Hayahisa Tomiyasu how a ping pong table became a source of fascination

Cover Image - Hayahisa Tomiyasu
WordsAlex Kahl

During the summer of 2011, Japanese photographer Hayahisa Tomiyasu spotted a fox while walking down the street in Leipzig, Germany. He photographed it before it could run off into the bushes.

A few weeks later, he spotted another fox   from his bedroom window, walking past a ping-pong table in the park below. He would sit by the window and wait for the fox to return each day, and as time went on he began to observe the table itself.

He soon realized how many people were using the table for all manner of weird and wonderful things that had nothing to do with table tennis. Party-goers set up a marquee beside it and used the table to hold their drinks. People sheltered beneath it to hide from sudden rain showers. Runners used it to do their morning stretches.

Photographing the table – or Tischtennisplatte in German – became an obsession for Hayahisa. Each day, he would wake up and immediately set up his camera and tripod at the window. “I would just take as many photos as I could,” he says. He cancelled appointments. He skipped social events. He even spent almost an entire Christmas and New Year in his flat so as not to miss any ping-pong portraits. The project went on for five years and in 2018 won the prestigious Mack First Book Award for photographers who haven’t previously published a photobook.

With so many different lives being lived and such a variety of people in the images, it’s a thought-provoking project. But Hayahisa never saw it that way. “I didn’t create any stories about the people,” he says. “I was taking photographs like a machine. I didn’t really have the space or time to think about how it made me feel.”

Things have moved on. Hayahisa moved out of that apartment and he now splits his time between Leipzig and Zurich. But although the project’s finished, Hayahisa admits he catches himself “thinking about whether the table is still being used in different ways.”

This work raises questions about form and function, about what happens when objects are sent out into the world. It asks, how much do the unforeseen ways in which people end up using objects define what they are, as much, if not more so, than what they were intended for?

This is a photography series about a ping-pong table that seems to be used for everything but playing ping-pong. Through Tomiyasu’s lens, it’s no longer a table. It’s a chair, it’s a playground, it’s a gym bench and a sunlounger. It’s a dance floor, an umbrella and a meeting place. It’s whatever the locals want it to be.

Words by Alex Kahl.