HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Interviews (Page 2 of 5)

Interview with Photographer Edward Olive

Interview with Photographer Edward Olive

Interview with Photographer Edward Olive

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Edward: Very late on, but I’m not looking back. I’m looking to keep taking my photos to the next level and to move all my old pictures just as far round the world as they can go. Sometimes I look back at old photos and think everything I did was **** or I could do it better now. Other times I see some value in the naivety.

HESO: You have a very distinct portfolio, including nudes, fashion, commercial and many of them have the look have the look of fine art photography, yet there is a sense of toy camera aesthetic at work here as well. Please tell us about the way you work on any given project.
Edward: As Helmut Newton said it not the camera that takes the shots, it’s the photographer. It doesn’t matter how the pictures are made. What matters is at the end of the day ending up with the best photo you can take. A photo that means something. A photo that objectively has value…a photo that will then go on to have a life of its own. It will have its own importance. There are people that come to look at it, those that buy it, those that put it on the cover of something years down the line.

To do the sensible, normal, accepted thing in any particular decade thing will produce the sensible “correct” normal photos you see from that decade. To take crazy technical decisions can increase risk and to use technology from other decades or that you invent or make will take you off the rails and either make you pictures that are a total a disaster or a huge success. The degree of risk you take is a decision you have to make in any venture, not just in stock-broking.

HESO: Photography as a degree of risk…somehow I don’t think you’re referencing the current digital technological shift. Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa?

Edward: Terry O’Neill said he used film for people he cared about and digital for jobs that didn’t matter. I wouldn’t argue with him. He’s a genius.

Scan of silver gelatin darkroom print hand made by the photographer from expired black & white negative film hand developed by the photographer

Scan of silver gelatin darkroom print hand made by the photographer from expired black & white negative film hand developed by the photographer

I let people who hire me choose what suits them best. I don’t argue with people who want to pay me professional fees. They’re paying, they’re in charge. I like people to get what they really want. I like people to be happy. People know what they want. They come to me. I listen and try my best to do just what they tell me they like. What I personally think is best is of no importance to them.

Personally, I have no interest whatsoever in digitalizing any image I want to produce except at the very end stage, once the image is as I want it to be, just to scan the final handmade print. The scanning allows more people to see it on screens than is possible in real life and also clients can use it for all sorts of things that will give my picture new life or lives like book or cd covers or advertising campaigns.

Of course if people are still looking to byy high bulk at low cost in large numbers of realistic, descriptive, focused photos that clearly look like they are from this decade then I would be a fool not to take the money. I don’t get paid a million dollars a picture like Elizabeth Taylor but her view on the subject of money still has a lot of sense. Warhol was no fool either. I take digital photos if that’s what people want. If I didn’t they would just hire someone else.

HESO: Many photographs lack faces or obscure the person / people. Is this purposeful? To what end?

Edward: On the internet I put a very few of the pictures I produce each year. A variety from the different projects I have done. There are more and less descriptive pictures. There are photos that show or allude to the representation of people, things, places, ideas, feelings, concepts and moments in time. All the photos I take each year I store in boxes of negatives and prints and thousands of gigas of digitalized or digital files. Periodically I look through them all and put a few on sale or on public display depending on how I feel at the time about that type of picture. I take care not to release all the pictures publicly and often not until a year or two later because so many people who purport to be art photographers try and copy them as soon as they are on the internet and we have had to threaten legal proceedings against very large numbers of Spanish wedding photographers and videographers who have been using my photos in their websites to advertise their photography services. Surprising, shocking, immoral, illegal yet unfortunately all too true here in Spain.

HESO: So you are also a wedding photographer, is that correct? Which came first the fine art photographer or the wedding photographer? And do they overlap?

Edward: There will always be people who try to pigeon hole you or your work for ease of classification. There are many areas of creative arts and many types of photography. The difficult thing is to stand out above the endless zillions whether its weddings or nudes or whatever. To call what I do fine art makes me feel sometimes like a fraud or a donk when you think of genuine fine artists like Chema Madoz.

It is very sad that the very few who actually produce interesting pictures, the really gifted, often pass away early like Donovan or burn the lot because they are sick of the whole thing like Duffy. But this happens in so many creative professions. Looking back at photography books of Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix or John Lennon is very sad.

HESO: Some of your photographs seem like stills from a film. Do you like film? What particular genres? Any particular favorites?

Photograph © Edward Olive

Photograph © Edward Olive

Edward: I like film in the sense of the meaning of negatives or slide and love almost all films, papers and chemicals.

I use all sorts of things from hand developed 35mm, 120mm and 220mm black & white, slide and c41 films of all types, silver gelatin and RA4 papers, water paint, scanners and enlargers, digital and film cameras and lenses from 1920 to 2012, studio lighting of all types for the look that I am looking for any particular shot. Nothing I use isn’t widely on sale either still produced or second hand. All the tools and the fuels are available to everyone. It’s what you do with the paint and brushes that matter.

I am glad Nova, Paterson, Kaiser, Tetenal, Foma, Ilford, Fuji and Kodak still produce some genuine photography products for the enlightened few who still remain. One day there may be no genuine artisans left, just the generic producer of endless cheap fake plastic copies churned out for the masses. That will be sad.

I also like film in the sense of movies and if my pictures look like movie stills that’s great. I learned my first lighting and shot set ups on set working as an actor in TV, films and commercials. I still study the DOP’s every time I get an acting job. Very few stills photographers have the same level as good DOP’s.

HESO: Who are your favorite photographers?

Edward: Sometimes I look back at Jean Loup Sieff’s or Scavullo’s black & whites or color by Clifford Coffin or Guy Bourdin and think I may as well throw in the towel because it was all done far better 30-70 years ago. You look at so much Demarchelier now and see Avedon. You can look at Testino and see Horst or Beaton.

I love Richard Avedon. He will always be the greatest photographer.

HESO: What do you do when you are not working?

Edward: It’s hard to remember. I think I used to have time to travel without work, read, cook, have a social life, play sports and go dancing. But that seems a long time ago now. 

HESO: Any final thoughts?

Edward: There will be people who understand what I try to do and those that don’t. There will be those who look at my pictures with the knowledge and sensitivity of experts in photography and/or art and those who have never heard of Doisneau or Parkinson. There will be people who think my pictures are good, those that think they are bad and those that say they think they are good or bad for reasons that may not be impartial.

For somebody to say your work is great may mean for that person no more than its cool or nice. For another person the word great in relation to photographers refers only to Erwitt or Cartier Bresson and those that are truly great photographers. That is another concept entirely. Few in any generation will have any importance in the long term.

Edward Olive
+0034 605610767

This interview is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

This has never happened before. I don’t really know how to proceed. It is the internet age after all and who does interviews in person anymore? What small media outlet can afford to send a staff writer and photographer anywhere these days, let alone out to Singapore, where despite the allure of talking to burgeoning multi-media artist Adeline Tan about her paintings and illustrations, one cannot even chew gum or find porn in a 7-11? So far as we here at HESO Studio can glean is that she has been taken hostage by her own creation, Yellow, a charming mustard stain with aggression issues who pops up all over town, invited or not.

In the following Skype Chat excerpt, Adeline goes on to describe her relationship to Yellow:

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

Roses Are Red Daisies Are Yellow © Adeline Tan

HESO: There was some controversy concerning an appearance Yellow made. What’s that about?

Adeline: A friend was having a show and I wasn’t in town. At the end of the night she saw Yellow’s face plastered on the wall. She thought I snuck in and did it, but I was like, ‘That’s not me man, I’m overseas!’ Someone printed up Yellow from the Internet, cut him out, and guerrilla graffiti’s him without me even knowing.

HESO: So he – is it a him? – so he has a life of his own. You must get asked all the time, how did you meet?

Adeline: No.

HESO: Well, how did you meet?

Adeline: Ok, I was just like working, you know, but actually I was dozing off at my desk in my cubicle. And he just walked past.

HESO: Sleeping at your cubicle?

Adeline: I ate too much, got sleepy and that’s how we met.

HESO: This is at TCCG? – What does that stand for by the way? – It’s cool to sleep at work?

Adeline: The Ching-Chong Group. My bosses have spent a long time in the industry, got tired of agencies with white peoples’ names, so they named themselves TCCG: The Ching-Chong Group. And yes, no one cares if I sleep at work. My job is just to draw. So I go to work and draw, then I go home and draw.

HESO: That’s not a bad gig. Then you go home and draw the “Salarymen” or the “Half A Person” series, for example, both of which possess definite references to Japan. What impression do you have of Japan?

Adeline: Japan is quite strange, in a good way. It’s like a live anime. It’s easy to understand how anime and manga exist because they (the Japanese) live like that everyday. That’s the society they created.

HESO: What does Yellow think of Japan?

Adeline: He likes Suica. The penguin, you know…

HESO: Is there a Suica giftshop?

Adeline: There is, and Yellow didn’t want to leave…

HESO: No one ever wants to leave that place.

Muffled growls and footsteps, followed by a soaring sound – presumably Yellow performing a Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka move on Adeline. Sounds of wrestling and flying sheets of paper, paint splattering, pencils clattering to the ground.

Adeline: Ok, I’m back. He was getting jealous of you, I think. He’s just hungry, wants some fries.

HESO: In a town full of exotic food choices and plentiful restaurants and street food stalls his favorite food is fries. Really?

Adeline: Singapore food is quite cheap, so you just go out anywhere. Fries are just that something different. I’m always hungry.

HESO: O.K., heh, any plans for new exhibitions?

Adeline: Just working for my friend, doing posters for a music festival.

HESO: How do you come up with your ideas?

Adeline: I just do it man. We come up with an idea and we do it.

HESO: Is that different from work?

Adeline: Oh man, it’s so different. Things we could do in a day, take months.

HESO: Yeah, that’s the modern world. You must be patient.

Adeline: I’m patient. Yellow is not. He’s asking who are you and why are you on trains all the time? He wants some fries.

HESO: That’s interesting, because a lot of your work has a kind of gracefulness to it, a very patient quality, if you will.

Adeline: Ummm…

HESO: And then there is the “Facebook Facts Illustrated” piece, which is just awesome by the way: a Mermaid Chuck Norris, Hip-Hop Unicorns, Bowling Ball Head Man, Marilyn Monroe in front of an overturned Campbell’s Soup Can (& Yellow drinking Champagne…of course), and all of it inside a massive “cheezburger”…it pretty much sums up all pop culture for the last 60 years.

Adeline: Yeah, I guess. Thanks.

HESO: It seems like my idea of what Singapore must be like: crowded, with food and people hanging around everywhere, somewhat absurd post-modern references, all within a framework of authoritarian rule.

Adeline: Yes, they are strict here. No porn, no chewing gum. No blood, sex, gore, or anything like that. You will die for a small amount of drugs. There is a 500 dollar fine for not flushing public toilets…

HESO: How would they find you?

Adeline: That’s what I want to know. There are these plainclothes, middle-aged men stalking you, but they are easy to spot. Yeah, Singapore has like zero unemployment.

HESO: Hmmm, do you feel followed?

Adeline: It’s so crowded here, you don’t need to feel followed to be followed.

HESO: I thought Tokyo was bad. Where do you see Yellow in five years?

Adeline: No idea. He just lives for today. He’s a dangerous man.

At this point in the interview, a series of muffled squeaks are heard and Adeline no longer responds. Only a very quiet, yet very manly voice — presumably Yellow’s — comes on skype and begins chanting, “Look at me! Look at me!” louder and louder. At this point the following file was sent via skype file share, then the session abruptly ended. HESO has not heard from Adeline. We hope that she is alive and well and making more dangerous art. This time, take out the plainclothes gum cops.

Placebo with Zakuro © Ontoshiki

Interview with Tokyo Photographer Ontoshiki

In the old days, when a man was building his credibility as an artist, he did so rather anonymously. There might be a break here or there in this or that magazine or fashion catalogue but it would be difficult for this person to build a public name outside the small circle of his metropolitan environs. There was no forum for strangers to witness the flourishing of an individual’s sensibility. The support network could be minimal, the journey, lonely.

I’ve never met the man who goes by the mysterious name of Ontoshiki but that doesn’t mean I don’t know him. I first discovered him a little more than a year ago on flickr. I can’t remember exactly what shot it was but I think it might have been from his Tohoku series, which Ontoshiki visited shortly after the devastating March 11th quake. Amidst the destruction are solitary shots of people. What are they doing here? Looking through the ruins? Contemplating how life could ever be the same again? I learned quickly his Tohoku work is in no way emblematic of his oeuvre— Ontoshiki is not a photojournalist— but is consistent with his strong feelings regarding mood and emotion.

I am of the camp that the photos we take are like the results of a Rorschach test, giving ourselves away, what we feel about love, humanity, even political and spiritual viewpoints. You can tell from a man’s photographs whether you’d like the man himself. After all, it’s not just the way he sees the world— every photograph is an appreciation of a certain moment that is then publicized to express selfhood. A photo then is not just saying, “Look at this!” but is whispering in your ear, “This is me…”

That said I know I’d like Ontoshiki the man. Beyond technical commonalities (like me he seems to shoot mostly in color with film cameras) it’s his unmistakable interest in beauty and humanism that makes him simpatico. Yes, he photographs beautiful women but he is careful to allow them their sense of mystery. When I peruse his many photos of women I’m not just looking at their finery and appreciating their feminine charms; I’m also sensing their autonomy (as opposed to being mere sex objects). All too often fashion photography feels reductive (it is after all selling something) but Ontoshiki allows his subjects their vulnerability. Moodiness has precedence over glamour. This emphasis is something you rarely find in photos of beautiful women.

I suppose it works here because Ontoshiki is coming at photography with his dual interest in self-expression and aesthetic appreciation. Some people want to make perfectly abstract photos of buildings. Others find their eye in war zones. And then some just adore beautiful women. In his own words, Ontoshiki writes that sensuality “in photography is tantamount to having an intimate dance with a woman; timing, technique, intricate body movements…shooting someone for an extended period gives me a feeling of palpable intimacy.” It’s not a job then, it’s a life.

A Lust Restrained © Ontoshiki

A Lust Restrained © Ontoshiki

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Ontoshiki: I’ve been shooting since I was a teen. I was born in Malaysia but my ancestor’s roots are from China. When I was 9 years old, my family immigrated to Australia so I was raised and educated there. 

In 2005, I made a big decision to quit a decent job (in the Australian government) and I eventually arrived in Tokyo. With a constant stream of culture, interesting faces and beautiful scenes happening right in front of my eyes, I felt like I needed something with a little more control in order to document these fascinating visuals. A year later, after being inspired by film photographers I came across, I ventured into film photography and immediately fell in love with the Pentacon 6 and a cheap plastic Holga. I eventually opted for the 6×6 format Hasselblad and the 35mm format Minolta. 

I don’t have any formal education but I will be going to Paris, France to study at SPEOS school of photography to eventually to work on meaningful long-term documentary projects which focus on community and inherent social issues.

HESO: You get up in the morning, look out the window, what do you see?

Ontoshiki: I’m not a morning person so maybe I see the world a little differently, moving in time-lapse. I feel like I’m a goldfish swimming around in a fishbowl watching the world go by. Going back in history, the last 50 years has changed more significantly than the last 1000 years. This phenomenon is known as “the quickening” and I believe this is a sign that the world is on the verge of major social, economic, political and spiritual change. We are living in an upside-down world full of misinformation. I used to be nihilistic and live in a world of existential ennui, but photography has given me meaning. When I quit my job many years ago and moved to Japan, I wasn’t sure what I was doing: perhaps it was to escape the my life back then. Picking up photography has given me a tool to explore my inner and outer Universes for truth, connect the dots of life and to understand the synchronicities that has led me to this point.

Secret Kyoto © Ontoshiki

Secret Kyoto © Ontoshiki

HESO: You have a very distinct portfolio, full of color and ranging across a variety of subject matter, from classic traditional to edgy counterculture. There is a sense of discipline and order underlying many of your images, yet, strictly speaking, they are not all in focus. What is your main objective in photographing something?

Ontoshiki: Quite the contrary, I really think my portfolio lacks order or discipline. If there were elements of any, perhaps the discipline and order may have come from the educational system in Malaysia. In Australia, the education system was free-flowing, interactive and students were allowed their own voice.

In terms of what I shoot, as with any rookie photographer or painter, I started out shooting scenes from daily life, flowers, stills, people but nothing out of the ordinary. To draw an analogy, it was akin to being born but without your vocal chords developed. You are but a newborn watching and observing, listening and learning but once you are ready, you gradually develop a voice. Now that I am ready, I want to communicate to people the way I see the world and the sights and sounds that have influenced and inspired me.

Lately, I’m sometimes paid to shoot things I/m not particularly interested in. but I do it in order to financially support my other photographic endeavors. Photography is not a “cheap thrill” but I’ll try not to sell myself out and focus on the subjects that interest me.

HESO: Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa? Or is it not important? Explain.

Ontoshiki: For personal work, portraiture, street and documentary, I definitely prefer shooting film especially in black and white — the tones and highlights are incomparable to a straight digital black and white conversion which is often flat, lacks contrast and depth. I shoot digital for assignments and editorials due to cost, speed and convenience.

Feline Fatale © Ontoshiki

Feline Fatale © Ontoshiki

HESO: You possess a knack for extracting color out of a scene. Yet you also have a very large, and quite masterful collection of black and white photographs. What do you feel is the main difference between the two and how do you approach shooting color as opposed to shooting black and white?

Ontoshiki: I love the masters of paintings: van Gogh, Monet, Degas; film: Wong Kar Wai, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton; contemporary photographers: Eugenio Recuenco, Damon Loble, Michelangelo di Battista, Elizaveta Porodina. Their colors are punchy, mood strong, voyeuristic, mysterious, yet the look is still dreamy and organic. If I can get anywhere close to a combination of their styles, I will be on the right track.

If I honestly critique myself, I am not afraid to admit that my digital work “sucks”. I am an amateur with artificial lighting and photoshop post-processing. On the other hand, I feel that my black and white film work is closer to where I want to be. I remember the story of the Master sushi chef who’s been making the same sushi for over 25 years and when asked if he were happy with his sushi, he promptly replied “My sushi is still not good.” On that timeline, I am only in my 3rd to 4th year since I was reborn photographically.

HESO: You have many photos of far-off people in some kind of cityscape. Do you prefer to shoot landscapes or vistas or people? A combination of both? Are these scenes candid or contrived? Do you use models or random strangers? If the latter, do you ask permission?

Ontoshiki: Initially, when I started photographing the streets and people, I would shoot them in the distance. Over the years, I learnt how to get closer and fill the frame and I think that is very much also a reflection of how I am a little less afraid of making the commitment to get closer to someone on a personal level. I suppose you could say that photography has granted me a sort of quasi-intimate relationship with the people I shoot.

Do I ask permission? I do a bit of both, obviously with my street photos they are all random strangers sometimes I stop to ask but most times I shoot them going about their daily business. I recently try to venture into places and go to events where I can likely meet interesting personalities but sometimes I am lucky enough to meet people and subjects serendipitously. In fact, one of the most interesting shoots Ive had done in my life I unexpectedly met at a bar in Shibuya. He is a prominent franchise owner in the U.S. who was in Japan to franchise his business but he was also here to learn the art of “kinbaku” which is the art of rope tying bondage. We got to talking, agreed on a price and I ended up doing a photoshoot for him at the studio of infamous “shibari” rope master, Steve Osada. On another day, I did a photoshoot of him, his girlfriend and two other guys having a four-some. Needless to say, that was the weirdest shooting experiences I’ve ever been involved with and Im not sure if Id do it again to be honest 😉 …oh, just for the record, I didn’t participate.

HESO: Hah! Who are your favorite photographers? Any images in particular stick out to you?

Ontoshiki: I’d like to pay homage to the masters: Helmut Newton, Nobuyoshi Araki, Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey, Daido Moriyama.

A few years ago around the time I started on my photography journey my good friend Mika who’s a professional photographer took me to an exhibition at a small gallery in Ginza to see the work of fetish photographer “Yasuji Watanabe”. It’s hard to explain but at the time, I was rather stoic about the experience. I know looking back, that deep down inside the images really grabbed me, yet I didn’t know how to react or what I wanted to do with it because I was still in my photographic womb. I realize now a seed was planted within me and a few years on, I am taking my first steps on the path to photographing themes of beauty, sensualism, fetishism and erotica. I would say that I have found the voice resonating deep within me which lay dormant at the time.

If You Stole My Sunset © Ontoshiki

If You Stole My Sunset © Ontoshiki

HESO: What do you do when you are not working?

Ontoshiki: I’ve been occupied with…spirituality, yoga, street photography, mixed martial arts, urban exploration, blogging, working on my website and venturing to places in order to meet new people for my photography projects.

HESO: How has the tragedy of 3/11 affected you? Those around you? Friends and family? What do you feel you have done to help? What needs to be done?

Ontoshiki: What have I done to help? Not enough. I was lucky enough to join the crew of JTI Foundation and Fukushima Future on their projects in Tohoku and Fukushima. I really wish I had more time, money and resources but what I did documenting the tragedy was for very selfish reasons. However, through this experience I was able to communicate my voice and viewers who came across my photos could feel hope and compassion among all the devastation. I would definitely like to go up there again if I have a chance to see the positive progress and to document happier moments.

As tragic as it was, it really helped me to understand myself better as a person. I am a selfish and complicated person by nature yet I feel theres a compassionate humanitarian part of me which is dying to be released from its shackles. I know one day I will find that altruistic part of me and pull him out of that deep, dark abyss.

My family and friends, much like everyone else were obviously concerned about what was happening in Japan. Watching the situation unfold on TV where “bad news is good news” is never easy on the families of people affected. At the same time, I don’t thing it was a stretch to say that Fukushima was minutes from the worst nuclear disaster in history.

HESO: Ontoshiki, if you want to mention anything else about yourself, your work or a charitable cause you work with—anything—please do so here.

Ontoshiki: Firstly, I’d like to thank the team at HESO, you Manny, Sean and to everyone who follows my work. Find me on my Facebook page and drop me a message.

This interview is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

I Wrote This For You

I Wrote This For You

I Wrote This For You

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, fresh off the Fragments of Tokyo exhibition, 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.

I Wrote This For You

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’.

In general I'd say that Iain writes what he wants, and similarly I shoot what I want. Click To Tweet

I Wrote This For You

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

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.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Even as it becomes more mainstream, the lines of modern documentary film are ever blurring. No longer is documenting, “what is real?” the most apt, but rather, how do we instill the viewer with a big enough sense of awe at the world (and universe) around them to get them to become activists themselves? Take the fictionalized, The Tree of Life. Does it matter that it’s not technically a documentary? With his fifth directorial effort Terrence Malick went with Big concepts (Life, The Universe, Everything), big stars (Brad Pitt), and big organic visuals that stun with their naturalistic analogue feel rather than digitally deceptiveness. Despite president of the jury Robert De Niro declaring it difficult to choose a winner,The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival competing against such notables as Pedro Almodóvar’s La Piel Que Habito, and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Creation of the Universe Film Still from The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Shot in straightforward 35mm, Malick’s Waco, Texas is a visual poem to 60s Americana, depicting a lenitive south where shirtless boys roughhouse and light firecrackers, run chasing the billowing smoke from the DDT truck just around the corner from a rhubarb pie cooling on the window sill. The cinematography (done by visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull) sweeps us through the wistful memory of a slower era using hand-held POV (which tends to exert a certain sentimentality) of naturally lit moments of discovery: bright prisms of sunlight stabbing through stately elm trees on wide avenues without sidewalks, barefoot redhead mother dressed in white gown prancing in slow motion lead us through a fractured five-part journey of the creation of the universe down to the death of Mr. O’Brien’s son and what lies beyond.

Magic Trip (Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney) looks at the 60s from another perspective. Co-starring the self-dubbed Merry Pranksters, and based as it is on his writings and recordings, is a portrait of the summer of 1964 in the life of Ken Kesey, when he embarked on the fabled road trip in Further, the bus, across America in search of a cool place. This was before the term hippie had come into colloquial use and predates the easy-rider phenomenon. This busful of exuberant youth were on the bus, as it were, ready for anything, fearless and full of enthusiasm for what was to come. Yet instead of waiting for it on Kesey’s Oregon farm, they decided to go and see for themselves. See what? Practically speaking, their goal was the 1964 World Fair in Queens, New York, but when that turned out to be a bust, when Kerouac turned out to be an antisocial drunk, when Ginsberg’s introduction to Timothy Leary’s people at Castalia in Millbrook turned out to be a letdown, what did they turn to? Exactly what was in the Kool-Aid they had been drinking all the way across the face of America: LSD. If taken at face value, the more than 30 hours of archive footage shot by the Pranksters themselves (although sadly the audio was not synced, which is why it has been so long in production), plays as a kind of hippy-dippy day-glo soap opera that doesn’t necessarily end in the happiness that they were seeking, but in the larger context of the sacrifices made by the Pranksters as guinea pigs and by Kesey himself, we see the beginning of the era of the expansion of the mind begin to take shape.

The same time that Kesey was enlightening America, the Beatles were taking over the world. Like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven, the persistent popularity of the Beatles thrives today, yet how well do you know the third Beatle, George Harrison? The one that kept John and Paul from killing each other. The one that had a much-talked about love triangle with Eric Clapton. The one that wrote “Here Comes The Sun” and was the impetus behind The Traveling Wilburys. In George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) we tag along on a journey interspersed with George telling the story of his own spiritual awakening and a treasure chest of new interviews (Paul, Ringo, Yoko) as well as archive material of friends, family and associates of the musician addending the little known story of his life. Great footage of Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi accompanies this two-part HBO film named after his 1973 album Living in the Material World. If only we were all so blessed with such maddening interference in the form of screaming teenagers who indirectly fund the explorations George took across the world in search of the kind of inner peace attainable only by coming to terms with the screaming teenager within.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "American: The Bill Hicks Story" by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

What George Harrison is to music, Bill Hicks is to comedy. The Georgia native toured the United States parodying, satirizing and openly mocking the wannabe opulence of the coked-out 80s with little success until he was finally “discovered”–as is so often the case with avant garde Americans—in England. Through interviews with his family, friends and other comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story(Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas), looks at how Hicks’ punk-centric diy ethic went from frenetically straight edge to embody the drunken banality of all he abhorred. Yet through it all he maintained a crystalline gaze into the dark heart of superficial American society: the rampant consumeristic rise of pop culture meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic” while keeping a third eye on the bigger philosophical picture and persuading people to question authority. Visionary. Genius. Outlaw. These are the words that people use to describe his work. And as with too many visionaries, their flame, burning too brightly to begin, flickers out all too soon.

That flickering flame by which our dreams are guided is often locked within the very rock itself. In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog allows us to peer into the distant past, into a limestone landscape known as Chauvet Cave, which houses the oldest cave paintings known to humanity. Now a tourist spot for hikers and kayakers, the Southern France river valley best known for the Pont-d’Arc—a natural bridge formed by the Ardèche River—once was populated by Cave Lions, Wooly Rhinos, Cave Bears, Wooly Mammoths, Panthers, Neanderthal and yes, homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic period some thirty thousand years ago. In order to preserve these fragile representations (peoples’ breath causes mold to form thus degrading the site) the French government allows almost no one inside the 1300 foot cave of calcified bones, glittery stalactites and stalagmites, yet Herzog was given permission to take a very limited crew with hardly any equipment to document the cave paintings. According to scientists studying the cave, no humans ever lived within, using it only for drawings, and perhaps for ritualistic purposes. In a film that transcends the medium—due to the ubiquity of the filmmakers and their equipment in such a limited space—we witness something awe-inspiring which, like walking on the moon, the majority of humans will never get to experience firsthand.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Clearcut Film Still From "If A Tree Falls" by Marshall Curry

What is awe-inspiring to some is merely toilet paper to others. The tall majesty of a Giant Redwood stretching its ancient limbs toward the puffy clouds floating across the bright blue sky. Now a forest of Aspen, creating an ecosystem of life, an interconnected network communicating across thousands of miles, providing myriad species of flora and fauna—including humans—the fundamental ability to sustain life. Now imagine it all gone, gutted, gored out of the ground for the remarkably short-sighted goal of ephemeral profit. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation FrontWhat happens when so-called tree-huggers shake off their hippy-dippy tie-dye for a more militant approach to fighting back against the wanton destruction of the forest. Marshall Curry tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of an ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members.

Being connected to the world from which we come, rather than manipulating it for profit, is the underlying message of Forks Over Knives. Written, directed and narrated by Lee Fulkerson, himself a subject of study in the controversial 95 minute long exploration into what scientists Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have discovered through painstaking research: “that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” How will history view us? As the Age of Diabetes? The Age of Heart Disease? Or as the age that had a chance to change repeated bad behavior but did not do so in order for the few to profit from the many? It may be the most important film of the new decade, but who will actually watch it?

The tagline to Transcendent Man by Barry Ptolemy is “Prepare To Evolve” and if futurist Ray Kurzweil has any influence in the matter, we will all live forever. Or at least those that can afford nanobot surgery to repair dysfunctional organs, the hundreds of vitamins taken on a daily basis to sustain human health, and the acceptance of Transhumanism—the mixing of machine and human—into the mainstream. The film follows Kurzweil across the globe as he talks to thousands of people about his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and what it means to transcend biology. The post-biological world will solve world hunger, disease, aging and even “cure death”. He doesn’t, however, comment on how to cure all the rich psychopaths that always seem to end up running the world. Maybe in version 2.0.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

American Grindhouse Film Still from "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"

John Landis puts it succinctly when he says, “In the terms of the business, a profitable picture is a good picture.” American Grindhouse(Elijah Drenner) focuses on the history of the B-movie, the rise of the exploitation flick, the slasher movie, and pornography to merge with Hollywood film-making to become the epitome of modern American Cinema. The concept of a grindhouse is based upon the hey-day of studio-owned theaters—some running non-stop 24 hours a day—in a big city which would show anything to keep the customers entertained. This predated the current MPAA rating system and other rating laws, and thus gave the public a window to see the societal taboos that they really wanted to watch: sex, violence and antihero on the big screen. Once legally separated from their studio backers, a true free market reigned at the theater , giving rise to a larger independent film movement and helping create the modern American film industry. Talk all you want about what should and should not be filmed, but leave it to film producers to capture the zeitgeist of a pop culture clamoring for (yet another) female jail flick / slasher movie.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)
It’s a good thing that Conan O’Brien is one of the funniest people on the planet, because he’s kind of a dick. Not a Dick Cheney kind of dick, but the inevitable kind that comes from everyone wanting to meet you all of the time and your show has just been hijacked and you can’t be on TV for one year and you’re a dad and that means you’re tired, and everyone still wants to chat you up—even celebrities (they who should understand)–like you have all the time in the world while putting on a massive mostly-one-man cross-country show. It must be said, this documentary on Conan O’Brien’s comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada after leaving his post at “The Tonight Show” and severing his relationship with NBC, cements O’Brien’s standing as Comedian of the People.

Honorable Mentions go to:

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "General Orders No. 9" by Robert Persons

  • Prohibition Ken Burns & Lynn Novick invite you to toast a tipple to the teetotallers while watching the history of how to royally screw anentire country.
  • General Orders No. 9, writer-director Robert Persons cinematographically stunning tale of Man’s interaction with Nature in the Deep South is enigmatically told through experimental usage of poems, music and images.
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times Andrew Rossi is given
  • unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom, yielding a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity.
  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock is a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that is financed and made possible by brands, advertising and product placement.
  • I Am is a 2011 documentary film written, narrated, and directed by Tom Shadyac. What happens when a director best known for directing Jim Carrey vehicles Ace Venture: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty has a life-altering bicycle accident and sees the light: a feelgood Choose Life documentary of the year.
  • Life in a Day is a crowd-sourced documentary film comprising a series of video selected from 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube, all taken around the world on July 24, 2010. The 95 minute “film” includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations.
  • Miss Representation from Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
  • The Captains is a feature length documentary film written and directed by William Shatner in which he, the original Captain Kirk searches out the lives of other captains of the USS Enterprise and interviews them. He’s also got a new album coming out soon.
  • These Amazing Shadows, Paul Mariano Producer / Director Kurt Norton Producer / Director
  • Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton is a documentary on DIY producer/director Roger Corman and his alternative approach to making movies in Hollywood.
Gebrüder Teichmann - Machines Take Over the World

Gebrüder Teichmann – Machines Take Over the World

On Gebrüder Teichmann‘s latest album, They Made Us Do It (Festplatten, 2011) the Teichmann brothers point the way to the future by melding an understanding of the past with thick dance-y beats that make you want to question the present…on the dancefloor. Being designated Germany’s electronic musical ambassadors by the Goethe-Institut has not only not gone to their heads, but has helped broadened their horizons from the local Berlin club scene to countries that at first glance may not seem very conducive to jazz-inflected breakbeats or modern electronic music at all. But are these vinyl-spinning Brothers Teichmann really “modern”? A look at the cover of They Made Us Do It provides many cultural hints as to their love of what some might call an esoteric past: a Technicolor cityscape of strange-headed humanoids being overrun by 12″ UFOs and bag-headed giants in black Krautrock outfits. It begs more than a listen and, like the aliens we so feared in those old Sci-fi flicks, it…they, the machines, covet your body.

The machines seem to be nice, but who knows? Click To Tweet

Gebrüder Teichmann – Machines Take Over the World

Gebrüder Teichmann - Machines Take Over the World

Teichmann Brothers They Made Us Do It (Festplatten 2011)

HESO: The title of the album, They Made Us Do It, refers to someone or something making you do something. Who is making you do what exactly?

TEICHMANN: What happened was an unexpected synthesizer accident: we were working in the studio as usual, when somehow the machines took over the power and from that moment strange things happened. It feels like we are now connected to the control voltages of our machines, but we don´t have too many memories of what happened.

HESO: The cover art is reminiscent of Science Fiction book and film posters of the 50s and 60s when aliens came to take over the earth. What are the machines’ intentions with humanity?

TEICHMANN: That´s actually a good question. As Sasha Pereira says on the intro track: “The machines seem to be nice, but who knows?” We also have the feeling that there are problems with the time continuum now, as the UFOs that were seen, are 12″ vinyl shaped, not i-phonish. So they are definitely from the past or maybe it’s the future…

HESO: Beyond the artwork, there are several distinct references to various musical genres on the album itself: jazz, krautrock, house, even classical strings. What are the core musical elements you create an album with? Where do you begin?

TEICHMANN: Sometimes we start from a idea (a style or tempo) or concept for a track, but often we just start jamming. Togehter with our machines there is allways something interesting happening.

HESO: If I understand this correctly, you both, the Teichmann Brothers, are putting out the machines’ message, which is that “We are the future.” What does that future look like?

TEICHMANN: Nobody knows how the future looks. But of course you have to take care about the present, if you want to have a nice one…

HESO: Where did the idea for this album come from?

Gebrüder Teichmann - Machines Take Over the World

The Masked Musicians Teichmann Brothers

TEICHMANN: We had too many ideas and the research process was a long one. We had a lot of inspirations from our travels and collaborations and wanted to do something that is both experimental and dance-y. While making music, we mostly use analog gear, as well as we still play only vinyls in the club. So the link was already there. The hardest part was to bring all the material on one rccord, that still tells one story, which helps you to find the right way while creating the music, but during the DJ- or Live-set we like to tell a new story. ‘Cause playing live is always an interaction with the place and the people.

HESO: Do the both of you have any specific talents when it comes to producing an album, i.e. does Andi always do this particular mix or Hannes creates the beats? How do you collaborate?

TEICHMANN: Hannes is always doing the particular mix and Andi creates the beats. No just joking! Actually Hannes is more the sound guy, Andi more the concept guy. The rest is live-jamming, recording, editing, mixing.

HESO: Speaking of collaboration, do you have a core group of artists that you generally work with or do you seek to expand your musical horizons by working with musicians from different genres?

TEICHMANN: We always want to expand our horizons by working with different musicians and artists. It brings fresh ideas and inspiration but apart from a musical point of view, it also creates a lot of great experiences. It´s a social and artistic dialogue. That’s why we love to collaborate with people from different (musical) worlds.

HESO: You were designated by the Goethe-Institut to represent the German electronic scene in countries which may seem a bit odd: Algeria, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and worked on the BLNRB project, which teamed you up with other Berlin artists to create a musical exchange in Nairobi. Has this influenced your music at all? This album?

TEICHMANN: Of course. The projects and travelling to several countries influences not only our music and work, also our personal lives. The great chance to work with Goethe Institut Nairobi on BLNRB, opened up a lot of doors and posibilties, but it also brought us a strong connection with the other German artists, especially Jahcoozi.

HESO: What do you see for the future of electronic music? Music in general? More machines?

TEICHMANN: We really like the growing interest for analog live music in the electronic music scene. And we think for all music styles there are still a lot of undiscovered possibilities.

HESO: What are you listening to these days?

TEICHMANN: Very various music, only it has to be unique and leftfield. In terms of electronic music we love the new genre Skweee from Scandinavia. Beside that we are very impressed by Nisennenmondai, a girl-noise band from Japan, but we also listen to a lot of classical experimental music and start to get more into african music. But on the other hand we still discover a lot of great techno and house stuff from the 90s till now.

TEICHMANN – They Made Us Do It (Album-Teaser) by gebrueder teichmann

Do yourself a favor and get yourself an early Christmas present: buy the album.

Interview - Tokyo Street Photographer Lomodachi

Interview – Tokyo Street Photographer Lomodachi

Interview – Tokyo Street Photographer Lomodachi

HESO:Can you tell us a little bit about the name “Lomodachi”? What does it mean? Where did it come from? Who are you?

Lomodachi: Lomodachi is almost like an alter-ego that was born in Japan sometime in 2004. It’s a portmanteau combining the Japanese word for friend (tomodachi) and Lomography…which I got into back in 2004. Me? I’m Walter Edwards…I traveled to Japan from the U.S. back in 2003 and have been inspired to document what I see since then. Working in IT as a project manager, I use my left brain way too much during the week and try to fight back through my (photographic) work.

HESO: IT Project Manager by day, gritty street photographer by night. You live in Japan, but are not Japanese. How does it feel to be a stranger in a strange land? Why does it appeal to you to live away from where you were born?

I would eat with Jackie Chan, Steve Jobs and John Coltrane. That would be the best conversation ever. Click To Tweet

Lomodachi: Being a non-Japanese living in Japan feels different from one moment to the next. I get the privileges of a curious tourist while being able to eavesdrop on conversations in Japanese (which comes in handy). Most of the time, this kind of thing works in my favor.

HESO: Your work seems to hint at the idea of nationality through common cultural experiences. What do you think is/are the dominant cultural aspect(s) of Japan? America? The World?

Lomodachi: Most people across the world like to feel as if someone is trying to understand their perspective. That’s what I think I take with me when I travel and shoot street photography. I’m not trying to be intrusive…just trying to understand the worlds that I come across.

HESO: The world is getting smaller in terms of media and communications, yet problems persist: racism, genocide, hunger, disease, waning natural resources, war, natural disaster. Any ideas on what we can do to improve the daily lives of all people and not just those in the first world?

Lomodachi: Citizens of the world need to understand that whenever they feel themselves in a fortunate situation, that’s the time to contribute to solutions. You just never know when you will be desperate and in need of someone else’s sympathy and generosity. Those that understand this concept should teach those who don’t understand.

HESO: What projects do you have on the horizon?

Lomodachi: I’ve become fascinated with urban structures, the connection between human beings and the universe, and also a personal photo documentary inspired by my thoughts and feelings after the earthquake of March 11th in Japan. These days everyone is stressed. You can see it on everyone’s face. It’s just a very difficult time to get through…

HESO: On a lighter note, if you could eat anywhere in the world with any three people alive or dead, where and with whom would it be?

Lomodachi: The place is an easy choice…that would have to be that mom and pop eatery at the markets in Bangkok. We may have to take the food to go and eat outside though. I would eat with Jackie Chan, Steve Jobs and John Coltrane. That would be the best conversation ever.

Andrey Shapran - Lands at the Edge of the World

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Why do some races of people seem to have an advantage over others? Why are some countries rich and others poor? Why are some people haves and others have-nots? For argument’s sake let’s say that having (education, health, work) is the ostensible goal of human society on earth and not-having (basic somatic needs insecure) is the place from which we came. Why are the majority of the haves people of Eurasian origin while the have-nots are the Native Peoples of the world? What’s the deal?

Luck mostly. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, W. W. Norton) geographer Jared Diamond writes that as hunter-gatherers transformed to agricultural societies it was the nutrient-rich plants of Eurasia (barley, wheat) as well as the successful domestication of docile animals (cow, horse, sheep, goats) that allowed surpluses to be stored, and specialized societies to develop. The rest of the world initially had only one domesticatable animal (Llamas) and produced mainly low-nutrient maize and potatoes and have failed to figure out a way to lengthen the short shelf life of bananas. From the stores came surpluses, specialization, population growth, class hierarchy, bureaucracy, nations, and empires.

The bureaucracy par excellence had to have been the post-WWII Union of Socialist Republics under Stalin. Be it the 17th, 19th or 21st century, Russia has never been without political controversy, never without misunderstanding, never without raw beauty. She is so big that she always surprises and is always surprising, at least in part, because she is so big. And full of the unknown and the overlooked. Look at a map of Russia, pan to the extreme northeast of Asia to the edge of what was the landbridge humans crossed into the western hemisphere some 16,000 years ago and you will see the snub nose of the Chukchi Peninsula, facing off across from Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.

Bering Strait Map

Bering Strait Map

The tail ends of two vast landmasses, which once connected the world as Beringia, exist today in the form of the people, the dialects and traditions of Northwest Alaska and the Russian Far East. This is the ancestral home of the Chukchi, Evens, Koryaks, and Eskimos, the native peoples who have inhabited this land for millennia. As Latvian photographer Andrey Shapran said when he visited Mechigmensky Bay of Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, “Walruses, whales and other sea mammals are daily food for this people, and sea hunting is their daily life.”

Imagine that. No 9-5 at the office or school for the kids. No television or commercials. No Christmas shopping or summer vacations. No politics or perestroika, red scare or cold war. The only cold they know is waking up and hunting for food in the long Arctic winter. Brr. Most might choose bureaucracy over fending for oneself at open sea.

The small coastal town of Akani has long been a settlement of sea huntsmen where for centuries they have chased walruses and whales through the chilly Arctic waters on their annual migration. Yet during the Stalin’s reign the local people were relocated 30 kilometers to the south in Lorino, off the migratory path of their atavistic foodsource. Despite the infamy of Soviet bureaucratic prevailing wisdom, migratory patterns of walruses and whales remained stubborn, continually making their annual visit off the coast of Akani, where the local huntsmen come to try their luck, before cutting inside the Alaskan Peninsula and heading down the coast of North America to breed. Shapran points out, “The most lucky is who come out of the sea first.”

But what do we mean as Russian? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people. Click To Tweet

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

A Chukchi hunter takes aim at a Grey Whale with his spear - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

I ask him about the ongoing photographic series Lands at the Edge of the World chronicling the native people inhabiting the north-east of Russia, the South Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and Chukotka peninsulas, “Do these indigenous reindeer herdsmen, fishermen and sea mammal hunters practice traditional survival techniques the same way as their ancestors? How is it different or similar?”

“Yes, the ways are similar. But speeds have changed—huntsmen on the Chukotka peninsula today use modern high speed engines for their boats, herdsmen in the tundra often ride powerful off-road vehicles. Although generally the situation remains the same—the immense northern areas define the rhythm of life for these people.” Andrey continues, “A harvested whale on land is as amazing a sight as a live whale at the open water. No one animal looks the same as others. The ancient tradition of sharing the kill between all local people according to their needs perseveres and all are welcome to cut off his part of the common catch. It is the only way to survive in the extreme conditions of the north.”

Talking to the hunters, Shapran has heard tales of how it has become harder to hunt whales. To ease their toils (the I.W.C. annually allots them 140 Grey Whales), humanitarians have donated American-made dart guns, which the locals save for hunting the big Baleen whales that pass through their waters in late autumn, also using a kind of hand-made metal charge for Gray whales, but whale harvesting with such weapons is complicated, because only a precise hit guarantees success. The Stone Age arrows, spears and harpoons continue to dominate their modern hunts. Shapran adds, “They say even American-made firearm cannot compete with this ancient weapon.”

Hunting and butchering are such integral skills that are done almost as automatically as walking and eating. Several hours after the hunt and not a trace of the bloody carcasses remains on the shore. Here in the far north, life and… Click To Tweet

I ask the obvious question, “Is this lifestyle sustainable in 2011 and further into the future?”

“Certainly this lifestyle is rational here, but only small part of local population lives in a such way. Settlements and towns with heated houses, TV, shops which are full of food from our civilized world, all these things deprive people the opportunity to develop those qualities that are necessary in the tough conditions of the Far North. The percentage of people who live in the traditional way is very low, the young generation do not move on to the tundra or to hunt in the sea, because living, or even survival conditions there are absolutely diverse.”

As Shapran recounts a story from one of the whalers, saying, “…The whales attacked their boat twice—first time a wounded whale dove down under them and struck the boat bottom with his head…” he gestures like the old Chukchi hunter throwing up his hands, showing how hunters flew from the boat. “The next time, he did not fall out from the boat—it did not turn over. ‘Now,’ the hunter added, ‘I am fearful to go out to sea.’ But he has to hunt. He needs to feed his family.”

He continues, “The hunters venture out to sea at dawn, eating only once before coming back home, and often not returning until after sunset. Their meal consists of a piece of cold boiled meat, bread and tea from vacuum flask. Hunting always takes a lot of energy. A way back with a killed whale is always a difficult trial. The longer hunting continues, the longer coming home is. And they never go hunting alone. The sea, they believe, for sure takes a single man away.”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

The carcass of a Grey whale on the shores of Akani - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

HM: “The World Wildlife Fund reports that in addition to some of the underdeveloped areas of the Chukchi peninsula being in danger of exploitation of natural resource deposits, such as oil, natural gas, and gold, ‘nuclear waste pollution from the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and spreading tundra fires are threatening the Chukotka’s ecosystem,'” I ask Shapran, “Are the indigenous peoples in any danger from outside economic interests disrupting their lives or their food supply? Do they benefit at all?”

AS: “The danger certainly is high. In the past the state interfered with the traditional northern peoples way of living trying to impose on them the ‘civilized’ lifestyle, but now it invades the living space of indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, looking back in history we can see the negative impact only after many decades or even several generations. So, may be it is too early to talk about benefits or harms, but obviously any so-called development must not be done thoughtlessly.”

HM: “Are these Northern people, the Chukchi, Evens, and Eskimos considered Russian?”

AS: “But what do we mean as ‘Russian’? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people.”

HM: “The idea of nationality is a very peculiar issue in regards to the fact that so many nations were under the umbrella of the USSR, including the Baltic countries, eastern Europe, nations in and around the Black Sea, even Mongolia and the provinces of the far east, such as you have photographed. Is there an extended brotherhood of Russia that exists to this day? You are from Latvia, but are you included in the Russian family? What is the situation with all of these recent independent states in relation to modern day Russia?”

AS: “This is a very complicated question and it is impossible to answer it in one sentence. Every former Soviet Republic has its own point of view on this issue. To speak about that confidently you must visit these now independent countries and converse with local natives and Russian people, but I have not had such experiences. It happened, for last several years I have worked only in Kyrgyzstan, in its northern part, where not so many Russians remain and only native people older than thirty more or less can speak Russian. The older generation of Kyrgyz people still respects Russia and the Russians. Despite twenty years since the fall of the USSR they still call Russia ‘older brother.’ In Latvia, where I am from, lots of Russians live nowadays, but the nationalist attitude is quite highly represented and at the same time the situation in the Baltic region is quiet.”

HM: “Your photographic work with Great Patriotic War (World War II) veterans presents an alternative point of view for western audiences of living veterans of the war. Is there a big difference in experience when talking to veterans from Tobolsk as opposed to Riga?”

AS: “No, I did not feel any difference in this work. Lots of veterans who live now in Latvia were born in Siberia and relocated to Latvia right after the Great Patriotic War. And in spite of long years away from their motherland, as well as Siberians they speak Russian. But in Riga the nationwide Victory Day on May the 9th is celebrated quite differently than in Russia. This day is a day of unity for the entire Russian-speaking population of Latvia and the most important participants of it are old people in their Soviet military uniforms. In Siberia such celebrations are more formal and not so sincere.”

HM: “Can you tell us about what you are working on in the future?”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

Whale bones on the shore of the Chukchi peninsula - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

AS: “My current projects are the continuation of the themes which were begun several years ago. The project “Land at the edge of the world” is not limited in time and geography. The work demonstrates the need for more careful research of subjects, of indigenous peoples traditions and their lifestyles. The “Far East” project about the South Kuril islands also requires special two-three-month trip to complete.”

HM: “The South Kuril Islands are part of Russia, but Japan claims a right to some of them. Have you talked to locals about this? How do most Russians feel about this issue?”

AS: “Mostly Russians are for retaining the South Kuril islands within the Russian Federation. On the Islands there is a quite large migration flow, people often go there in search of well-paid work. Usually they are seasonal workers whose families live on the mainland. They are barely interested in political and social issues around this area.”

It’s the haves who start most arguments about politics. The have-nots are just trying to put dinner on the table.

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