always visited the photographer’s bar, Koji Koji. One night, it was late, and we just wanted to go somewhere new. So someone in there introduced me to this painter’s bar,” she explains.
Through vignette shots and grainy finishes, Hewitt creates depth and movement that feels like we are a part of the proceedings, epitomising the essence of street photography. Inspired by manga storytelling, parallels can be drawn between her style and the black-and-white works of Japanese photographer Daidō Moriyama. While the 85-year-old’s work is more seasoned, Hewitt has been refining her style in more recent years and becoming more daring.
The craziest thing she has done more recently to get the perfect picture, she says, was partying with the Kingdom of the Little People in their mushroom houses near Kunming in South West China. “I had heard about them so I set out with a bottle of whiskey, making my way through the forest until I reached their houses. They gave me a tour, and then we sat there, sipping on some whiskey. At some point, they started performing in front of me. It was like being with the cast of Glee! I have a lot of great photos from that day,” she laughs.
To master the art of street photography, curiosity, adventurousness and a good sense of humour are the ingredients that Hewitt certainly possesses. Whilst I’m dying to see the photos from her trip to the Kingdom, Tokyo will be ours to explore until the end of January.
- Chaussee 36, Mitte, through Jan 27, 2024, free of charge, details.