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Q. Sakamaki and the Art of the Socio-Photo-Documentary

Lucy McKeon | Longreads | May 14, 2015 | 3,806 words

“Here, I see many barriers, many conflicts—between class, between race, between cultures, between ideologies, between jobs.”

Posted inNonfiction, Profiles & Interviews, Story

Q. Sakamaki and the Art of the Socio-Photo-Documentary

“Here, I see many barriers, many conflicts—between class, between race, between cultures, between ideologies, between jobs.”
Homeless people line up for food on Christmas Day at the soup kitchen at La Plaza Cultural, on Ninth Street and Avenue C. December 1987.

Lucy McKeon | Longreads | May 2015 | 15 minutes (3,806 words)

Photographer Q. Sakamaki was born and raised in Japan, but he moved to New York City in 1986, and has lived there ever since, covering the nightclub scene of ‘80s and ‘90s New York, documenting political efforts like the anti-gentrification movement, and capturing everyday life through striking street photography across the city.

New York is not his only focus. While Sakamaki has taken photographs around the world, from Burma to Haiti, China to Kosovo, Bosnia to Israel, Palestine to Liberia, and Afghanistan to Harlem, where he resides today—it’s his Instagram feed that has recently attracted many new fans. There, his daily, often-impressionistic images communicate a sense of profundity, even melancholy, in representing the quotidian.

Sakamaki’s photographs have appeared in books and magazines worldwide and have been the subject of exhibitions in New York and Tokyo. Among the many honors he’s received are four POYi prizes, two Overseas Press Club awards, and a first prize World Press Photo in 2006. He has published five books, including WAR DNA, which covers seven conflicts, and Tompkins Square Park, which documents the Lower East Side protests of the late ‘80s to mid-‘90s. Sakamaki is represented by Redux Pictures. We spoke recently about how he got his start and how he aims to combine identity with photography.

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I’ve read that you began your career in photojournalism covering the Tompkins Square Park uprising in New York City in the late 1980s—is that right? Did you take photographs even before that, if not professionally?

I photographed before, but it was more fashion photography [and] portraits. I was doing that and trying to get a job, when something started in the Lower East Side at Tompkins Square Park. It started before ’88, the summer of ’88, and then continued until the middle of the ’90s, depending on people’s definition of what is a movement. It was like a real melting pot, there. The only real melting pot I’ve ever seen in New York City. Not like here [in Harlem] today. But anyway, after [the Tompkins movement in reaction to gentrification and other labor issues], I decided I would like to cover more—I don’t like the term photojournalism. [We’ll return to this later.]

I used to be very political, when I was 13 or 14 year old. Then I loved fashion and entertainment in my late teens. So the Tompkins Square Park movement felt like something of a flashback. Until the mid-’90s I covered a lot of New York political movements, like the anti-gentrification movement. But then the Tompkins Square Park movement was gone—with Mayor Dinkins closing the park. People tried to keep it going, but in the mid-’90s, they couldn’t. So the mid-90s in New York started to feel very boring for me. I started to pay attention more to outside, worldwide. I went to many conflict zones, war zones—to Haiti, Cambodia, and Israel, Palestine, then Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia.

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