Exploring and feeling Japan through the camera lens: interview with street photographer Marianna Berno

October 25, 2021
A place is never simply “a place”; it is a mix of optical effects and emotions that differ in every single individual that visits it. Many are the forms of art that help humans capture the subjectivity of reality, but photography definitely has that extra bit that allows the viewer to really immerse in the artist’s emotional sphere. To say that is Marianna Berno, a street photographer that explored Japan through the lens of her camera and captured the nostalgic quotidianity of its people. Ready to re-discover Japan through a new and exceptional angle?
Courtesy of Marianna Berno.
Marianna and I met in the hallways of L’Orientale University of Naples, where we were both studying Asian languages: me, Korean, her, Japanese. In all honesty, we never interacted much during those years, but I am pretty sure we both were intrigued by each other. Although I don’t know what could make her interested in me, I know for sure what piqued my curiosity: the beautiful photographs she shared (and continues sharing) on her Instagram account.

Marianna is indeed a talented street photographer and her social media profiles are a beautiful gateway to new realities: by carrying her camera everywhere she goes, she captures ordinary moments and transforms them into photographic memories, giving the immortality and the importance that us, distracted passerbys, would have never given. Through her photographs, the viewer can thus not simply discover new places and feel part of that faraway reality, but can virtually join the travel and ‘feel’ those places in the same way that Marianna did.

Marianna is a self-taught photographer and continues her craft while studying Japanese in L'Orientale university. This proved to be the best combination as it brought her to travel to Japan for long periods, exploring and perceiving the place through her camera lens. Mesmerized by the photographs she took in Japan, I decided to have a chat with Marianna about street photography and her experience in the Land of the Rising Sun, thus embarking in a journey that brought me to discover the country through a different lens: that of Marianna’s camera and her incredibly attentive and nostalgic sensitivity.
Marianna Berno, the street photographer interviewed in this article.
Courtesy of Marianna Berno.
Hi Marianna! Welcome and thank you for accepting to have this interview for The Lunar Times. If you are here today to have a chat with me it is because you are a passionate street photographer. In a previous interview you explained that your passion for photography started during a trip to London, but what happened exactly?
I had the good fortune to go to London on a school trip when I was 17. I was on cloud nine because going to London was something I had always dreamt of. Once there, I let myself be carried away by the atmosphere, by the lights, by the red details of the phone booths and of the buses. I then realized that I would have loved to capture everything in the exact way I was perceiving it and to do it in the most subjective way through photographs, because if I tried to describe what I was seeing and feeling with words, they turned out to be insufficient, unhelpful, even empty. I do not believe in the vision of photography as an objective representation of reality because, if that were the case, every photo taken in the same place would be perfectly identical.

Back then I had a compact camera but the settings were very limited, which made it quite frustrating to use due to its inadequacy to capture the moment exactly as I was perceiving it. I then decided to gaze at every detail of London’s streets and imprint them in my mind, but they simply remain there, impossible to touch as you can instead do with printed photographs. During that trip I thus realized I felt the impellent need to share my perception of the world through pictures, and I eventually bought my very first reflex two years later. It was a Nikon D3100, which accompanied every step I took until my last trip to Japan in 2019, when I decided to substitute it with a Nikon D600 full frame.
One can say that travelling is a great form of inspiration for your art. But what, in particular, inspires your shots?
What inspires my photographs are people in their quotidianity, in their simplicity that turns to be their complexity. I love to sit in a corner and observe, to then capture those details that make those moments unique and unrepeatable. Talking about it, a quote from the movie “Her” comes to my mind: “Sometimes I look at people and make myself try and feel them as more than just a random person walking by. I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love, or how much heartbreak they’ve all been through.”
When I am in another country, everything can take a different meaning on the whole.
Throughout the past years you had the possibility to live in Japan for extended periods of time. What could you learn of the country through the camera lens?
Through my camera lens I could better observe the Japanese flow of time, in particular when I was taking photographs in stations at rush hour: I was forced to consistently change the camera settings because everyone was in a rush to reach a new place, while I was trying to make their image eternal in that specific spot. I could also observe the great attention and the gentleness Japanese people have towards the little things, one of my favourite aspects of this culture.
On the crossroad.
Courtesy of Marianna Berno.
Among the countless photos you took in Japan, is there one shot that you particularly prefer?
There are many of them and my self-esteem is grateful that I took those photographs. However, if I have to pick only one, I would say the photo I took one evening at Nishijin, Fukuoka [photo below]. It was a weekday like many others and I went to do the groceries at around 7:00, bringing the camera with me. I used to walk down that street every day to go both to the supermarket and to the nearby temple to enjoy the silence’s company. That day, when I left the supermarket I noticed that the sky was still blue, even if the sun had set already, and that the shops had already turned on the lights outside. That created a nice contrast of colours and made me re-discover that street that was so familiar to me. Those lights and the red lantern outside of the shop transmitted to me the idea of the “Japanese atmosphere in everyday life”, the simplicity of the day that leaves room to the night.
Nishijin at nightfall.
Courtesy of Marianna Berno.
When you work with street photography you are in close contact with the environment you photograph. I imagine that, because of it, episodes may happen that remain etched in your memory, which if told can add more detail and emotion to the photo taken. Did anything particular happen to you while taking a photo in Japan?
The first episode that comes to my mind involves a Korean couple that I photographed in a kiosk situated on a beach in Fukuoka. Instead of interacting with each other, they kept their heads constantly on their phones. In the background, the soundtrack of the movie “Pretty Woman” was playing, the laughter of the kids sitting at the next table ringing and the sea waves echoing. That couple was however sitting in silence, as if they did not belong to that dimension. It was a sad scene, or at least I perceived it as such, but they were probably happy that way. Afterall, when we talk about photography, there is the perspective of the one that takes the photograph and of the one that observes the photograph, and it is always interesting to discover which are the different emotions that the same picture evoke in different people.
A couple sitting at the table of a kiosk on a beach in Fukuoka.
Courtesy of Marianna Berno.
While waiting for Japan to open its doors to visitors, what are you looking forward to photographing as soon as you can return?
I fantasize a lot about going back to Japan: I miss it and I cannot stop thinking about how much the country could help me evolve as a photographer — which after all is the result of an inner change. I would love to photograph again places I have already visited, discover new alleyways hidden to tourists and explore cities where I have never been before. I would also like to expand my horizons and take portraits of local people by visiting places like the game centres. Moreover, I would also like to start recording short videos in the same style as my photographs.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to approach street photography for the first time?
The best advice I could give is to just snap pictures by every means at your disposal. If something catches your attention, you need to ask yourself: “what is the reason? Is it something I would like to show to the others?” and then just click. Overthinking will not lead you anywhere. Focus on the here and now.
A beach in Fukuoka at nightfall.
Courtesy of Marianna Berno.
In the hope that this interview offered you a flight from reality and successfully made you land in the nostalgic atmosferes portrayed in Marianna’s photographs, I recommend you to support her work by following her on Instagram and Flickr.
valeria raimondo
Co-Founder and previous Chief Editor/Head of Society of The Lunar Times. 
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