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Portraits of backpackers living in a Japanese box


A few years ago, photographer Won Kim found himself backpacking through Japan, looking for a cheap place to lay his head for the night.

Ending up at Arakawa-ku, a special ward located North East Tokyo, Kim stumbled across a tiny hotel which offered very little in the style of promotion. Without signs, without information, Kim approached and discovered it to backpacker’s guesthouse made up of tiny cabins crafted out of plywood.

While the guesthouse suited his needs for the night, Kim’s plan was to carry on backpacking through the country in search of new adventures. However, a few years later, the photographer struggled to shake off the pull of this tiny hotel and returned with loftier ambitions. “I have a fetish for a womb-like space,” Won Kim told Far Out Magazine when asked about his decision to return to the location. “It gives me a feeling of coziness and security. I believe it stems from a homing instinct created when we were actually inside a womb as a foetus. Fortunately, I ran into this tiny hotel while I was backpacking in Japan,” he added.

Returning to live in the tiny boxes for a few months, Kim was back in Arakawa-ku to create his latest photographic series; Enclosed : Living Small. While backpacking is a well known form of low-cost, independent travel, for Kim it offered the ability to get a closer to his artistic subjects. “I believe backpacking experience helps me to communicate better with the residents, allowing me to shoot their private spaces,” he explained. “If I just came in one day and asked them if I could photograph the place, they wouldn’t let me do it.”

The tiny hotel, while it does invoke a slight claustrophobic emotion on appearance, offered a surreal alternative to those who chose to stay there. “It did feel cozy actually,” Kim told me when I suggested the space may be too claustrophobic. “Since there isn’t enough light coming through, you wouldn’t know if it’s still the night or morning when you wake up. Most people I met in the hotel are pretty open minded and easy going unlike typical Japanese people who, typically, are not.”

Kim added: “Once I decided to photograph the place, I was trying to become acquainted with the residents so that they could allow me to photograph them. I gave a 15-min long shoulder massage to those who let me shoot. Getting a permission was the toughest part of this project. Plus, since I didn’t initially plan to photography this place, I didn’t have a tripod or any sort of lighting gears. I had to use a ladder to set my camera still.”

“In addition to my keen interest in womb-like space, I’m mostly intrigued by design elements like geometry, repetition and some interesting forms and shapes to blend them together for creating something between reality and illusion. For this project, I think it was a moment when I happened to witness a super messy room in the hotel, so I asked the tenant if I can photograph your dirty room with you inside. She reluctantly said ok. That’s how it started. “

“I believe if someone lives in a space for a certain period of time, the atmosphere should reflect the person’s personality and character. That’s mostly what I aimed to capture.”

All images © Won Kim:

To see more of Won Kim’s work, you can visit his website or his official Instagram page.