Instant Surf: A Film by Adam Bell

We had the opportunity to chat to Adam and Matt about their exciting project, Instant Surf. Instant Surf is a film by Adam Bell, telling the story of Matt’s relationship with Polaroid instant film and surfing. Read on to find out more about these two awesome guys and their unique project!

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Thanks so much for doing this Adam and Matt! First off, give us a little bit of background information on yourselves. Adam, how did you get involved in filmmaking? Matt, how did you get involved in photography? How did you two meet?

AB: I got involved in filmmaking through a love of skateboarding. Specifically skateboard videos. I watched my first 411 Video Magazine three times in a row the day I bought it. At that point I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with. I saved up and bought my first video camera as soon as I was able, and filmed as much skateboarding as I could. I inherited a small amount from my grandfather, enough to buy a decent mac laptop and editing software and taught myself to cut. Later I got into snowboarding and would regularly film that as well, dryslope every week in the UK, holidays abroad, seasons and extended stays.

In 2004 I had the opportunity to start work for a small independent film company covering Judo. I learned a lot about filming and editing from the company’s founder Simon Hicks, who had made feature films and corporate videos as well as being an expert on sports coverage. I’ve been self employed since 2009, and I’m lucky enough to regularly travel all over the world to film at some of the top sporting events. When I’m not traveling or working on the highlights edits we produce, I make documentaries, music videos, promotional and educational videos.

Matt and I met over 20 years ago at university. It was one of the first nights we were there, we got talking and both released we were into skateboarding. We went for a skate the next day and have remained friends ever since.

MS: I’ve always enjoyed taking photos but initially more just of holidays and friends and recording things I want to remember. Then back in 2006 some good friends were shooting polaroids and as soon as I saw one being peeled I went and bought a camera for myself, and haven’t stopped since.

I can clearly remember when Adam and I met – first week of Cardiff Uni back in 1996, in those days if someone was wearing skate shoes they were likely a skater… so that got us talking and we’ve been friends since.
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Image: Matt Smith

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Image: Adam Bell

Adam, what compelled you to make this film? What drew you to Matt’s photography?

AB: I knew Matt was into instant photography and had seen him shoot photos when groups of friends had got together or at friends weddings, and saw shots of his surf trips. Over the last few years on Instagram I’ve seen more and more of his work and was really drawn to the aesthetic and effects that he was getting from expired film. Striking images made with old cameras and film that shouldn’t really still be working. I released it was something I wanted to try out. About a year and a half ago I took his advice and invested in an SX70 Alpha, I wanted something small and light that I could travel with and it fitted the bill perfectly. From the first test shot I took I was hooked. The SX70 now comes with me on every trip abroad I make. Shortly after I got into shooting peel apart film, investing in several cameras, as much expired film as I could get my hands on and a fridge to store it in! I could really identify with why Matt was so into the format, and how pleasing it can be when you get good results with a challenging method of photography.

I wanted to document what Matt does, as it’s pretty unique, and even more of a challenge shooting surfing. As well as the photographs and the method behind making them, I wanted to document the obvious passion he has for the format. Having experienced it myself, it was easy for me to see why he has been shooting instant photos for over a decade, but I wanted to capture some of his passion on camera and share this.

I wanted to work with a small crew on this project. I developed the questions over quite a long period of time with Adam Murray, a writer and filmmaker I have worked with on many projects. He conducted the interview with Matt and my girlfriend Katy worked as camera assistant. As soon as I was back from the shoot, I showed the rushes to another long term collaborator, Ben Crystal who created the perfect soundtrack. Everything came together really well in the edit and I’m very happy with the outcome.
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Image: Matt Smith

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Image: Adam Bell

Matt, tell us a little bit about your photography. What draws you to shoot instant film? What about it excites you and what is your relationship with surfing and instant film?

MS: I really enjoy the process with instant film. Getting old clunky cameras and super old film to produce something good is really rewarding. I love how it looks, but I also find the battle to get all the elements in place to get an image I am happy with really satisfying.

Even though I am probably close to 4000 polaroids now I know the next one is going to be as exciting to peel as the first.

Also, whilst it sounds obvious, I like the fact I am holding a unique developed image 90 seconds after hitting the shutter.

I think that polaroids allow me to capture surfing and the culture and things that surround it, with a look that fits. Some of it goes back to still wanting to record things I want to remember, but it’s also become part of going surfing for me and trying to grab a photo or two before or after getting in the sea.

And I think as you do more of something, you start to appreciate all aspects of it. That makes me want shoot not just the best turn on a wave but also all the other things that happen alongside.

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Image: Adam Bell

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Image: Matt Smith

Matt, the peel-apart film industry is certainly not what it used to be, with Fuji discontinuing the last professional peel-apart instant film. What do you see for the future of peel-apart instant film and do you believe a revival is in the future?

MS: The days of $10 packs of film are gone forever. I’m so pleased that Supersense were successful with their recent kickstarter and they’ll deliver lots of high quality films, and it sounds like maybe some variations of previous ones too. New55 also seem to be getting going again which is great.

I think we all need to give them the chance to settle into production and support them when we can, it’s pretty incredible that there are people out there who are willing and dedicated to keeping these beautiful formats alive.

I think there are enough polaroid addicts out there to keep buying film. Hopefully from that more people will see and appreciate it and shoot it themselves.

It won’t be many millions of packs a year like it has been previously, but hopefully enough to keep our cameras in film for a long time to come.
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Image: Adam Bell

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Image: Matt Smith

Matt, what cameras do you enjoy shooting for what purposes and why? Also tell us a little bit about your favorite film stocks.

MS: For pack film when I’m out and about I use a manual camera, as I prefer the control they allow compared to automatic exposure. I’ve got a 180, 195, Mamiya and a few I have made.

It often comes down to which ones have film in and how much stuff I can carry. If I’m out with the family it’s normally the smallest one! If I have more time or I am trying to shoot portraits I often use the speed graphic as working with that beast is lots of fun.

I mainly shoot expired polaroid film and I love any I can get my hands on.

If I could choose any type to find a case of somewhere, it would be 108 or 669 pack film because of the amazing blues and reds, time zero for my SX70 because that stuff really is magic, and 59 or 54 for my speed graphic.

Those films all give the iconic polaroid look that make us shoot this stuff in the first place, and for me are the films that work best for the images I am trying to create.

Saying all that, the fuji black and white peel apart is pretty amazing stuff too.

Matt, who are your inspirations when it comes to surf photography and photography overall? Who’s work did you grow up loving?

MS: My parents never took many photos, and really until I started shooting myself I didn’t think too much about a photo other than the skater or surfer or whatever it contained.

I am drawn to images that are a mix of action and landscape, rather than close cropped images of a surfer. This is probably partly because that’s really the only kind of images polaroids let you take, but also I appreciate seeing the whole scene and getting a feeling for the entire moment.

Now most of my inspiration comes from other polaroid photographers, and surf, snowboard and skate photos. There are way too many to mention them all. but they include Leroy Grannis, Joni Sternbach, Ron Stoner, Leo Sharp, Bastian Kalous, Ryan Tatar, Thomas Zamolo, Matt Georges, Matt Schwartz, Francois-Xavier Laurent, Adam Harriden, Al McKinnon, Arto Saari, Bernard Testemale, Atiba Jefferson and many many more.
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Image: Matt Smith

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Image: Adam Bell

Adam, what is the relationship between your filmmaking and photography? Have you made films on photography before? What do you enjoy about making films about photography?

AB: As kid I always enjoyed photography, but it never really went further than 110s, disposables and few second hand 35mm point and shoot cameras. I tried shooting skateboard photos with friends, but never got good results as you really need a manual set up. I never really had first hand contact with Polaroids, except for birthday parties or at a friends house. My first experience of peel apart was seeing tests shots brought home by skateboarding friends who were being shot professionally. A Polaroid back on a Hasselblad to get the set up right before the photographer shot film.

As soon as I found filmmaking I put all my energy (and money!) into learning and doing that. Going from 8mm video tape, to digital video tape and now several digital cameras deep. Across the time I have been interested in shooting video the technology has accelerated very fast. From those first 8mm tapes, to 4k or shooting super slomo on a live broadcast. At home I never had access to a cine or video camera, so I had no connection to those formats. For me it was always about better quality, larger resolution, digital workflow. The first file based edit I worked on was a revelation, no tapes! Of course everything is digital now. A lot of the work I do professionally is very fast paced. Filming on a live broadcast, cutting a news edit for delivery to a tight deadline shortly after the event.

Shooting analogue instant photos is the complete opposite to this, and I am really enjoying the process. It’s slow and the results are unpredictable and often far from perfect. Each single photo can work out expensive, the film is scarce and I don’t want to waste it, so I think more about each shot and don’t overshoot. The cameras are often awkward and heavy, but I am loving the challenge. I am able to apply what I have learned from shooting video to photography. From the basics of framing and composure, to how to expose the shot. I have worked with and owned many different types of digital camera. Several of them DSLR, so I have learned the principles of how to operate a manual camera. I recently bought a Polaroid 600se from Matt and it’s an amazing piece of kit, I’ve shot some of my favourite photos I ever taken on that, with expired film. Packing that beast into a bag next to my tiny full frame Sony always makes me laugh. It’s refreshing learning how to shoot a new format and how the different film types react to temperature as well as light. Luckily Matt has given me advice on the whole process, which cameras to look for, which film type gives good results, what expiry years to look for. So I feel like I have had an accelerated learning process because of this. I’ve shot hundreds of pictures and really happy with the results I’m getting. I try and shoot an instant photo most days if I can. Traveling for work has been inspiring as I’m often in really photogenic cities. I’ll always take a Polaroid camera with my video kit and once I’ve filmed what I need to, I’ll take some instant pictures. I’m also finding I shoot less digital photos or even snaps on my phone – it gets used more as a light meter these days.

Last summer I even managed to shoot some skateboard photos on polaroid that I’m happy with.

This is the first film I’ve made about photography, but I’m inspired to make more. I’ve got a few ideas that need some work, but hopefully it’ll be soon.

Adam, who are some filmmakers that have inspired you? Did you ever encounter any other work that inspired you to make this film specifically?

AB: I think I’ve honestly spent more hours obsessively watching skateboard videos than any other type of film. So they have all been a massive inspiration to me. I still have all the VHS tapes now! But I’d have to say Spike Jonze for his work on the Girl / Chocolate videos and later his music videos and films. Also Ty Evans, who shot the Transworld Skate films amongst many others. RB Umali for the Zoo York Mixtape film. The 411 Video Magazine has a lot to answer for as well, but that was a series with footage shot around the world by many different film makers and pieced together into a magazine format.

Some of my favourite films are documentaries. I discovered the photo book Spraycan Art by Henry Chalfant when I was about 9 years old and that had a big influence on me. I was obsessed with it and even used to take it with me to school to look through it at break times. It was years later that I found the documentary Style Wars which is produced by Henry Chalfant and directed by Tony Silver, made during the same era, documenting early Graffiti in New York, one of my all time favourite films. Dark Days by Marc Singer is also great, which documents the lives of homeless people living in subway tunnels in New York.

I cant say that any specific work directly inspired me to make this film, but I am definitely drawn to honest stories about people living in an unusual way or doing things that are not considered the norm and interacting with their environment.

Thanks again for doing this guys! Where can people find more of your work?

Adam:
www.adambellfilm.com / 
@adambellfilm

Matt:
www.instantsurf.co.uk / @instant_surf

Japan Polaroid – Making a photo book

As a photographer, I tend to be drawn towards people. Which means that my work revolves mostly around portraits and street photography. Street photography because I’m not just interested in people, but people within spaces, be they banal, or epic in scope. I love natural light, and details, and I am endlessly fascinated by primary and complementary colour schemes. So in a way, Japan is a perfect place to photograph, because it encompasses a lot of those things which I find interesting, while also being dear to my heart on a more personal and spiritual level. Because of this connection, I have always wanted to set a photo series or project there. As it is not somewhere one visits every day, especially coming from Europe. On the 4 trips I have been fortunate enough to make to the country, I always carried along several different means of visual documentation. Always film. On this particular trip in 2016, I decided to go a lot lighter than I had done in the past and took a single film camera. My Polaroid SLR600. 

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Japan is a place, for the most part, that is seen through a very particular lens by foreigners. I use the word lens here purposefully, as we are talking specifically about photography. It is natural for foreign eyes to be taken by people in Kimono or Yukata walking around in the wild, to be fascinated by the otaku culture, and interested in the many quirks that the country and its inhabitants have to offer. I too am not immune to these images, but for a photo series, I wanted to take a different approach. Somewhere between street photography, and elements of the everyday. Shooting on instant film, and being limited in terms of number of shots, focal length, and exposure (as well as the volatile nature of newer film stocks with evolving chemistry), also meant that I had to be a lot more considerate of what I was taking, and how it would all come together in the end. But I also didn’t want to be so rigorous as to stifle the capturing of natural moments and my own discovery of the country. And this is how I eventually ended up with the final series of photographs, which I feel strikes a balance between what I guess one can call the real Japan, and the Japan that one expects. At least I think so. 

 

In terms of design, I was inspired by Wim Wenders book of Polaroids, and the exhibition of the photographs from the book that I saw, which I found really interesting. There’s also the question of sizes, and if you should try and portray the polaroid as it would be seen in its original state, or if you take some creative license to vary it a bit depending on the image.

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I chose the latter, and tried to organise them in a way that was coherent, but also putting the images in their best light, giving some a more featured showcase to show off the content of the photograph, and others to balance each other out.

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One major design element I went with was placing the colour photos on a black background, and the monochrome images on a plain white background. This helped them pop a little bit more, and also gives you an immediate indication of what kind of images you will be looking at next. It’s a self-published book, and I think for a first attempt at that, it came out pretty close to my expectations going into it. 

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I’ve been wondering how to put this down in words, talking about the book and my approach. Photography to me is a very organic thing, and so I subscribe very much to the idea of a photo speaking for itself. However, I also appreciate when there is a story behind it, that allows you to understand the nuances around the decision to photograph something, especially on film where that choice is a lot more thought through and decisive, than with the shoot and forget, sort it out later mentality of digital. I think the easiest way is just to talk about some of the images from the book, my memory of them, and my motivation for taking them in the first place. 

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So this was the very first photo of the trip. I thought it was a good way to start the book (and this breakdown) because it encapsulates a bit of what I was trying to describe earlier. It’s not a photo that screams “Japan” when you look at it. There are people in a space, seen from behind and with no real signs in the environment that could indicate that it is not in fact anywhere else in the world. But there is something about people waiting for a bus at an airport early in the morning that was interesting to me. And that I was going to be one of those people on that bus they were waiting for, meant it kind of held more significance in the image for me as a memory as well as a subject to photograph. I feel, being the start of the book, it communicates the feeling I had of arriving, to anyone looking through the series of images, knowing that what they will be seeing is part of an overall journey. 

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This was among the first images I took knowing it could make an interesting page. We were walking over a bridge when I spotted a group of friends hanging out in the river area below. The water level was low, and so they were able to walk right down the middle. It was an interesting image already, but then the group separated leaving only one person behind, and it was such a striking scene, that also felt like the essence of Japanese summer to me. I was hoping for a sharper image, but with the impossible film formula at the time, plus trying to grab the shot quickly before the scene changed, it ended up coming out rather surreal and dreamy, which I actually really liked. The little chemical burn at the top also adds to that sense of nostalgia.  

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I didn’t have any real plan for when I was going to shoot colour or black and white. I just kind of went for whatever was the first box of film I grabbed from my bag. This is one of the few candid portraits in the whole book, and I think it’s an interesting one because again, other than the DJs being Japanese, the image doesn’t exactly scream “Japanese”. It was a kind of fireworks party by the bay in Yokohama that some friends took us to, as they were performing (One of them is on the right). It was a pretty local thing, and I just liked this moment of people having fun and partying. This was taken with the flash, and as you can tell right away, the black and white chemistry is a lot more stable, which I found made a nice contrast with the colour images in the book. 

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This shot had a specific purpose, which was not entirely successful. All the times we have been to Japan, we have never gotten a clear view of Fuji-san. On this drive out of Tokyo towards Nagano, we spotted Fuji, just barely, in the distance ahead of us. And I thought I would try and capture it on film. You can’t make it out at all in the photo, but I really love the way the blue of the sky came out with the rolling clouds on the horizon. And the burn in the corner also felt rather natural to the scene, 

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Another landscape/nature type photo. I took it for the tree in the middle of the shot, which is I believe native to Japan (I couldn’t tell you what kind it is). And I just thought it was really interesting the juxtaposition of that tree on the side of the road with the landscape in the distance, and the buildings. Again, lovely blue skies, and you can almost feel the heat, which is almost exaggerated by the polaroid effect.  

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There’s a fun story around this image. The second time I went to Japan, I came across a banana milk drink that was only in the Itoen vending machines, and it was delicious! So when we went back I thought I’d try it again. However it proved to be very very hard to find (I’d clearly taking it for granted that the machine at the station near where we were staying had it, but no more). So every day we went out, I looked at every single vending machine we walked by, with no luck, for pretty much the entire trip UNTIL, in the last few weeks, we went to the Nakagin Capsule tower, and low and behold, they had some! In my joy, I decided that it was worth a photo. And as it turns out, this photo ended up being one of the most important in the whole book because as of this year, that drink does not exist anymore ANYWHERE (I’ll be happy to be proven wrong on this. Just be sure to tell me WHERE you found it!!). So I shall always have this memory to cherish, and people who are familiar with Japanese vending machines, get an image of something that was rare, and now non-existent. They can only experience it through this photograph. And for me, that’s the beauty of photography, and photobooks, because it really is a small piece of a moment in time. 

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One of the intents I had, beyond just taking street photos in Japan, was to try and photograph seemingly mundane scenes of everyday life. I was drawn to the woman on her phone with the bikes behind her and the group of people walking past in the distance. I think it works well in black and white, and it can also suggest a kind of narrative. the image itself is not amazing, but I feel it captures that idea of just regular everyday Japan, which exists alongside the people and tourists in kimono, or the usual things one expects to see in Japan as a foreigner. 

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I had intended to photograph one of the girls from the maid cafe there in Akihabara. Here is one instance where I was for sure fascinated by the site and having a completely foreign gaze. However, the photograph turned out to evolve into something a lot more interesting. The “maids” are notoriously camera shy, and seeing as pretty much every tourist with a camera or a phone is trying to photograph them, one can imagine that they have developed ways of avoiding lenses whenever possible. Trying to make sure I got a sharp and usable image with no one walking by in front of the camera, I took my time trying to find the frame, and she spotted me. Of course, they are very non-confrontational about it, plus I was some distance away, and I noticed her through the viewfinder, slowly creeping into a doorway behind her, effectively shielding her from my view entirely. I tried to grab the shot before she was completely out of shot, and of course, at that moment someone also happened to walk through my shot. The result is something that is both mysterious, voyeuristic, and very layered I feel. Just looking at the photo the scene appears to be just a busy city street in Japan, but then you look closer and you can just about make her out hiding in the background, with the foreground out of focus, and the tease above in the sign, featuring what could have been. 

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Surf photography, like skate photography, is one of my preferred subject strands of photography, because you are documenting a vast subculture that exhibits so many different elements in terms of people, style, and interesting environments. In the case of surfing, that environment is, of course, the sea, and the beach. We were out on a steaming hot day, hot enough that walking barefoot on the sand was equivalent to walking on fire, and we came across what looked like a surfing club, or school of some sort. There were what looked like pro surfers, and a bunch of people who seemed like they were just starting out. The lead woman also had a really cool look, and I knew I had to photograph them somehow. I ended up getting them just as they were heading out to catch a wave, and I find the scene and the surfers so majestic and epic, especially in black and white. I decided to make this the cover of the book as I felt it was something very Japanese in nature for those who know, while also offering a side of Japan that exists, but is outside of the realm of tourist Japan, which tends to reside in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka for the most part. Here we were in what was effectively a young student surfer vacation spot, and the energy in this shot kind of reflects what we experienced there ourselves.  

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In the temples, people tend to photograph the main buildings and the gates. With good reason as they are striking, imposing pieces of architecture, and indeed a very classic symbol of Japanese culture. But I find every time we went to the temples, I was always drawn to the statues of the gods at the gates. I love how the people in the foreground are ever so slightly overexposed, and the statue almost invisible beyond the wire protective mesh and the dark enclosure. It is imposing, striking, and almost alive. It wasn’t how I was expecting it to come out, but I was pleasantly surprised in this instance with the surprise the polaroid gave me. 

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Another common site, and one that foreigners and locals alike have a soft spot for. As soon as I spotted Totoro in the window of this house as we walked by, I knew I had to get a photo. In fact, I was obligated to. It must have been a kids room, as you can see other toys along the window sill inside. I also liked the window and how it popped out the side of the building like that on the concrete wall, with the power line crossing the frame. The shot ended up slightly overexposed, so you can’t really see the detail in the Totoro plush toy, but he is such an iconic figure that I kind of feel most people would recognise it. Plus being a Japanese photo book, there are only so many characters it could be. I like that it’s a relatively normal scene otherwise. 

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I really liked how this came out in the end, with the two people just about in the right exposure, mirrored by the two deck chairs in the foreground, the sea almost bleeding into the sky. This was taken in Naoshima, which is touristy but not necessarily so well known that it is a destination for the basic traveller. It is one of the more peaceful images in the book, and I think has a timeless quality to it. Again I felt it was important to show a variety of different landscapes and environments throughout the series, and so I did make a conscious effort to include a good number of more natural landscapes and environments to counter the idea of the urban metropolis that is Tokyo. 

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Small details like what a gardener wears in Japan, and how they take care of the many natural parks and gardens in the country, are things that I personally find quite revealing of a countries culture and their approach to life. He was taking a lot of care doing the work and I couldn’t help wondering just how long he is out there every day, and how one manages to cover every little corner that needs tending on such a hot day. The man amongst the trees with the rays of natural light piercing through I thought was quite beautiful. And luckily the polaroid captured some of that essence. 

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This features two traditionally Japanese things. Vending machines, and people in masks. I admit I was looking at the masked man, but I did like how he featured in the frame with the vending machines and the little stall side by side, and the AC unit above. Again, signs of summer. This was taken from the inside of a moving train just leaving the platform, and I guess it kind of reflects the urgency one tends to find at train stations, of people rushing off or on, or trying to pass the time in transit doing practical things like getting a bottle of water, or a magazine, or a pack of cigarettes. A simple everyday scene that we can all relate to, but with elements that show us how the other half lives. 

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Tony aka ツ / Tsu, is a photographer and visual artist based in France. His work comprises a mix of portraiture and documentary photography mostly on film. His work is self-described as, organic straight photography, and is inspired by the work of people such as Raymond Depardon, Gordon Parks, Diane Arbus and others.

You can buy the Japan Polaroid photobook here

Find him on Instagram @tsuphotoworks

And explore his other work at tsuphotoworks.com

He also works as a filmmaker, and you can find out more about of his film work here