Lucie Rox’s New Zine Captures the Quiet, Soft Side of Life in Japan

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Japan Signs Lucie Rox zine photography
From SIGNS, 2019Photography by Lucie Rox

SIGNS, a new zine of pictures taken in Japan from Paris-born photographer Lucie Rox, is about the joy of exploring new places

In December 2017, Lucie Rox spent two weeks travelling around Japan. Before embarking on her trip, the Paris-born, London-based photographer and contributor re-read Roland Barthes’ seminal 1970 text Empire of Signs, in which the author meditates on Japanese culture from the perspective of a European tourist. The book was very influential to Rox, who adapted its title for her newly published zine SIGNS, a collection of photographs she took over her trip.

“While I was travelling and when I was working on SIGNS, I always had Empire of Signs in my head,” Rox explains. “I liked the idea that it was referring to Japan in a very distant way, but also that photographs are always a sign of something else, something unseen.” The photographs in SIGNS are rendered in Rox’s usual warm style, the result of time spent perfecting prints (“after months in the darkroom printing those photographs, I couldn’t bring myself to just leave them behind in a box,” she recalls), and capture quotidian details in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Mount Koya seen throughout the trip.

SIGNS is not so much a study of Japan, but a series that encapsulates the feeling of travelling and “being taken by the novelty of the streets, objects and people living their everyday life in front you” in new places. “For me, while making the zine, it was very important to stress how as a European having been there for two weeks, I couldn’t pretend to say anything about Japan as a place or a culture,” says Rox. “Similar to Barthes’ position, Japan merely offered me a ‘situation of writing’ – or of taking those images – by its newness to me and its constant foreign symbolism, starting with the alphabet.”

Rox discovered Japan by walking its streets, and finding that “my eye might be caught by a specific light, shape, an object or moment that flashes and resonates with me somehow”. (An earlier zine of hers, There is No One on the Streets, shot in the United States in 2015, took this same approach.) For Rox, who often shoots fashion photography and portraiture, taking her camera with her abroad offers an irresistible change of pace: “As much as I love working in the fashion frame, working with teams and creating more researched imagery, it’s very stimulating to just be able to create the images while walking on your own,” she says. “There’s a very pure excitement that comes with it, and for me now travelling and photographing always go hand in hand – to the point where I’m questioning what comes first between the desire to travel and the desire to take photographs.” Rox has the Congo, where she has family heritage, and South America in mind to explore next.

In Japan, Rox was drawn to the quieter side of the streets she was discovering: SIGNS features photographs of two girls sharing pink candy floss, lights and signs filling up the length of an alleyway, electricity lines set against blue skies, and snow-covered stone statues. One of her favourite images depicts the shadow of a car on a wall. “It was taken in a Tokyo suburb, a place called Saitama,” she says. “It was still the very beginning of the trip and I was incredibly jet-lagged so everything felt like it was floating a bit. I took some time on my own to walk the quiet streets and watch the suburban life happening in front of me. It feels like the closest I got to a glimpse of everyday life in Japan.”

Looking back over the photographs she took in Japan, Rox says that though her approach was spontaneous and “subconscious”, she finds she returns to certain aesthetics. “I think I’m always drawn to the quiet, soft and sometimes sinister. I like what happens in the shadows and seeing the aftermath of human presence – a sign of what has happened before I was there, that the viewer and I can only imagine.”

SIGNS by Lucie Rox, designed by Callum Walker, is available now. The zine launches on November 21, 2019 at Photobook Cafe, London.