The camera here and there, and other holiday notes

No shortage of cameras during a Japanese wedding

Autumnal greetings to all Japan Exposures readers; you might be slightly content-starved so to bring things back to normal I would like to share some thoughts on the holidays I have just returned from.

Whenever I travel to where I am originally from, I am surprised to find myself unable to take much photographs there. I have been trying for years and years now, attempted analysing it to find out why, all to no avail. Am I too familiar with it, or after all these years no longer familiar enough to understand and find access? Am I no longer interested in the past, which would be explained by my choice living in Japan instead of back home.

So this year I tried harder and brought back with me 10 rolls of exposed film (Fujifilm Acros, of course); still, that’s not a lot for several weeks but more than what I have managed in the past years. Of course this does not tell us anything about what these photos will be of, they may be interesting or endlessly boring. And to be honest, during the holidays I never really got into the mood of extended picture-taking, but as everyone who ever travelled with family and especially children will attest, this is easier than done. Photography — perhaps, and perhaps only for me — remains a solitary activity.

The camera here and there

Pointing the camera at strangers, even in touristic areas, is an unusual thing to do in Europe and you are bound to raise some suspicion. The camera is a much more prominent thing to handle and use there than here in Japan. Also even the crowded areas in Europe are less populous than a Tokyo street after midnight. You can just disappear more easily.

We [in Japan] have such a huge number of older and younger amateur photographers.

Mariko Takeuchi, last year’s guest curator the Guest Curator of the Paris Photo fair in an interview with Ferdinand Brüggemann

When going to some family events and activities, especially a fun fair, I was surprised that hardly anyone took photos of their children on the rides. In Japan parents would be all over them with cellphone, compact and huge SLR cameras (plus, at times, a video camcorder in the other hand) to capture the doings of their beloved offspring. Obviously this can extend to what sometimes feels unhealthy obsessions; many a parent is seen only watching the event on an LCD screen, unable to look up and observe the real scene. And who will be able and interested to watch all this footage one day? Maybe that obsession with capturing images in Japan is having the consequence that nobody questions the presence of a camera and someone using it to take pictures, even pointed at strangers. Well, almost, the exception being suspicious behaviour around ladies with short skirts or similar.

However, that suspicion is much more easily triggered in Europe it seems. Taking the camera to your eye and pointing it towards someone is quickly detected and people are generally not pleased having their picture taken. Unlike Japan they will have to reservations making their displeasure known to you. And suspicion it is: I was suspected to be documenting food safety issues for the authorities or at times taking photos for the local newspaper (the scene was hardly newsworthy, but perhaps photographing in public is associated with reporters).

The camera here and there

So you have to be quick with your camera and get the shot before they get you. Or choose subjects intoxicated enough to have slow reflexes, but then they may have also less reservations to smack you or the camera. It makes street photography in Japan look like child’s play, but after years of photographing in Japan the reverse seems to me more comparable to guerrilla warfare than some relaxing street shooting. Nonetheless, after a while the pressure or thrill of getting away with it, or not, adds some extra spice to the game and will keep you on your toes. Perhaps that’s also what opportunist burglars or car thieves say.

So what are the conclusions of this slightly fluffy article? Firstly, that photography and the camera operates in social contexts and cultural history. In Japan there seem nothing except benign associations with a camera and taking pictures; in the West it may be seen, to a varying extent, as an offensive instrument and method of intrusion into society and as an activity that deserves suspicion. Secondly, that photographing the totally familiar and totally unfamiliar may actually pose the same challenges. And lastly, once again, that what matters most to a photograph is what is behind the camera.