The secret artist behind Mrs. Merryman's Collection

Miki Soejima is a magical realist, an escapologist who, for the first time, is stepping out to claim her identity as the photographer behind Mrs. Merryman's Collection, winner of the 2012 First Book Award. In the school of great fantasists such as Joan Fontcuberta, Japanese photographer Miki Soejima's work deals with the artifice at the heart of photography, and the influence of authorship. Her work comprises of a set of postcards which the artist has fabricated, and a fictional story that presents the work as objects collected by Anne-Marie Merryman, and inherited by her granddaughter Anne Sophie Merryman.

Please describe the work, in your own words.

The whole story is a fiction. I have fabricated a collection of postcards, attributing the imagery to a fictional character, Anne-Marie Merryman. Her granddaughter Anne Sophie Merryman presents the work to the public, as a set of postcards that she inherited in a wooden box. People looking at the postcards might realise they are fake through a set of hints, placed in the postcards themselves; and, at the end of the book, there is a hidden message. I created the postcards using my own photographs, and mixing different materials from postcards that I collected – so the texts on the back of the postcards are real messages in authentic handwriting… I often mix up the messages and the stamps, intentionally.

Anne Sophie Merryman was not a pseudonym, but what Fernando Pessoa called a 'heteronym' – a complete, imaginary character that goes beyond just a false name, having a supposed physique, biography, writing style… What was the genesis of Anne Sophie and her grandmother?

Some people think Anne Sophie is my pseudonym; but it’s not – she plays an important role, as a character in the story and a presenter of the work. Anne Sophie and Anne-Marie came into my mind as I considered the relationship between author and audience, and between photography and authorship. I am interested in photography because it's a medium with a particular relationship to reality. In photography, we always cut-out a scene – elements or fragments from reality; and photographs have a very particular effect as they play with veracity. They can be used as evidence, but at the same time, they can be used as a persuasive tool. The author of the photographs and/or the author who relates the narrative around the photographs (sometimes they are the same person, sometimes separated) often has a very dominant presence – influencing their audience.

I wanted the audience to look at these images without the presence of an author, so I decided to remove myself from the work, and to make it anonymous. The work is presented as found postcards, each created by various anonymous authors. The audience is set free from the weight of the authorial voice, and therefore they can explore the work more freely. At the same time, I tried to evoke a persona, Anne-Marie, and her imaginary realm through the images that she collected. There are two layers: while Anne-Marie stemmed from the need to ascribe the collection to a character, Anne Sophie’s role was, through the transmission of the collection, to make the work come alive.

It was an interesting experience, because when I took photographs for this project, I always had Anne-Marie in mind. As I looked for images, I was thinking about her, and what she would find interesting.

When did you decide to present the work as postcards?

Postcards were actually the beginning of the project. It started as an assignment that I was given in a workshop: to respond to the theme 'Fake'. I began to make fake old postcards. I'm not exactly sure why; I had never collected postcards before (I actually don't like collecting), but I did like looking at them. It just came into my mind, and I began to make them, and I saw that I was onto something interesting, so I continued. The postcard fits well as a medium – as objects related to memory, to authenticity ('I was there'), and to authorship and anonymity. Postcards carry a lot of stories by their nature – chosen and sent from somebody to somebody else to deliver a message. A postcard is potentially a very attractive object.

So although it might look like the concept came first, it's not true at all. As I was making fake postcards, I began to look for a way to make them alive. That’s when the story and the characters came in.

Was it always going to be a book?

No. I wished and hoped that in the end it might be a book – but in the beginning I was thinking about an exhibition, because the postcards are objects in themselves. As it happened, the very moment that I finished the work it was nominated for the award. Suddenly I had to make a dummy in a few weeks. I had a set of postcards in a box, and I had to now conceive of my project as a book.

What was it like making the dummy?

It happened so quickly! This was the first maquette I had ever made. I had to Google 'how to bind a book'. The sequencing was quite intuitive, as was the choice of colour and design. I wanted it to be simple. I printed the pages and wrote the text which introduces Anne-Marie and Anne Sophie. I had to make the award deadline, so I only had two and a half weeks – it was crazy. But I'm glad I had the deadline – it made the project come together all at once.

After the work was chosen as winner, you worked with MACK to produce the book. Were there any technical challenges to overcome? Were certain aspects realised in the dummy difficult to realise on a larger scale?

There was one major challenge – the question of how the secret, which reveals the work as a fiction, should be hidden. In the dummy, I fastened the secret at the back of the book, in an origami letter. This was not possible in the MACK version, so I had to come up with more ideas. Every week it was like having homework – on Monday I would bring something to MACK, we'd look at it together, talk with the printers in Germany, and see if it was possible. Some were just not possible. In total, there were four different ideas: the second idea was to hide the letter under the endpapers; the third was to sew a letter onto the final page; and the fourth – the one that worked – was to sew the last two pages together. The last idea is actually the simplest, and I think it's the best one.

Some people think that you can read the secret if you hold the pages up to the light – but actually we thought about this. We made sure the letters are on top of each other – so you can't read the words. You can see there's something there, but you can't find out unless you unpick the sewn pages.

What changed in the MACK version?

The design process was interesting, so much was about details. Grégoire [Pujade-Lauraine] helped me so much. The sequence changed twice after the maquette, as I tried different orders, listening to what the MACK people were advising and thinking. And the size changed – it became slightly smaller, with less space around the images. I think it's better because it's more intimate.

What would you change?

I don't want to change anything. If I printed the book again, I'd make small colour adjustments in the images. But I'm not disappointed in any way.

Were there any good surprises?

My surprise was actually about the MACK team, and how much they respect the author. They gave me all the decisions. There was so much trust in me. I'd like to thank Grégoire for finding and nominating my work, and Michael [Mack] for believing in the work and trusting my decisions.

Were there any major consequences from publishing the book?

Publishing the book changed my situation a lot: because of the book, the work has been noticed, and I've even started to earn some income directly from selling my work. This has given me a lot of time for myself and to work on my next project, which is really an amazing change for me. Before, I was just working to survive all the time – which makes it difficult to have space in your head to work on your own project.

So you were doing lots of other jobs, while you were making the images for this book?

In the years I was making these photographs, I worked in a photography studio in London, and before that I was a pastry chef for several years. I did many other jobs in Kyoto while studying cultural anthropology before coming to the UK.

What camera did you use?

I used two cameras for this project: a compact film camera, and an old £1 camera from the market. The old camera fit the project – the lens was not so sharp, an effect that made my photographs look like old postcard images. I wore a jacket which had two pockets at the front, with one small camera in each. I didn’t seek out specific images, but I just went to places that interested me and tried to respond to the situations I was in. After Anne-Marie had come into the project, I would think of her, and what she would find interesting. One picture is from the Natural History Museum in London, another is a giant jellyfish I saw while kayaking in Vietnam, another is wood crumble I saw in Andalusia…

I made these photographs over four years – but it was in the last two years that I made most of the pictures and really knew what I was doing.

Who are you influenced by?

I'm influenced the most by literature. I grew up with fictional stories, and they were always very important to me. For this work, probably there are many influences from writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, Italo Calvino or Gabriel Garcia Márquez. And Japanese literature has been always very important to me, especially the early- and mid- 20th century writers like Saisei Murou, Kafu Nagai and Soseki Natsume… and many others. And of course, many photographers and filmmakers influenced me. To name one: when I saw Luigi Ghirri's work for the first time, it really struck me. It made me realise that photography is a medium that can engage people not only to feel but also to think deeply.

You hired an actress to play Anne Sophie Merryman, to collect the award and to sign books. Can you talk about that process?

After the story and Anne Sophie's character came in, I decided to hire an actress to present the collection to the public. Anne Sophie is an actress in the story as well. The award ceremony was the first opportunity to make this performance. I searched and contacted some actresses through a professional casting website, and interviewed potential Anne Sophies at Foyles Cafe in London. Delia [Remy] was the actress I chose… She came to the award ceremony and she did book signings in Paris. We actually became close friends.

I chose Delia, because she had an atmosphere I was looking for and compared to other actresses, I didn't have to explain much. She got it straight away. I showed her the dummy, and got her to read the story – and that was enough. She had experience working with different artists, and she was very open-minded. We clicked immediately. The only opposing thought I had was that she was too beautiful; Anne Sophie would not have been so beautiful! I was looking for somebody who would not have to act too much. Somebody who was already like the Anne Sophie that I imagined. With Delia, after explaining the story, I could say: act as you are, with this information in mind.

When Delia was on stage collecting the award, or signing books, I was always in the background, filming. She was amazing, talking to people about the postcards. Some people knew it was a fiction, and they were playing with her. She would improvise very well. The whole elaborate project was to take myself out of it, to remove the author, and to get people to experience the work through the story.

One of the great things that happened because of the book, was that I met so many amazing people like her, people at MACK and other artists.

Is it crucial to the work that your audience discovers the secret?

Yes and no. If some people never notice the fictional side it's fine. But there are lots of different ways that they can find out. It could be by the book (hints), by rumour (whispers) or by this interview. There are different stages of perception: first the audience might read the story and look at the postcards, and believe; next they might begin to see discrepancies, and doubt; finally, they might know the secret, and think differently. Knowing the secret doesn't change the work, it completes it.

Removing yourself as author must also have made you more distant from the work, and from the reactions of the audience.

Sometimes the project does not feel like my own at all. I think it is because I also played the role of a producer in this work. And I'm distant from the audience's reaction too. I haven’t had the chance to speak to the public yet. I would love to know how people respond. But it's OK – it's meant to be this way.

Are you considering an exhibition?

Yes. It will be quite a different experience from the book, of course. Anne Sophie’s narration (voice) will have an important role, and the audience will see the ‘real’ fabricated postcards as objects in front of them.

Are you working on another project?

Yes, I am working on it right now. It will be quite different, I am using a new format. It will develop some themes that are present in Mrs. Merryman’s Collection and at the same time, it will explore new areas… but I can’t really talk much about it yet…

What did you learn from publishing the book? Do you have any advice for other photographers making their first book?

I learnt so much working on this project and making a book with MACK, and I’m still learning. My advice to other people would be to just continue. To continue working on what you believe in until you are fully convinced. Don’t stop.

Interviewed by Izabella Scott, October 2013