Akihito Yoshida, The Screw

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Three Books (here, also available here). Softcover, with risograph print, title stamp, and metal connector, 420×297 mm, 96 pages, with 50 black-and-white reproductions. Includes a story by Shinji Ishii (in Japanese/English.) Design by Tamon Yahagi. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: There is an abundance of rich, tactile darkness in Akihito Yoshida’s photobook The Screw. His images are consistently filled with smoke, soot, dirt, sand, and suffocating, heat-soaked, cave-like shadow, to the point that the scenes he is documenting feel almost primal, like a trip to a workshop deep in the underworld.

The Screw takes as its subject the hand-crafting of cargo ship propellers in Bangladesh. Since 2012, Yoshida has been returning to the same small area near Dhaka where the propellers are made, making photographs of the workers and their elemental forged-production process. In an age of automated factory-scaled manufacturing, this is an old school one-by-one blacksmith-like effort, with each three- or four-petaled propeller requiring the precisely directed physical energy of a gathering of otherwise forgotten laborers.

Conceptually, Yoshida’s project builds on the ideas found in earlier documentary photographs made by Margaret Bourke-White, and more recently by Sebastião Salgado, that respectfully observe (and honor) the efforts of workers, particularly in large scale industrial enterprises like steel, mining, and oil drilling, as well as in infrastructure projects like railroads, tunnels, and dams. But Yoshida’s approach is altogether more intimate, bringing us inside cramped single-room work areas, where the fires are hot, the smoke is thick, the sweat sticks to the skin, and the noise has nowhere to go. It is here that we watch as young men and boys (with a few older supervisors) work together to transform heaps of scrap metal into shiningly sculptural finished propellers.

The narrative arc of the The Screw, to the extent that there is one, loosely follows the progress of the making of a propeller. Yoshida’s images show us a string of discrete steps and actions – gathering, digging, burning, melting, turning, pouring, pounding, firing, smashing, carrying, mixing, buffing, grinding, and polishing – with interludes of resting, waiting, and cooling off, before the completed propellers are moved into the yard to await delivery to customers. There are seemingly very few sophisticated tools put to use, the workshops have sand and dirt floors (which literally become the molds for the petaled shapes), and there are clearly moments of drama, violence, and potential danger, particularly when the molten metal is precariously hoisted and poured by workers without any kind of protective clothing. But the job gets done again and again, with a surprising degree of meticulous finished product success.

Action shots of boys tending fires, straining to lift the steaming bucket of liquid metal, blow torching smaller molds, using sledge hammers, and manning the spinning grinding wheel give us a flavor of the physicality and energy of this work, but many more of Yoshida’s photographs leave that intensity behind to turn us toward quieter in-between moments. Yoshida has an attentive eye for formal elements, building compositions out of the linear angle of a rebar pole, the gaping holes of a propeller mold, the geometries of tools hung on the wall, a top down view of circular buckets, and the ghostly footprints left in the sand when the work is done. He repeatedly uses the propellers themselves as bold visual elements, and in the right light, they gleam and sparkle out of the darkness. Yoshida’s also notices the textures of this place – the gloppy molten metal, the granular sand, the wrinkles of skin on skeletal hands and feet, the rough brick walls, and the changing feel of steam and smoke, from crunchy clouds to choking mists.

Many of Yoshida’s images feature relatively anonymous workers, with faces obscured, disembodied arms doing some task, or whole figures blurred or lost to the darkness, with the gleam of white eyes and teeth shining out the surrounding gloom. But from time to time, he steps directly into the scene and introduces us to an individual, either in a solitary standing portrait or in the midst of working. These compassionate pictures show us just how young these boys often are, and how hard the work is – there is exhaustion in many eyes, but there is also tenderness, pride, and good-natured openness. Near the end of the photobook, we see one worker gulping water from a plastic bottle, and soon after, there is a more deliberate move outside into the brightness of day, where we see the cargo ships anchored in the harbor. There among the thickly encroaching lily pads, the boys take a playful (and well-earned) swim, with one boy doing a neat flip into the water, just like the turn of the screw attached to the ship’s hull nearby.

In terms of design and construction, The Screw takes some risks. It’s a physically large photobook, tall and spacious, providing ample room for the full-bleed black-and-white images to create an enveloping atmosphere. The cover is mottled grey cardstock, mimicking the sooty air of the workshops, and a smaller risograph print is placed on the front, with the title stamped across its edge, the letters twisting inward (like a screw). The cover also has a small metal grommet embedded near the edge, making a tactile connection to the metalworking found inside. Red endpapers and red thread binding provide a pop of color amid all the darkness, and an expansive open area for the artist to sign his name. Seen as one integrated art object, it’s undeniably well-conceived and immersive.

Bigger books like The Screw inevitably make more of a physical impression than smaller, more hand-sized photobooks, as the page turns inherently require more intervention and participation. But in this case, the largeness of the turns adds to the overall aesthetic drama, Yoshida’s primitive smoky interiors becoming the setting for unexpected moments of singular creation. The many back and forth contrasts in the photographs (between light and dark, hard and soft, intensity and stillness, etc.) give The Screw a sense of insistent twisting propulsion, and when we finally step back out into the sunlight at the end, we powerfully feel the culmination and release of that constructive effort. In Yoshida’s hands, life in this overlooked Bangladeshi workshop becomes an engrossingly impressive visual journey, with more than a few standout single images worth revisiting.

Collector’s POV: Akihito Yoshida does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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