I Wrote This For You

A Man Walks Into A Bar (HESO Magazine)

A Man Walks Into A Bar...

It goes like the joke: A guy walks into a bar in Tokyo, orders a beer and looks around for people, mostly men, fondling, mostly large, black, analog, cameras. Eyes peer up over pint glasses as the man approaches with his own large, black, analog camera and sets it and the beer down with satisfying clunks on the wet, cigarette ash strewn tabletop. He takes off a scarf and a jacket, maybe a hat, shakes some hands, smiles and eyes the people’s cameras he doesn’t know. He is lucky to have gotten a seat–these Friday Night Meetings can get crowded. He sits, smiles and sighs, and fingering the shutter on his camera, takes a long pull from the pint glass. He is thinking of two things: ordering the next pint and whose 503cw Hasselblad with the extension tubes–transforming it from a stealthy jaguar to a jungle panther with x-ray vision–is that next to that frosty half drunk pint of Guinness?

This is how I meet Jon Ellis, inconspicuously, over pints at the local pub. I had been coming to these meetings for well over a year and one day he just showed up. A man walks into a bar. A man who likes to walk around Shinjuku taking photos of buildings. A man who is a vegan. This man–it wasn’t until almost a year later, at the same table, that he made an offhand comment about a site he regularly contributed to winning an award, the url of which he would not share. Laughing over a pint, he added nebulously that if I tried hard I might be able to find it. Of course now I see the irony. Please Find This, he was urging me. I might have mentioned sometime the next week that I was able to find it. Or I might not have.

One learns that with Jon, it is not what you say, it is what you do. Meanwhile, what Jon was doing was shooting, all over Tokyo (and beyond), often alone, mostly on outings with his better half, providing a powerful visual accompaniment to Iain Thomas’ simple, sincere words. Once you learn that this site exists, that this sort of thing is going on in some corner of the inter-webs, that someone is taking the time to be honest and beautiful without advertising the hell out of it, it makes the cheap facade of e-commerce fade away and somehow means more that you found out about it naturally. You are hooked. A man walks into a bar. Your life is different. Better. Another round.

Recent Kyoto denizen and Pop Zeitgeist writer Sean Lotman had a chance to sit down with Jon and chat about the forthcoming book from I Wrote This For You. The following conversation flowed nicely over a pint or two.

Sean Lotman: Can you tell us about the project?

Jon Ellis: I Wrote This For You was started in 2007 by Iain Thomas as an experiment in minimal short story writing blog. Each entry consists of short piece of writing and a photograph. As Iain has elucidated elsewhere, the brevity and fragmentary nature of the writing, in combination with imagery, lets the audience read more into the pieces than is necessarily said. It’s impossible to write for everyone, but given a starting point most people can write themselves into the framework of a story.

We’ve always felt that self-promotion risked pulling in a wave of people that would depart as quickly as they arrived. Letting things happen seems to mean that we’ve ended up with a more impassioned, and somehow, meaningful, readership.

Sean: It’s interesting that you and Iain have never met. How then did the project come together in the first place?

Jon: Originally Iain was taking the photographs and doing the writing. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that he isn’t really a photographer…which prompted me to offer to provide the photographs. All of which happened in an IRC chat related to a website that we had both frequented for many years.

It’s interesting that people latch on to the two of us never having met, but it has never really been an issue for either of us. We communicate pretty naturally over chat or mail, and have never really felt that meeting up would push things forward. We’ve had the occasional video chat, but on the whole we’ve been laid back about just putting the entries out there and letting things happen.

Sean: You have hundreds of entries posted on I Wrote This For You. What was the selection process for the book’s final draft?

Jon: There are over a thousand entries, which made selection difficult. Over the years we’ve kept track of entries that have been popular, entries that we personally like. Additionally we’ve asked the reader is there are any entries that they’d especially like to see ‘make the cut’.

I Wrote This For You Book Cover (HESO Magazine)

I Wrote This For You Book Cover

Iain also divided up the book into several different sections; Sun, Moon, Stars, Rain. The different chapters, in his words, “chart the different phases of the ways humans relate to each other.”

In the end we still had too much material to include in a reasonably priced book. At which point we surrendered ourselves into the hands of the publishers and asked for help. It was probably the only way for us to move forward at that point–after spending several weeks going through lists of entries, it’s hard to see what’s working and what isn’t. As we’d already got things down to a set that we liked, it was easier to let someone else wield the knife!

Sean: I want to mention an interesting aspect of the collaboration. Until recently, the majority of the photographs came from Japan, where you lived for ten years (Jon has recently moved to Hamburg, Germany). Japan has a very precise locative sense of place. But Iain is striving to speak for the universal language of love and loss, a transnational voice for sure. Yet these distinct points-of-view seem to enhance each other’s power. Do you think the fascination people have with (your photos of) Japan paired with Iain’s text will change now that you’ve moved from an exotic culture with unintelligible Kanji characters everywhere (stores advertising sales for laxatives look like the most beautiful calligraphy to the untrained western eye) to a more recognizable Euro-centric aesthetic?

Jon: Perhaps I’m blind to it, but I don’t actually see that “strong sense of place” come through in the photographs. That said, if people do experience the images as being distinctly “elsewhere” then it plays well into the idea that it gives their imagination extra room to roam.

In a more general sense, for me I Wrote This For You has ended up being a form of photographic notebook. My photography tends to develop through experimentation. There are a lot of dead-ends, angles that never get followed up, themes that I get caught up in for a few months, and the occasional set of images that come together into a project. It’s therefore a struggle for me to see any great patterns, as that isn’t how I’ve approached producing the images.

Sean: On the same note, your photography, in its lines, shapes, and forms, often suggest a very precise way of looking at the world, while the words Iain writes to accompany them are often emotional, suggesting intangible feelings that are messy, confusing and formless. Is this collaboration then a kind of balance of opposing qualities building symmetry?

Jon: Having said that, now I have to backtrack a little! The fascination with geometry is one theme that runs through a lot of my images. It’s certainly true that I got a little obsessive with trying to simplify the geometric confusion of Tokyo. This is somehow balanced (in my head) by another part of me that seems to revel in compounding the confusion to the point of abstracting it a way.

As for the balance in the collaboration, you may have latched onto one of the reasons for it’s enduring popularity. Perhaps the readers find themselves seeing the order in the geometry in opposition to the confusion of the narrative scaffolding of the words. If this is the case it’s certainly not by design!

Sean: It’s often very difficult for artists to collaborate, much less two artists with ostensibly divergent aesthetics. Do you ever request of Iain rewrites of his prose that you think might enhance the photograph or is your relationship mostly “hands off?”

I Wrote This For You (HESO Magazine)

This is my skin. It keeps out the rain and words I'd rather not hear like "I'm tired" or "I'm fine" or "We need to talk." This is my skin and it's thick. This is not your skin. Yet you are still under it.

Jon: Our working style is very much hands off. Mostly we work by me providing a set of images for Iain, who does all the hard work of getting things posted. There are cases where the image will inspire the post, there are times when something that Iain has already written will match up with a particular image, and there are times when the readers are left making the association for themselves.

Over the time of the collaboration I’ve sometimes tried to game the process, by sending images that expressed a distinct situation / emotion. The resultant entry has almost never come out as I expected, which makes me unaccountably happy.

There have been times when I’ve asked Iain to use an image to address certain issues (these are almost always environmental, and specifically related to the state of the oceans…), and there are times when Iain has used the blog as a means of address issues that are important to him.

In general I’d say that Iain writes what he wants, and similarly I shoot what I want.

Sean: The blog that features your work is enviably popular. How did I Wrote This For You become such a phenomenon?

Jon: It has been an entirely organic process. The sub-title of the blog is Please Find This and we’ve tried to make it the case that people do actually find it in as personal way as possible. Any promotion has been done rather quietly (being careful not to intrude too much into the flow of entries) and generally by the readers themselves. A lot of the entries end up being re-blogged / re-tweeted, which provides a fairly regular stream of new readers wondering about the backstory.

Periodically there are guerilla actions, with readers leaving references to the blog on notice board, as bookmarks, on banknotes(!), drinks coasters, or just randomly placed post-its. Conceptually this is all about the readers writing their own narrative.

We’ve always felt that self-promotion risked pulling in a wave of people that would depart as quickly as they arrived. Letting things happen seems to mean that we’ve ended up with a more impassioned, and somehow, meaningful, readership.

Sean: Of course nothing trumps a hard copy of the book, but it seems a nice fit for the tablet-happy reader. Do you expect the book will thrive on reading devices?

Jon: There have been several attempts to get the book published over the years, and for a multitude of reasons it hasn’t, until now, worked out. The main motivation has always been to produce a physical book. Happily we’ve ended up working with a publisher (ireadiwrite) that convinced us that we should move beyond the seeming contradiction of turning a blog into ebook, and therefore there will be a tablet friendly version.

Sean: Pardon the phrasing of the question, but I am from Los Angeles: will there be a sequel or two?

Jon: The next thing that we’d like to get out there is an enhanced version of the ebook. Over the years there have been all sort of interesting side-projects, songs based on entries, user submitted images, videos, etc. There will probably readings of some of the entries. If we can work out the logistics maybe even user submitted readings.

There is certainly enough material to do another book, but we probably need to see how this one does, and go from there. Putting the book together took a fair amount of time and effort, which we both had to steal from our professional and personal lives.

Sean: Is there anything you would like to add regarding the book, your photography, or life in general?

Jon: One of the reasons this project has the longevity that it has is that we’ve never presumed to make it do more than it does: regularly post a short piece of writing and an image. I’m hoping that the book doesn’t really change that dynamic too much.

Photographically and in general I’m working through a transition from the hectic intensity of life in Tokyo, to a more sedate, northern European, existence. It is, of course, not obvious what this will yield, but I’m enjoying finding out.

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Comments

  1. says

    One of the more interesting interviews I’ve read – thank you for your great support and to Jon for answering some of the questions that I know many people are asking.

  2. Hern says

    One of my favourite part of this big thing that is the interweb…

  3. says

    Great work from one great man I know (Jon) and one great man I don’t (Iain)
    A fantastic website that never fails to move and inspire.
    More power to the both of you.
    Can’t wait to get my grubby paws on a copy of the book.
    Thanks to Heso and Sean for the interview.

  4. sim says

    great interview! please tell me there is a hard cover available??

  5. sim says

    great interview! But please tell me there is a hard cover available??

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