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.
* * *
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.
Were you on assignment? Were you already represented by Redux?
I was working for J.B. Pictures. Similar to Redux, now it’s gone. Before that I worked for Grazia Neri, an Italian agency. I started to work for Redux in 2003, after the Liberian [Civil] War. I was over there in Liberia.
When you were doing more fashion photography, were you working in Japan? You came to New York City in 1986, is that right?
I was doing fashion photography mostly in Japan. Yes, I came to New York in ’86.
What originally brought you to New York City?
I wanted to expand my photography. Also I wanted to go somewhere where I could feel this sense of culturism, this thing I felt at Tompkins Square Park. Paris was one candidate, and London, also Rio de Janeiro, even though I’d never been there, it sounded nice. But my French is very bad. So my choice was London or New York. Then, New York was very popular for foreigners, especially in Japan. That’s probably why I came. Also, at that time New York had a very strong art movement, starting in the late ’70s, visual arts in general, not just photography. Keith Haring, Basquiat, and many others. There were many small art galleries, especially on the Lower East Side. I showed my work, sometimes had exhibitions. There were many curators then, so we worked together showing our projects.
Tell me about your time working in conflict zones, starting in the ’90s.
Shooting photography, [it’s important to show] some sense, some spirit that we can’t [always] see. First, [in a photograph] I want to touch some sense, maybe you’d call it a political sense or more like human emotion, that is always my top priority, my first interest. At the Tompkins movement, especially at the beginning, I felt like, “I’ve never seen this kind of human emotion, I’ve never touched this condition.” That’s why I was so interested. Then I lost something of this feeling. I could still visually work, but the point is I wanted to feel something soulful, some spirit or sense, so-called human emotion—or, many people say, human condition. Many visual artists or musicians are always looking for it, chasing it. After the Tompkins movement something was gone, so I looked outside [internationally]. I’d never been to so many countries before then. In the many conflict zones I visited I thought, Wow, what’s going on here, I’ve never felt—the word is not seen but feel—this before, and why? I wanted to catch something of those feelings [in images] but I couldn’t catch it. I saw it over there. For example, in Israel-Palestine, [there are] people fighting, people making suicide attacks. I talked to many people [in both Israel and Palestine]. I felt so much there. Back in New York, I felt like I lost something I’d felt there, which is what made me want to go back again and again and again.
What did you feel you lost? Some sense of understanding?
Feeling and understanding. Understanding is part of my feeling. Some people say war journalists get addicted to conflict journalism, or you’re just looking for excitement, but it’s not that—it’s beyond that. My mind is so cool [when covering a conflict], down, not up [as in a thrill]. Honestly speaking, it’s more a cool-down, a deep understanding, which is hard to keep. It’s hard to get a real answer, even when you’re touching something. That’s why many people get trapped, are addicted, risking their own life and money for this feeling.
So I continued these trips and at some point maybe I started to slow down. In the late ’90s I had ups and downs, stepping back, then traveling more, back and forth until maybe late 2000, or later. But at a certain point, when I tried to go [to cover a conflict] my body felt like an addict—not excitement, but like an addiction to find an answer. Then about three years ago, 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer. Now it’s technically gone, but it made me very depressed.
What happened in your work during this period of slowing down?
I wasn’t slowing down really, if I say that I think I’ll be misunderstood. Before cancer I wanted also to expand myself—it was a combination, both. I slowed down and I wanted to expand. It was this sense that I wanted to catch something of real human nature, where we’re heading in the future, including, containing, my own identity. Most people probably naturally, instinctively, want to catch this.
I couldn’t get an answer so I looked inside, to myself. I decided that I wanted to try to combine my own identity and my photography. [The conventional wisdom] of photojournalism is objectivity. At some point I felt like that can’t be true, that it’s hypocritical to aim for objectivity. For example, during the Iraq War, the reality was that U.S. media was not objective; the Japanese media too during World War II. Media says it’s not biased, but it’s a reality—power politics. Maybe it’s not hypocritical, this kind of photojournalism, but I don’t feel satisfied [by it]. So around 2010, I decided that I wanted to combine my identity, my personality, with so-called photodocumentary or photojournalism. I continue to experiment with this desire.
In 2009 I went to Xinjiang, China. That wasn’t too much about my identity, but at the end of 2010, I went to Manchuria, in the north [of China]. The reason is I wanted to combine my own identity, or personality, with those areas. Those areas are related to Japanese history, because during WWII Japan occupied those areas. Then I was diagnosed with cancer, so I tried to deeply put my emotion and identity into photography—something I’m still chasing. Then I found Instagram.
Very established Japanese photographers, like Daido Moriyama, also Takuma Nakahira, and [Nobuyoshi] Araki—those photographers are thought to be personal [in their work], especially Araki. They don’t call it identity, but they’re categorized as personal, in their photography. So I was influenced by them.
What did Instagram allow you to do that you couldn’t before, if anything?
I’ve only been on Instagram for something like two and a half years. My colleague [at Redux] Mark Peterson pushed it [originally]. I didn’t even know what it was. During that time I was still a little bit depressed. So I started to try Instagram. For the first three months it was like a diary, not serious. Then I tried to do it more seriously, to take time with it, editing, shooting, uploading.
Do you upload photos from a camera, or just use your phone, or both?
Instagram is my experiment. I do almost 100% on my iPhone, except for photos taken before (for example, the anniversary for the Vietnam War, of the Japanese earthquake, etc.) which if I post I always announce [were made with an] ordinary film camera or DSLR.
So unless you say otherwise, all photos on your Instagram were taken with your iPhone?
I’ve read in an interview that when you are using a camera, you prefer film to a DSLR. Why is that?
I still prefer film for the majority of photographs—for that so-called “golden light,” around four or five o’clock, one or two hours before sunset. That golden light. If I shoot the sky with DSLR, it’s impossible. Film is much better. But nighttime, or when it’s very cloudy, overcast like today, DSLR is much, much better.
How did you first start taking photographs? How old were you?
I used to surf, and I wanted to photograph my own action to improve my surfing or skiing technique. [Even] before then I had a camera, but it was more for taking family photos. When I seriously started shooting, it was for sports—to check my action, my ability as an athlete. But at some point I met a friend of mine, who’s also a surfer, who also used his camera for shooting landscape, daily life, beach life, urban life. So this was interesting [to me]. I was in my early-twenties. So compared to other photographers, I was very late to start seriously.
Yes, many start as teenagers.
I read in that same interview that it’s your love for film that draws you to the Hipstamatic app—because it approximates film, digitally, in its way.
Yes, it’s similar to film—light separation, background light, the contrast or gradation. Noise is very similar to film. With Hipstamatic, the noise or image or gradation is similar to film, because it’s an effect. Of course compared to real film it’s different. But it also depends on what I shoot. Hipstamatic is no good for high contrast, it’s bad for color. Why I shoot mostly black & white [on Instagram] is because digital color is awful compared to digital black & white, in my opinion. I love color in film but it’s very expensive. I started shooting color film about four years ago when I moved to Harlem.
The striking images of Harlem on your Instagram feed are what first attracted me to your work.
It’s harder to photograph here. I feel part of a community, but Harlem is—many people are not mixing together. For example we have, in terms of cultures socializing, it’s not mixed compared to how it was in the East Village [during the ’90s]. There’s more class [segregation], a kind of class society in Harlem. There were less barriers in the East Village [back then]. Here, I see many barriers, many conflicts—between class, between race, between cultures, between ideologies, between jobs.
What made you move to Harlem four years ago?
The East Village became expensive, that was the major reason.
Do you find Harlem a good place to photograph?
It [sometimes feels] superficial to me. Instagramming Harlem is a part of my life, but I have an idea for a project. I want to deeply cover something concrete that exists in Harlem—I have some plans for a project, but it’s…too close. It’s very sensitive.
Too close, how?
I know people, but not like [I did in the] East Village. I’m not deeply connected. I feel like [I’m sometimes perceived as an] outsider here. I was hanging out a lot in the nightclub scene when I moved here, in the late ’80s, early ’90s. The [message of] the nightclub scene was, “Oh New York is one big mixed place.” The reality was that the scenes were totally isolated. The gay club was only gay—sometimes straight people would come for entertainment, but it’s different. Black nightclubs were typically black. Reggae, also typically reggae black. And commercial nightclub scenes were only such kind of people, never mixed. I was especially hanging out with the fashion gay scene a lot, very friendly, but at some point, I couldn’t connect beyond something—I felt a big barrier. Probably because I am straight. There’s something, beyond friendship, that means something. Something, between gay and straight, I couldn’t pass.
Could it be the camera? Do you find the camera intimidates people, or can separate you from them?
No, the camera takes off a barrier. It’s hard to say. Let me explain, at some point, ordinary people who don’t take photos, they have a barrier here [motions with hand at chin]. If you have a camera you can get through the barrier, but then at some point, again you reach another barrier [hand motion at eye-level], which it’s difficult to cross. You can’t cross with just the camera. It’s your feeling, sense, or even fate—your identity. That’s why I became so interested to catch [this intersection]. Superficially, in terms of photography, I saw a lot of gay-related photography in the past ten years that seems superficial.
Was it my identity that couldn’t cross the barrier? Probably. Some camera technique, some different approach—that’s what I’m looking for when I talk about this desire to merge identity with photography.
Do you have a favorite place to photograph?
A favorite place, or most interesting place?
How about both?
A favorite place is Israel-Palestine. There exists something called human nature. Seems very simple but it’s not simple, it’s complicated. Over there, Israel-Palestine is my identity too.
The most interesting place—it’s been so many years that I’ve lived out of Japan. Before the 2011 earthquake, I started to feel something—that I wanted to go back. So I went back. But it’s harder for me to find new subjects in Japan, not everything feels new and uncovered to me [as it would for a foreigner].
You’ve mentioned a few photographers, especially Japanese photographers, that have influenced you. Are there other photographers that you consider important to your development?
Deborah Turbeville, a very famous American fashion photographer in the early ’80s. She died recently. I was influenced a lot by her. I didn’t feel influenced from this photographer at the time, but looking back, I was influenced a lot by Nan Goldin in the early ’80s. I thought at the time, “Oh she’s not so good.” Now I feel like she influenced me a lot [laughs]. Also Koudelka, Josef Koudelka. He was famous in 1968, [when he witnessed and recorded the Warsaw Pact military forces as they invaded Prague; his negatives were smuggled out of the former Czechoslovakia and published anonymously]. He made sensational stories—his photography showed his identity, bringing Czechoslovakian identity, former Eastern European identity. That’s why he’s one of the best-respected photographers. Not only his style, but his conception. He did it instinctively. Or it becomes so because of his nationality, his identity.
At the Q&A following the recent opening of your exhibit at The Half King called “China’s Outer Lands” (up until May 24), I thought it was interesting that you described your process as being first about a conception, then you find the visuals, and then the story creates itself. Specifically with your photographs in that exhibit, taken in China, was it your premeditated conception to focus on the ethnic minorities of China—Uighurs, Manchus, Bais, and Mongols. Was that a purposeful focus that you went in with, or did it arise naturally, being there and seeing the visuals?
I went first to Xinjiang in 2009, that was before the conflict existed within me, about human nature and identity. That became a hot news spot during that time, that’s why I went there. Uighur, that’s part of my own identity—Uighur is a pan-Turkish people [a mostly Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in western China], and then during that time I started naturally to think about my identity in photography. The next year, 2010 wintertime, I went to Manchuria. And I’ve been back twice since. And also Yunnan—I didn’t count on going, but Jamie Wellford [photography editor and curator, formerly at Newsweek] said to me, why don’t you go over to Yunnan Province? Then last year I was in Mongolia.
There’s a quote from you in a National Geographic interview that I found really interesting—you said, “I love the reflection. Because the image of our life is not simple, it’s very complicated.” Do you feel this way about double-exposure and other tools as well?
Not double exposure, well—sometimes accidentally! On a trip to northern Sri Lanka I brought a Holga [camera] and it accidentally double-exposed some of the images. One great picture came from double exposure, at the Tamal Guard. I don’t usually use double exposure purposefully, but sometimes I do for experimental reasons. In late 2000 I did a lot of putting together two negatives in the darkroom. Today I still love reflection. Now many people are doing it, especially with Instragram. It’s getting more popular in the last ten years.
In a different interview, I read that you don’t care about the process of taking a photograph so much as if what’s captured is “true to what I witnessed.” Can you talk a bit about that?
To satisfy myself, or to get some answer that I’m looking for, or to get an answer people in the region are potentially looking for. You understand? Process of course is important but process is probably just self-satisfaction. In Japan we say process is always important, but no, result is more important. In terms of respect, process is super important, but it’s a totally different story. It’s related to why I don’t like to be called a photojournalist, because there are limits to the process. You’re called biased [if you have a sense of] politics. On the other hand, for a job, for means of this society, I have to associate with the term, but also at the same time I try to break it. If we’re looking for real journalism we have to break it. Also, now the audience for so-called photojournalism is shrinking, the industry is shrinking. We are working for a small, small, tiny world, with too much restriction. We should break it to expand, for more freedom. Otherwise we’re killing ourselves.
What are you working on now?
A Harlem project, behind the scenes, touching emotion. Today I shot using 200-quarter film for a portrait project. I’m still figuring out which camera to use. I tried a 4×5, too, but it’s tough to upload, to access. I feel like I got nice access but that I missed a chance to catch something. So I’ll probably use a 200-quarter camera, like a Mamiya, Hassel, or Vlad. But I also use the iPhone for the portrait project. I’m trying to leave the iPhone alone in Harlem for a little—I don’t want to feel like I’m getting bored.
Is there anything else that comes to mind you’d like to add, about anything?
I already mentioned personal identity combined with my so-called conventional documentary—it’s an [ongoing] aim. Something I probably can’t finish in my life[time], but I will always chase it.
So-called photodocumentary-journalism—in the last seven years, the photo industry shrunk. Nationally we have a template, any sponsored work, they already have assumptions of style established. Many photographers are copying these assumptions. It makes for boring photography. Some are very good of course, but still [unoriginal]. We are competing against each other only within a template of style. People feel satisfied, it’s easy to accomplish. [But] that’s killing ourselves. Simple is good, but sometimes simple becomes oversimplified. Not good. We get too comfortable. I try to break out of that. That is my aim for my life because that takes a long time. And personally I try to teach something like that too, in my workshop in Japan. Sometimes I speak as a guest speaker at universities too, or at the ICP.
Instagram is helpful in that way, because most of the audience comes from outside of the photo industry. Some people are very clever instinctively. They feel something, they admire something, and [create an image] from there. In photography we have too many categories—like fine art, photojournalism, fashion, documentary, food etc. We should combine more, and bring more ordinary photographers into it too, to create something together.
* * *
Lucy McKeon is a writer in New York. Photos by Q. Sakamaki.
* * *
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.