Interview: Other Streets – Mark F. Erickson

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to photographer Mark F. Erickson.

Diaspora, I have made attempts to understand this term, but it’s meaning escapes me like vapors through an open window. As soon as my mind begins wrapping itself around the concept, it’s gone, moving to take another form. Perhaps there is no simple way to encapsulate it. The idea of diaspora has become more than the movement of people, it’s about identity and what these people experience after they’ve moved.

For immigrants and many of their descendants, they grow up on the precipice of two or more ethnic identities. The push and pull from wanting to know where you’re from so you can know who you are and who you might become. Trying to fit in one place all the while maintaining connection to a place your family calls “home”, but the memories of “home” are not ones you’ve made for yourself.

For photographer Mark F. Erickson, his photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived is an exploration of capturing his Vietnamese identity and creating his own memories of home. Mark was born in Saigon in 1972, evacuated as part of Operation Babylift in April 1975, and adopted by an American family in western New York.

Mark’s photobook has been exhibited at the L.A. Center of Photography, the Davis Orton Gallery, and the Griffin Museum of Photography. He has been profiled in The Photobook Journal, diaCRITICS: the arts & culture of the Vietnamese and SE Asian diaspora, the Worksleeve podcast, and VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) Books.

In this interview, I speak with Mark about his photography and how the medium helped him get a glimpse into a life he might have lived.

 

If liked this interview you may also be interested in Foreign Home: Vietnam

What are some things you want to say and explore with photography? What do your photographs mean to you? 

I love words and I read a lot of books. But I also love the visual arts because there are some things that cannot be expressed with words. And the wordlessness of photography, in particular, leaves a lot of space for engagement and interpretation by the viewer. In that sense, what I’m trying to say with photography is beyond words. What I am trying to explore and what it means to me is more explicable. It is an external representation of an internal exploration of who I am, where I come from, and how I fit into the world.

 

Can you please detail how Robert Frank’s The Americans influenced your style of documentary photography? 

The Americans influenced me in many ways. First, while there are many noteworthy individual photographs in the book, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Frank included what others might perceive as imperfect shots—some are even out of focus and others are slightly off-kilter–and left out. Second, the work is focused on everyday people and situations, allowing the viewer not to be distracted by famous faces and pretty places. Third, I really struggled with editing and sequencing my own work and turned repeatedly to The Americans more than any other book as inspiration for how to do it well.

 

Growing up in the US, what were your perceptions and ideas of Vietnam as you learned about it through a Western lens?

The truth is I didn’t think much about Vietnam while growing up. Of course I knew that I was factually from Vietnam, but I was in a predominantly white community and Vietnam was just not a focus of conversation or personal interest. I was an adolescent when popular Hollywood Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket came out and they did pique my interest, but the gaze in those movies is firmly on the Americans. Thus, my very narrow perception of Vietnam was that it was the location of a tragic war.

How did these perceptions and ideas shift as you studied Vietnamese history from a Vietnamese perspective with Hue-Tam Ho Tai? 

College was an incredibly eye opening experience on many levels. Socially, I met people from all walks of life, including other Vietnamese students who introduced me to Vietnamese culture. Academically, as you mentioned, I had the opportunity to study under Hue Tam Ho Tai, one of the few tenured Vietnamese professors in the United States at the time. As a history professor, she of course taught an obligatory course on the war, but she also taught about the entirety of Vietnamese history, as well as Chinese-Vietnamese relations. Over thousands of years, the American War in the 1960s and 1970s is just a very small part of the overall story.

 

In 1993, you returned to Vietnam after (18) years (first leaving when you were 3), what were your thoughts of Vietnam when you entered the city of Saigon? 

This was prior to the normalization of political relations between the United States and Vietnam, so one of the only ways I could visit for an extended period of time was as a foreign student in Hanoi. During that trip, I took a bus trip with the other foreign students to Saigon.  I distinctly remember standing in the open doorway of the mini bus.  It was that magical time of day near sunset when everything glows and the shadows are long.  I was quiet and I had some inexplicable feelings crescendo inside of me, feelings that I didn’t feel anywhere else in the country.

 

How did you hope to capture and record Vietnam in your series OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived 

I took my camera, tripod and a lot of film with me to Vietnam.  I loved the process of documentary photography, but I had no greater ambition or vision of what that could or would ultimately become. A camera gives you permission to stare at people and engage with them in a way that you otherwise are not socially permitted to do. In short, I just wanted to capture for myself what I saw and experienced first-hand.

When I returned to the states, I developed the film and made contact sheets. I developed a dozen or more of the photos that jumped off the contact sheets. I knew I had captured something special and I tried to get some publishers interested, but was unsuccessful, stopped trying, and got busy with a lot of other things in my life.

It was not until many years later that I thought of revisiting those images and really doing something with them. And by this time, of course, the country had changed dramatically in terms of economic development from what I had captured.

How did your dual perceptions of Vietnam affect how you approached this project? 

The project aspect of this did not come into focus until the last few years. Revisiting those images and finding treasures that I previously overlooked was at first a personal curiosity. My children were getting older, so I had more time on my hands, and I was having more mid-life thoughts and feelings about my background and identity. Going back to Vietnam through these images brought up a lot of unprocessed feelings. 

At this time, I ran across a Kuzuo Ishiguro quote about being a Japanese person in England and growing up to be an English-language author and it was one of the eventual inspirations for the title of my book:  “There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one.” And I thought that captured something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on:  yes, there was another life that I might have had, but yes, I am having this one—and I can be at peace with that.

 

Whether about yourself, your country of birth, or the medium of photography, what are some lessons you discovered through this project?  

Wow, I’ve had a lot of lessons in all of the above. This project helped guide me to a greater feeling of being Vietnamese. As an adoptee, I have at times felt like I wasn’t authentically Vietnamese—I don’t have a Vietnamese name, a Vietnamese family, the Vietnamese language or culture—and I loved what Viet Thanh Nguyen told Phuc Tran when he expressed something similar in an interview:  why are you allowing others to be gatekeepers and judges on authentic Vietnamese-ness? I expected the project to connect me more with the artistic and photographic communities—and it has—but I didn’t expect the greater connectivity to the Vietnamese and broader Asian community, which has been a pleasant surprise. Prior to publishing the book, I never felt comfortable using my Vietnamese name (Đỗ Văn Hùng), but I now recognize it too is a part of who I am. Post-COVID, I want to go back to Vietnam again given that I have re-connected with family there and my wife and children have never been.

Are there any particular moments or stories from this project that have stayed with you? 

Related to the above, I of course have appreciated the professional recognition and awards that I have received, but what I have been most touched by are the reactions of Vietnamese-Americans. For the older ones, most fled as boat people and they left with nothing, so looking at my book brings many to tears with memories of their childhoods. For their children with no memory of Vietnam, it has served as a bridge between them and their parents to better understand the country they left behind.

 

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on? 

A work in progress is about Vietnamese-American boatpeople and their adjustment to life in America as refugees. The work comes from the time I taught English as a Foreign Language in the Vietnamese community and it was my first exposure to their lives. Ideally, I would like to pair the photographs with essays from people who lived that experience.

 

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself? 

First, as I mentioned earlier, I sent my work out to several publishers and got rejected by all of them.  I took it as a rejection that my work wasn’t good enough.  My older self would tell my younger self not to take the rejection as the end. I now know that many photographers self-publish for many reasons, including the ability to have complete editorial control. Most publishers are in it to run a business and make money and that’s usually the last thing on the artist’s mind. Second, if the body of work is really strong, you will find the audience for it.

 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? 

I strongly believe that the best training for a photographer is to take a lot of photographs and to find a mentor. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” and it is so true! A mentor is critical because it is hard to self-critique and he or she will push you further than you might otherwise be able to go on your own. At Harvard, Chris Killip (UK) served as that type of mentor for me.

Mark F. Erickson (Đỗ Văn Hùng)

https://www.markferickson.com

https://www.instagram.com/markferickson

https://www.amazon.com/author/markferickson

Foreign Home: Vietnam

Photography & Writing: Hon Hoang

Finding the right words buried under two and a half decades of assimilation proved to be difficult. Perhaps it was my accent, my child-like vocabulary, or maybe everything about me was foreign to this place I thought of as home.

Being in Ho Chi Minh city after 11 years since my last visit feels different yet the same. The skyline has given birth to more towers seeking to touch the sun. Wealth has found itself in the pockets of the Vietnamese people yet has forgotten many others. Even with these progressions, much of the city has stayed the same. It’s inhabitants working day by day, to live, to provide for the future. Street vendors beginning their work before the sun wakes or never having stopped to begin with. Construction workers laboring under a feverish heat, finding solace in the brief moments of wind and rain. Citizens working well into old age, doing work meant for much younger bodies.

This place is rich in its traditions and superstitions. People having muted conversations with those that have long left the world. Hands clasped, with pulsating ember, the hopeful pray. Wishing for health, wealth, and whatever might be. I see a country with hope, hope for a future that’s better than what most experienced in the past. The hardships, turmoil, and labor that bled into the soil that grows bounty. It’s a country in search of identity and ownership, both of which have been unknown.

Kids: “Taking pictures mister?”
Me: “Yes.”
Kids: “Then take a picture of us!”

Editor’s Showcase: Dubki- Performances in Contact with the Ganges – Santasil Mallik

Name:
Santasil Mallik
Submission Title:
Dubki- Performances in Contact with the Ganges
Country:
India
Photographer Bio:
Santasil Mallik, 22, is from Kolkata, India. Currently I am pursuing a Masters Degree in English Literature, but I am more interested in exploring the theoretical approaches that investigate the notions of fictionality and representation in art and literature. I firmly believe all works of representation are fictional, the coexistence of representation and non-fiction is a myth. My relationship with photography, therefore, tries to work beyond the idea of documenting and representing reality. Photographs act as futile traces of the memories, reflections, and actions associated with my interactions with different circumstances. They serve as testimonies to things that cannot be accommodated in the photographs themselves. This love and hate relationship with photography, precisely because of the limits of representation of the medium, induces me to keep on exploring this marginality. I am certain that I can never fixate myself to a signature photographic style of my own because my relationship with photography is always in the state of becoming and flux.
My photographs and writings have appeared on several platforms like National Geographic, Private Photo Review, Bright Lights Film Journal, F-Stop Magazine, Entropy Magazine etc. I was selected for a storytelling workshop by National Geographic Society and was also a part of an International Exchange Programme in photography with Counter Foto, Dhaka. But most of my time is spent on my conversations with myself.
Submission Information:
Wrapped in a heavy windcheater, as I dipped my bare feet into the crystal blue waters of the Ganges they went numb in seconds. The biting December winds blowing around me at Haridwar mocked the afternoon sun that shone over the sacred town, but the scene at Har Ki Pauri, the largest ghat in Haridwar, looked no less like a beach on a fine English summer day. Every day thousands of devotees from various parts of the country gather at this ghat, where Lord Shiva stepped upon during the Vedic age, to take their much-anticipated dip (Hindi: dubki) in the river. According to mythological accounts in Hinduism, the waters of the Ganges can refurbish one’s lost energy (Atma-shakti) caused by negative actions; this, if not similar, is close to the idea of purging one’s sins. On another front, people are also aware of the scientific studies and historical records that have demonstrated the self-cleaning and anti-bacterial properties of the Ganges near its source.

The river rushed briskly at turns and became relatively calm near the wider banks, indifferent to the swelling crowd taking dips in the ghat. A range of unexpected activities, emotions, and body movements emerged when individuals confronted the river in all its turbulence and spiritual density. I started photographing various people at that precise moment when they made their decisive dubkis into the water. An infant baby immediately burst out crying as she was dipped into the bone-chilling water for a purification ceremony by her father, muscle-flexing tourists failingly grappled with the flow and coldness of the water as they dipped themselves, some of them hung on to fixated chains and railings to instantly thrust their heads into the water and come out, while others descended slowly with lips mumbling with prayers. Many Dalit children, on the other hand, curiously dived deep into the river to fish for coins and brass utensils thrown by devotees.

The photographs reflect the conviction, determination, and bodily dispositions that accompanied the people as they took their first dubkis in the river. After a week of photographing the same phenomenon, I began to notice a common bodily habitus that guides the dubkis, as well as remarkable exceptions in an individual’s approach towards the Ganges. It is impossible to locate the thoughts and intentions working at the precise moment of taking the dive; several factors traversing across personal, social, religious, and even physical circumstances dictate the way they dive into the river, are they taking dubkis for the atonement of some guilty past? Are they looking for something underwater that might make their lives better? Or are they just enjoying a refreshing bath with their friends? As an onlooker, one can at most revere those specific performances that arose due to their contact and interactions with the river. These photographs are a testimony to those short-lived moments of communication.

Advice for Aspiring Photographers by Photographers

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of meeting and interviewing talented photographers from around the world. In these interviews, I would always ask questions that are a reflection the photographer and their work.

With few repeating questions from one interview to the next, there were usually two questions I would end the interview with:

“If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?” 

and

“Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?”

The first question being an attempt to incite any sense of nostalgia. An opportunity to reflect on the time they have spent taking photographs. A retrospective of how they started, where they have been, and where they are now.

The second question is an attempt to help aspiring photographers and a somewhat shameful attempt on my part to seek advice from photographers who’s work I admire.

I know how information can easily be lost in the heavy traffic flow of this super highway. From interviews I’ve done for Asia Photo Review and EnFlight.Design, please see the compiled answers for the two persistent questions. Hopefully these words help guide you to where you need to be, whether it’s where to begin or how to get back on course.

Interview: Hidden World – Yuriy Ogarkov

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Get yourself a mentor. Go assist other photographers. Make connections with the students and professors while you are studying.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Don’t be afraid. Experiment. See what speaks to your heart. You will go through the phases, where people will start to call you a “photographer” but you will have doubts about if you are ready to be called so. You will go through the phases where you will think that everything you do is worthless and you suck.

You will reach the point where your work will be valuable and it can even feed you. This is where you have to organize yourself and see photography not only as a hobby but something that is valuable for other people. The responsibility comes into play. You will have time where you will think, that you never going to make it, it is too hard and complicated. This is where you have to tell yourself: “Don’t be afraid. Follow your heart. Be honest with yourself. Have a plan”, and one day you will eventually get there, where you want to be. Everything is just a game.

 

Interview: Capture of the Human Condition – Brendan Hoffman

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

In the beginning, I wish I had picked one story and pursued it extensively on my own. Instead, I started many stories, assuming (naïvely) that if the idea was at all good, some magazine would put me on assignment to finish the project. If that didn’t happen, I would start another story. That’s just not how it works, and I ended up with the nubs of many stories but few that were complete. I also wish I had started studying Russian sooner. Speaking a foreign language is incredibly helpful.

Otherwise, if freelancing, get serious about understanding the business side of photography. Read contracts before signing them, negotiate always, and act like the small business owner you are. Demand respect as an equal, but always, always be a professional. Don’t whine or complain or make excuses or expect an editor to hold your hand. Network. Last but not least, make work that speaks for itself.

 

Interview: Traversing Tales – Ed Jones

North Korean soldiers leave their seats following a performance celebrating the 60th anniversary of “victory in the great Fatherland Liberation War” at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, on July 28, 2013. / ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I’m absolutely not qualified to give advice to others because times change, photography is subjective, and I will always have lots to learn.

As for advice to my younger self, I might say: photography in journalism is just a medium that is used to tell stories and is often of the same if not of secondary importance to the ability to identify and understand those stories…so go and study something.

 

Interview: Society of Intrigue – Oleg Tolstoy

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Ha, it’s hard to know where to start with this question. It’s a good question. The thing is, photography is just a medium, there are so many areas with it.

I would advise any up and coming photographers to let themselves experiment, really try out a lot of different styles and techniques until you find something that works best for you. Photography can be a very personal thing, and many photographers can feel lost until they find their style.

It can also be hard working alone so much as a photographer. The best decision I ever made was to move into a studio with 30 other creatives where I do my editing and administration work. I find that being around others often inspires me and it’s good to be working around others and to have that human interaction on a day-to-day basis. 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Never give up, if you believe you are going to make it, you will. Although the catch is, once other people think you have made it, you might not think you have.  Generally, there is no end. There is no great achievement that will make you think you have done it, and made it. It’s all part of a cycle. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life.

 

Interview: Cities of Color and Sound – Gustavo Gomes

Whether they are new and aspiring or experienced, would you have any advice for other photographers?

Keep shooting, even if it’s very likely you won’t get a great set of images before one year on the streets. Photograph whenever you can. If things aren’t working on that day, stop for 20 minutes and get a beer or an ice cream. And don’t expect much from street photography. Probably you won’t make money or be famous by doing it. So, learn how to take pleasure just by walking the streets and enjoying the experience. When you stop worrying too much about the photos, great photos will come.

 

Interview: Humanity in Focus – Mahesh Balasubramanian

Would you have any advice for new and beginning photographers? What was some of the best advice you were given?

I suggest all my friends to believe in you and take pictures that stands out from the crowd. Read a lot about pictures from masters and understand what made them shoot in that way.

The best advice which I ever got is, “Take pictures from your heart and for yourself.“

 

Interview: Hunters in the Frame – Dotan Saguy

What is one of the best advice you’ve received?

I attended a Momenta Workshop about shooting photo stories for non-profits back in February where Craig Semetko was a guest speaker. He gave me the best advice I have ever received and I still use it everyday:

A successful street photograph needs to include three elements that can be summed-up in the acronym: D.I.E.

“D” stands for Design and includes aspects like composition, light, color palette, etc.

“I” stands for Information. It means that the information conveyed in the image should be clear: The viewer should be able to know instantly what the image is about.

“E” stands for Emotion. It can be an emotion depicted in the photograph, an emotion triggered by the photograph or both. To me it’s synonymous with the sense of a decisive moment.

What kind of advice would you want to give to beginning photographers?

I would encourage beginning photographers to hunt for scenes with emotion. A lot of street photography out there these days focuses only on composition, design, etc. But there’s not much happening in the frame and above all there’s no human emotion emanating from the scene.

The typical street shot we see everywhere is an urban background with someone walking across the frame. Emotion is the rarest element to find and the hardest element to capture so why not start there and learn to compose around it? Photography is about freezing time. It’s all about the moment. Everything else is secondary.

To become a better photographer, you first need to become a better hunter of moments.

 

Interview: In Pursuance of Light and Vocation

David Bowie by Sunny Bak

Would you have any advice for young artists pursuing their love and passion?

Just do what you love and never give up, just like my Dad said. Just never give up.

 

Interview: The Beautiful Mundane – Michele Palazzo

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Try to take pictures for yourself for your own pleasure, watch the masters, read, travel and focus on the images you want to create and maybe one day you will find a your style…I’m still looking for it.

 

Interview: In Light and – Gabi Ben Avraham

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I would advise a new photographer to look at other photographers’ works on the Web and try to build his own style, exercise a lot with the camera, find his own master and be open to critics.

I would advise myself not to shoot so much in the first years, to shoot less and think more although I believe it is a natural process every photographer has to go through.

 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Shoot with your own eyes, trust yourself, do not keep imitating other photographers, it’s killing your senses and your eyes.

 

Interview: Ever-Changing New – Ash Shinya Kawaoto

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

First of all, begin by deciding one city where you want to take photographs. It is then important to take a lot of photos of that city. Then, you need to always be prepared to point your camera at subjects that interest you as soon as they appear. The diverse things that happen in the street disappear in a moment. That is why it is important to always walk with your camera at the ready. I personally recommend taking photos with manual focus. This is because I believe that manual focus makes it easier to take photos instantaneously.

 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?This advice is for me not for others. I take pride in taking the idea that I am the best photographer in the world. Do not hesitate.

Interview: Roadmaps of Mythology – Vasantha Yogananthan

The Lakshmana Rekha Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2013

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Work very, very hard. I often hear about ‘talent’ but work is what will make you progress. You have to try, fail, try again, and keep pushing yourself. Study and look at the great masters but don’t end up browsing the internet looking at everything people are doing. Look at books, it is where you will learn the most about editing and sequencing. And photography is 80% about editing and sequencing. Try not to mimic the last fashion. Trends don’t last.

 

Interview: Captured Spirits – Dr. Dirk Schlottmann

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I always thought about whether science, art and photography do not exclude or even hinder each other in my work. Nowadays these thoughts are meaningless and no longer relevant to me. You can photograph artfully and still be a good scientist. This is ultimately not a contradiction but a gift.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Photography has a lot to do with technology (whoever is denying this has no idea…) but above all photography is passion and expression. What others think about your topic matter is of no importance. Do what you want.

 

Interview: Ocean View – Mijoo Kim

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I always keep these sentences in mind. Photograph toward expressing your voice. Photograph things you are in love with. Keep up what you are doing and trust yourself.

 

Interview: Impermanence of Perception – Wen Hang Lin

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Do not give up easily. Being an artist is not easy especially when we have many obligations in life. You will not get to where you want to be overnight; however, if you work hard every day, you are one step closer. Run your artistic career as a business and learn every aspect of it. For example, you should know how to write a grant proposal or artist statement, file taxes, understand the copyright law. They are not exciting, but equally important to artists.

 

Interview: A Face in the Crowd – Pushkar Raj Sharma

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Do it for yourself. Do not run for fame and do not waste time on showcasing on social media. Dedicate more time shooting and less time showcasing it.

I am a working IT professional and have a family to support, I dedicate much less time than I should. I am blessed with a daughter of 6 months old. Most of my time goes into household stuff and family. I wish I started my street photography when I was single and much much younger in age.

Also earlier I fell into the trap of showcasing my work everyday on social media, it just ruins everything. I am not saying it’s not important. But what’s more important is to take new and good photos as frequently as you can.

Street Photography is all about failures. You fail 99% of the time.

 

Interview: Stagnation of Time – Colin Kopp

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Just enjoy it, especially if you’re still in school. Experiment as much as you can. Find a mentor and stay in touch. Don’t worry too much about taking amazing photographs. Just shoot! All of your photos can’t be winners.

Editor’s Showcase: Pilipinas Kong Mahal (My Beloved Philippines) – Toni Evangeline Lucero

Name
Toni Evangeline Lucero

Submission Title
Pilipinas Kong Mahal (My Beloved Philippines)

Country
Philippines

Photographer Bio
My name is Toni Evangeline Lucero. I am a 22 year old photographer from the Philippines. I started taking photographs at 12 when I had my first digital camera, which was a Canon Powershot. I used to walk to school because it was nearby, so I always bring my camera, to take random photos in the streets. At the age of 17, I started shooting weddings and events, but street photography has always been number one in my heart. I recently got into analog photography too.

Submission Information
This photo series shows the true face of the Philippines; the everyday life in a third world country. Some are taken on 35mm film and some are digital.

Website or Social Media Links
https://www.instagram.com/melancholyroom/

 

Interview: Society of Intrigue – Oleg Tolstoy

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to Oleg Tolstoy, a portrait, commercial, and street Photographer currently in London. 

Being a photographer is more than taking photographs. It’s about observing human behavior and interactions. How we change from place to place, culture to culture. How something obvious to one group can be intriguing to another. Through his lenses, Oleg Tolstoy found himself observing and capturing some of the intricacies within Tokyo, Japan.

In this interview, Oleg Tolstoy speaks about his work, travels, and curiosity for social interaction. Presented are his series Shibuya Unmasked and Who’s Driving Tokyo (companion series to Who’s Driving You).

What were some of your early experiences with photography? Did you know in those moments that photography would be your career?

Since I was very young, I always knew I would do something artistic as a career later in my life. As a child I was encouraged to explore art, and found myself immersed in it from a very young age; as my mother, brother and uncle are all artists. I started out with painting, then sculpture, then street stencils. I’ve had a camera for as long as I can remember. When I was 14 I really wanted to create work that was clean cut and slick and found that photography was the best way for me to achieve this. My older brother is also a photographer so I realised that I could ask him any question I wanted and learn more about the medium, so it seemed an obvious and natural path for me to walk down in life.

Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer?

I went to the London College of Communication to study a BA degree in Photography. I learnt the art of creating a series, and a narrative within images. Creating an atmosphere, not just an image; this way of working has very much stuck with me and has helped me form my style of photography.

You have a varying portfolio of celebrity portraitures, commercial work, and social documentary. Do you approach all of these assignments the same way or do you prepare for them differently?

It’s important to plan a portrait to some degree: to find the location, the backdrop and work with the person you are photographing. With my social documentary work, I find a location where these three elements are already formed in one place, and provide an interesting cultural narrative.

Do you plan most of your projects or do they grow into one as you take more images? If planned, what is your process like?

I plan all of my projects out in advance. Something usually sparks a concept. I might have seen something on the internet, or on my travels and then I go to photograph it. I have to plan these trips out in advance, as I need at least 10 days to a month to capture a photo series.

I find accommodation very close to where my shoot location is as the location is often in one area, on one road. I need somewhere close so I can upload images and change cameras and rest.

Your series Who’s Driving Tokyo and Who’s Driving You focuses on the subject of taxi drivers, what was it like to capture the same subject matter in two distinctly different cities?

It felt very comfortable, as it was a subject I had a lot of experience in photographing. I didn’t need to go through trial and error. From a shooting perspective it didn’t really make a difference, it was much the same. Busy street, loads of cabs – that’s what I needed. However, it was the cultural differences and nuances between London and Tokyo that fascinated me. The taxi drivers in Tokyo were very well presented, wearing suits and white gloves, they had a real charm to them.

Cab drivers in London are much less formal and more laid back in their presence. I like observing the cultural differences in day-to-day activities, what some people may think is mundane, I see the opposite. I see a subject with a story to tell and I want to capture it.

Living in London, what was it like to travel to Tokyo? What was it like to observe the people and culture? How did this experience affect your photography?

I went to Tokyo about 10 years ago so I knew I would be stepping into a completely different world. I did notice that a lot more people speak English now there. Tokyo is my favourite city in the world after London. I love the energy and the cultural undercurrent that just runs everywhere throughout the city. A lot of people don’t like busy places, I actually feel more comfortable in busy places rather than quiet places. I find my peace in a busy metropolis like Tokyo. The bright lights, the smells and the sounds all invigorate me.

How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? 

I put all of myself into my work. The way I work, it gets very addictive, there is always one more shot to get, there is really no end to when I can stop taking photographs and the project is complete as there is always another image to capture. Hence why I can spend 8 hours non-stop on a street corner every day for 2 weeks at a time.

For your social documentary work, what was the most tense moment you have experienced? What did you do in this situation?

I experienced a very tense moment once in Piccadilly Circus in London when shooting Who’s Driving You. A drunk man ran up to me and tried to take my camera. I wasn’t expecting it as I was in the middle of capturing images. I couldn’t figure out if he was trying to use the camera to take a photo himself or if he was actually trying to steal my camera. I decided to run away from him… Apart from that, there haven’t really been any.

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?

I recently got back from China where I was shooting on a beach there! I’ve also been working on a project in Jamaica and in Hong Kong. They will be coming out later this year… I travel a lot for my photography, and am always planning a new trip.

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Ha, it’s hard to know where to start with this question. It’s a good question. The thing is, photography is just a medium, there are so many areas with it.

I would advise any up and coming photographers to let themselves experiment, really try out a lot of different styles and techniques until you find something that works best for you. Photography can be a very personal thing, and many photographers can feel lost until they find their style.

It can also be hard working alone so much as a photographer. The best decision I ever made was to move into a studio with 30 other creatives where I do my editing and administration work. I find that being around others often inspires me and it’s good to be working around others and to have that human interaction on a day-to-day basis. 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Never give up, if you believe you are going to make it, you will. Although the catch is, once other people think you have made it, you might not think you have.  Generally, there is no end. There is no great achievement that will make you think you have done it, and made it. It’s all part of a cycle. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life.

 

Photos Courtesy of Oleg Tolstoy

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Editor’s Showcase: Mitani Monogatari – Thibaut Goarant

Name
Thibaut Goarant

Submission Title
Mitani Monogatari

Country
Japan

Photographer Bio
My name is Thibaut Goarant, I am a middle aged guy. I’m born in Quimper, Brittany, France but I’ve been living now in Japan for 4 years. I have moved to Japan because of my work and because my wife wanted to go back to her country.

I am a father of a sweet six-year old little girl. I suffer from depression. I’ve always been in a bad shape, but after I moved to Japan it got worse : not adapting to my new work, my best friend died… Fortunately, I succeeded in making a new friend, which is very lucky, as this kind of relationship doesn’t build like this every day. I am now on sick leave and left the huge city of Tokyo to move to the countryside. I see my depression influencing my work; I shoot high contrast black and white, dark, like my feelings.

I have started photography only 3 years ago. When I was 37 years old. Now I’m forty… Yes it is late to start but you need to start somewhere right?

I am currently using a Ricoh GRII (and a flash) so I am limited to 28mm. Sometimes, when I shoot film, I shoot with lenses that are approximately a 50mm equivalent. With the 28 wide angle, I need to be close to be in a scene to be able to take something decent so it is very exciting. The 50mm lens is better for me for environmental portrait that I like to do with the medium format ; I want to fully use the potential of the camera and I believe it is better like this. The medium format is also a big camera so it can scare the subject in a way.

The camera, for me, is a lovely tool. It is an extension of my eye and brain that helps me in capturing or reflecting something that I cannot say with words.

I shoot 99% of the time in black and white. That’s how I like to see the world around me. I think it corresponds to my state of mind ; it is only natural for me to shoot black and white.

My favourite photographer is Todd Hido although he did not influenced me on shooting, or at least not consciously. I enjoy also Daido Moriyama and some other Japanese photographer such as Shinya Arimoto or Shin Yanagisawa.

Photography has different aspects for me. First it is an art form where I can express myself ; it is an “affordable” one in a sense that you just need a camera and then practice/work. It is a stress reliever ; I shoot and I forget everything. Finally it is an enjoyable moment when it comes to share my pictures with my family, friends and the rest of the world through social medias.

For photography, my best friend told me everything I should know, and even more ; that’s how I started to dig deeper. Then the books came; they are marvelous tools for learning and for mind healing, a good source of inspiration and satisfaction with the medium, a different feeling than looking at pictures on the internet. I also attended a workshop with Eric Kim in Tokyo ; it is not an experience that transcend your photography immediately, but the energy is good and what you’ve learned hits back later ; it really acts as a trigger.

When I started photographing I did not have any work or photographer in mind. I bought myself a camera ; a mirrorless that said it was the perfect tool for street photography. The street photography words resonated in me, it was appealing. I started to photograph frenetically, and little by little, I dug deeper into street photography.

I educated myself and discovered a whole world of photographers. I looked for the new names on the internet, learned about the masters, they became, not directly a source of inspiration, but a solid cultural background to pursue my route.

I used to love pure street photography, but I slowly moved to portraits taken in the streets (and a project called Hello You!). Then, as I moved to the country side of Japan (I mean real country side) and as there are less people and that the scenery is totally new to me, I started to take landscapes.

I am currently on sick leave from my work (I work in marketing in the automotive industry) because of my depression. Before that, I would just include photography on my days off. My work, as a salaryman and photography were just two different worlds that never communicated. As a salaryman in Japan, you have to bend, to fit in, even in a foreign company. Photography is a true part of myself, some place where I don’t lie to myself.

Photography saved my life. I suffer from a severe depression but when I’m out photographing, or when I concentrate on photography matters, all the pain goes away.

I don’t have any recurring themes specifically ; I don’t explore humanity matters, I don’t document life as some photographers do. I have been told I shoot emotionally ; I think that well describes my photography in general. See, point, and shoot with your guts.

I like to be close to my subject. I have another project called Hello you ! where I only shoot faces very close. The impulse came from the workshop I took with Eric Kim. I am a very shy person, it is difficult for me to talk to people, even more when it is not my mother tongue (please remember I live in Japan). But when it came to overcome my fears during the workshop, I surprisingly went very, very close, like an hunger for something, and I found it enjoyable and very rewarding.

I also prefer to work with somebody ; that’s the way I grown up as a photographer. I think many photographers share the same feeling of not taking pictures but also share time with someone in the same state of mind as them. But recently, I have to say that I unfortunately shoot alone.

Submission Information
Changing your life, who has never dreamt about it?

That’s what I am trying to do. Bored with my “salaryman” life. Because I don’t have the capacities for it. Because I grew tired of it. Because it didn’t meet my expectations anymore.

I left the big city, the noise, and turmoil. I went for the country, the silence, and peace. I moved to my wife’s parents place.

It is a different world here. It is in the middle of the country. It is in the middle of the mountains. It is in the middle of nowhere. The closest shop is a fifteen-minute drive. So if you have no car, you can’t even sustain.

I am here, trying to adapt to the main-town of Mitani, in Yabu city, Japan. Led by the urge to keep shooting, I’m walking around the place… not far yet. We arrived in winter. The place is covered with snow. Houses dark wood, mountains, firs, the winter stormy sky… Everything calls for my longing of high contrast blacks and whites.

My first steps into this world, only a beginning I hope, a new story to tell.

Website or Social Media Links
https://www.thibautgoarant.com/