TOKYO IS A CITY to drive a cartographer mad. Each of its 23 wards is a city unto itself, and they all have their own mayors and councils. Only the most major streets actually bear names, and the postal address system is incomprehensible even to many locals. When I lived in Tokyo in 2006 and 2007, I depended on a mental map that bore no relation to the city as it was—only how I lived it. So I recognize Sohei Nishino’s Diorama Map Tokyo, as one might recognize a shared dream. The work is part of Nishino’s “Diorama Map” project, a series of photographic portraits of capital cities that will be shown as part of this year’s Prix Pictet photography-award exhibition, beginning in May. Once at his destination—amsterdam or London or Tokyo—nishino walks the streets, taking photograph after photograph. Later, in recollection, he assembles a map of the city that corresponds not to geography but to his memory. “I felt that by looking through the lens, I could truly measure and capture the size of the city and the distance between the object and me,” he tells me.
Nishino’s Tokyo is arranged around the Sumida River, a body of water that was central to the city during the Edo period, between the 17th and 19th centuries. He found himself focusing on the riverside and took snapshots from a canoe. His Tokyo is not mine—i had to look up the Sumida to remember where it was, and I wouldn’t have dared to take a canoe in Tokyo if the thought had ever occurred to me, which it most certainly didn’t.
And that is what makes Nishino’s work so valuable. The birth of the iphone—which arrived just after I left Tokyo—gave us geographically perfect maps at the touch of a screen. But if we always know where we are, we’ve lost the ability to make maps of our own. “I think we need to have our own scale to measure the size of the world, and it is much more accurate and more real,” Nishino says. I’ll carry my Tokyo with me wherever I go, as Nishino will his—as you or any traveler could, should you open your eyes.
“Prix Pictet: Space,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, May 6-28, then touring internationally; PRIXPICTET.COM
TAKING A DIFFERENT VIEW: Sohei Noshino’s composite Diorama Map Tokyo goes on display shortly as part of this year’s Prix Pictet photography exhibition.