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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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