Photographers Sean Lotman and Ariko Inaoka: ‘Everything has meaning: trees, stones, water, stars. God is in there.’

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Sean Lotman and Ariko Inaoka pose with their son, Tennbo, and the family dog, Monk.

Sean Lotman, 46, and Ariko Inaoka, 47, are photographers and life partners living in Kyoto. In addition to her photography career, Ariko runs the oldest soba restaurant in the city, Honke Owariya (founded in 1465), while Sean manages a guesthouse and is a stay-at-home father to their son, Tennbo, 7.

1. How did you meet?

Sean: We met in Tokyo 17 years ago and traveled around Africa together soon after. I thought I was done with Japan before I met Ariko.

Ariko: It was just three months after I moved back to Japan from the U.S. Sean was leaving for Africa on a nine-month trip, so I went there to join him.

2. How did you both become photographers?

Ariko: I took a photo class in high school in San Diego. I always wanted to find something I was good at, dancing or art. I tried photography and went — this is it! So I enrolled at Parsons School of Design (in New York) and studied there.

Sean: My background was writing. Photography developed slowly via traveling. I was a walker, meandering, looking for serendipitous discovery. I always had a camera on hand. Mostly travel pictures at first, then I began developing an aesthetic process more seriously, choosing color palettes and working more in the darkroom.

3. What are the benefits of travel for an artist?

Sean: Travel keeps me youthful and makes my life richer. It challenges me to immerse myself. I read about the place before I go, but I love getting lost.

Ariko: Breaking through your own cultural blind spots, you realize what’s true for you. You can be free when you come back. No downsides except guilt about the environmental impact.

4. What are the benefits of staying put and having roots as you do now?

Ariko: As a photographer, I wanted to go to countries I never saw. I wanted to leave Japan. As a restaurateur during COVID, I’ve been traveling more locally. Nara and Wakayama, going to onsen (hot spring baths) and shrines. The beauty of Japan during this period is helping me appreciate my business and where I live more.

Sean: It’s definitely more challenging in Japan for me. I do miss the sense of community in the U.S., engaging in politics and local elections. I’d probably be coaching Little League or something. Here, it’s more about being in touch with myself and my family.

5: How long does it take to finish a project from start to finish?

Ariko: I took five years to shoot my first project. Then two years to make the book, and two years after that to exhibit because of COVID. I’m 47 and run a business. It takes a lot of time.

Sean: I’m still shooting and exploring the archives from my entire life. It’s a never-ending process.

6. If you weren’t artists, what other careers might you be doing now?

Sean: In my dream I would be a film director like Hal Ashby or (Steven) Soderbergh, experimenting with different genres. More realistically, maybe owning a taco restaurant.

Ariko: I would like to grow my own food and cook naturally. A chef maybe? Someone who has time to cook, nourishing myself and others, and living closer to earth and nature.

7. Sean, you were born in Los Angeles. Do you consider yourself an expat or an immigrant in Japan?

Sean: I would say I’m a resident, but I’m a bit of both. Sometimes, I feel I’m more of an emigre from all of America’s social issues.

8. Ariko, you’ve also lived abroad extensively. Are there things you would like to see change in Japan after that experience?

Ariko: I wish Japanese people lived for themselves more. Love themselves more. There is too much pressure to be this way or that way. It’s making us unhappy. We’re often afraid to speak out in our own voices. The education system needs to change.

9. Which countries inspire your photography most?

Sean: India and Japan. I have a love-hate relationship with India. I’ve been there six times and every time I ask, “Why am I here again? Shouldn’t I see Nepal or somewhere else?” But, I keep going back.

Ariko: Iceland and India. There’s a metaphysical connection with water in my work in Iceland. I realized recently that it stems from Japan. We have such a deep connection to water here. Especially in the region surrounding Kyoto. India is a place where I feel very free and unrestricted.

10. How has the pandemic affected your practice and lives?

Sean: I am very cautious about COVID. It gave me time to delve deep into my archives looking for patterns to create new narratives. I’m experimenting with 15 years of work. It allowed me to find patterns I wasn’t seeing before.

Ariko: I’m a restaurant owner as well. There’s never enough time. I published my book just before COVID; no events, no galleries. Fortunately, after two years we’re finally getting back to openings — two years with no space!

Sean Lotman and Ariko Inoaka both enjoy the more analog elements of photography.
Sean Lotman and Ariko Inaoka both enjoy the more analog elements of photography. 

11. Why analog (film) photography rather than digital?

Sean: I love darkroom printing. Seeing the negative, a pictorial blueprint. It’s a meditative, tranquil place. It also slows you down to (better) compose a photo.

Ariko: Photography is the entire process of making pictures: film, contact sheets, printing — that whole process is photography.

12. How do try you cultivate creativity in your son, Tennbo?

Sean: I’ve been photographing him in a comedic tableau. He does collaborate with me as a model. I try to expose him to different mediums to find what he likes doing: collage, drawing, film, poetry and dance — he’s a great dancer. And we shoot short films with his cousin. He helps me edit. He’s also got a Moog keyboard. We record him making music. He loves taking pictures with his Polaroid camera, too.

Tennbo (from background): This camera can do videos and zoom for three miles!

Sean: I didn’t know it could zoom three miles, wow!

13. What do you wish you had done differently?

Sean: I wish I took life more seriously when I was younger. I was going with the flow in my teens and 20s. No internet then, so I was using books and CDs to inform myself. It took awhile to figure out who I was. I started photography too late. There were a lot of missed opportunities. Can’t complain though.

Ariko: I feel like everything was meant to be done this way. I’ve been making my life the way I want to. It’s challenging to be a photographer, wife and restaurant owner, but it’s a good life.

14. What are you looking for when you take photographs?

Ariko: Photography captures something you cannot see. When I look for a long time, it’s evoking powerful subconscious memories. From my childhood. I want to reach beyond reality. Everything has meaning: trees, stones, water, stars. God is in there. I want to reach that.

Sean: That has evolved. At the start I was looking for extraordinary, strange, shocking, humorous. Now I’m more curious about personal photos of my son, patterns in nature, layers of building facades in Kyoto. Things I overlooked as a younger man.

15. What does your typical day look like?

Sean: Wake up. Get Tennbo ready for school. Walk Monk, our dog. Run a guesthouse. If I have time for photography, I’m in the darkroom. Then cleaning the house. I’m basically a stay-at-home-dad while Ariko goes to the office. I love to make dinner. Hang out with Tennbo. We’re all together after 5 p.m.

Ariko: Wake up. Coffee. Go to work Honke Owariya from 8:30 a.m. to 5 pm. When I have exhibitions I’ll be there on the weekends. I might get to work on photography once a week.

16. Did your parents inspire your art and parenting?

Sean: Not much. My father is a lawyer, my mom was a homemaker. Always supportive. But they never guided me the way I am helping Tennbo. There were no probing artistic or philosophical questions. If I wanted, I could just play video games. I’m trying to be proactive with my son. Restricting screen time. More time outside. Just kicking a ball together brings me real joy.

Ariko: No. They didn’t. They were from a completely different generation. I’m the first woman owner of our restaurant. I’m married to an American. That wasn’t even accepted one generation back. I feel lucky to be from this time. My mom allowed me to live abroad, she lived in Paris in the 1960s. But as far as parenting and creativity, it’s just totally different now.

17. What is it like being an artist in Kyoto?

Ariko: Kyoto is such a small town. I can’t talk openly about anything. I once saw an acquaintance’s husband out with another woman. Maybe she was just a friend, but … people talk!

Sean: Kyoto can be very cliquey. It’s a place to work for me. I’m not interested in showing work here. I have published two books here, but my audience is in the U.S. and abroad. I lead a quiet life focused on family. I rarely see friends. Kyoto is a great place for hole-in-the-wall places to have drinks, but now I mostly like to watch sunsets along the river.

18. What projects do you have coming up?

Ariko: I am exhibiting at Hosoo Gallery for Kyotographie as one of 10 contemporary Japanese female photographers. I also have an exhibition in Iceland in November.

Sean: I have a new book that will be published in Paris and Antwerp. I have a book about Japan available called “Sunlanders” that still has some copies available. “The Sniper Paused So He Could Wipe His Brow…” I’ve recently published two books, “Amoeba,” which is sold out, and “Middle Life Notes,” which is still available. I’m working on a half-dozen projects that I’m finding a narrative to show publishers.

19. Are there any artists you envied when you were young?

Ariko: Well, Ryan McGinley was in my school (Parsons School of Design) and we all envied his career path. (McGinley was one of the youngest artists to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.) When I was young I wanted to be like that. Rushing to be accepted. Now I work on art only two days a week or less while running my business.

Sean: My sister, Jennifer. She traveled, too, but by hitchhiking across Europe and setting up squats in different countries. She was also an excellent writer and storyteller. She was living experiences I could only make up. She had an uncommon common sense. I trusted her advice and intuition. It wasn’t envy so much as an awareness that she was living a way of life that was exemplary and that I could aspire to. Had it not been for her sudden illness, I am sure she would have a profound impact in whatever community she settled in.

20. What advice would you give to young artists?

Ariko: You need to know what you really love and are interested in. Stick to it. Even if you think others don’t like it or care. Read, study, learn. Then you physically need to make a move. Take action! After you learn something you need to put it into practice.

Sean: Never give up. It’s hard. You’ll often be confronted by indifference to your art. If you have something to say, say it in a personal way. You don’t need these huge audiences, I’ve learned. A passionate small audience is enough. Cult followings are better. Not financially, of course, but it’s enough to keep you going.

Ariko Inaoka will be featured as one of 10 contemporary female photographers at the 10th Kyotographie international photography festival from April 4 to May 8. For more on Sean Lotman, visit seanlotman.com.

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