Exclusive Interview: Getting Personal with Junku Nishimura.
There’s an infamous photo of a cuddly canine with its head turned to the viewer, grinning mischievously. The tire of a police car is visible in the upper half of the image and the first thing that came to my mind was, “Yes, do it!” That particular photo was a regular fixture on Flickr’s login page and arguably one of the few that actually deserved the attention. It had the right combination of drama and anticipation but it was also composed with the perfect balance of white and blacks.
Through this photo, I was introduced into the world of Junku Nishimura, a hip, Leica wielding street photographer with a penchant for late night boozing and groovy tunes. Just a quick look through these classic, raw and gritty images – undoubtedly influenced by story-telling masters Daido Moriyama and Akira Kurosawa- and you will see a myriad of thought-provoking cinematic stills and interesting personas that had caught the attention of the shooter’s inquisitive eyes. Junku and I have promised that if we ever crossed paths, we would get some booze together, perhaps shoot the streets and even stop by a local club to boogie to some tunes. For now, I’m happy to know that whenever there’s action on the streets, Junku will be there to capture it and share it with the rest of the world. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with 10 questions with Junku Nishimura.
JV-Could you tell me about yourself? A bit of background. I read in another interview that you used to be an engineer and occasionally DJ. Have you retired from being a corporate employee and only focus on your photography now? What do you like about street photography?
JN- After graduating from a college, I pursued my passion for music as a DJ from 1986-1993. I learned how to play with turntables when I was a high school kid in the 80’s. Playing at clubs, I did construction jobs and dishwashing as well for a living. During this period, I roamed around the South of the US where I longed to visit for three months. The aim of my trip was not to shoot but to experience the music scene of the South, although I recall I brought a Canon Auto boy with me. I was sick of dishwashing and later managed to get a job at a construction materials company and started an ordinary life. Meanwhile, I happened to get a Leica M6 through an Internet auction and soon devoted myself to photography in my spare time. I am completely self-educated. Working as a company employee in Japan, you can hardly take any long vacations. The only overseas trip that I made then was four days in Thailand. After working for 18 years, I retired from the company three years ago. I wanted to have time to travel rather than to start my career in photography at that time. I am currently fully engaged in taking photographs but I still DJ occasionally. I just love hanging around the streets. It is my nature and it made me a street photographer. What I like about street photography is that it inspires my instinctive ability (which can be easily weakened in a busy city life.) To capture the distinctive moment within ordinary scenes is like hunting. I feel my instinct awaken when shooting on the street and I’m loving that feeling.
JV- Your images are very cinematic, like stills taken from Kurosawa films. What were your inspirations and influences? Are there any past or current photographers you admire?
JN- I was influenced by Japanese photojournalists such as Kyoichi Sawada and Akihiko Okamura who delivered great works during the Vietnam War. Other than them, I don’t have a good knowledge of photography. In fact I’ve been rather inspired by films. I admire works by Aki Kaurismäki, Kihachi Okamoto, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, Billy Wilder, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Sidney Lumet, and all Sidney Poitier films.
JV- You said you shoot mainly black and white kodak tri-x film with a Leica. You have a very consistent style. Do you underexpose and push process? Why don’t you shoot in color and have you ever thought of shooting in color? William Eggleston used to shoot mainly in black and white in the 50s before changing to color film.
JN-I push the ISO up to 800 or 1600. I used to shoot color negative films for two years, that is before I got my own enlarger, my viewpoint completely changes according to whether I shoot in color or in B&W. From a B&W viewpoint, colors are distracting. Colors make me feel busy, keep me from focusing, and drive me to take a roll of film while walking for 1 kilometer. It would take me some time if I change to color film. Funny thing is that when I enjoy others’ work I like color prints better.
JV- Your “per sonare” series seem to bring out emotions in intriguing characters. Tell us about your shooting techniques (what characters you look for, emotions you feel, strategies for shooting, do you interact with subjects?)
JN- I don’t have any plans before shooting. It doesn’t work for me. I try to trust my instinct and simply capture the moment of interesting people who I encounter on the street and at bars. When I approach subjects, I try to see things through their eyes and merge with them. I also keep in mind to put myself in the same position as them, not higher or lower. Then I just leave it to chemistry. With my type of method, I think it would be difficult to take
JV- Are there any favorite locations in Tokyo that you love shooting in? Why?
JN- I find myself going to Shinjuku every time I visit Tokyo. (I currently live in Nagoya.) It is easy for me to fit into that city since it is not uptight and clean but has depth and maturity. On the contrary, Roppongi and Harajuku are not attractive for me at all. It is too busy, too clean, and hardly has the richness that Shinjuku can give.
JV- You said the photo of the man taking an afternoon nap with the cat is one of your favorite photos because it reminds you of the nostalgia of your father when you were a child. Do you have any other favorites and why?
JN- An old friend and his son. He used to be the last person who would wish to have a decent job or a family of his own, but he does now. Life sometimes surprises us.
JV- Your photos from Fukushima and Tohoku are extraordinary. How many times have you been up to Tohoku since March 11,2011 and are you planning on visiting again any time in the near future? How did you feel when you were there?
JN- I visited Tohoku twice. The first visit was right after the earthquake disaster. Three months later, I visited again and walked from Hanamaki to
Kirikiri for 100 kilometers for requiescat (a prayer for the repose of souls). There, I cooked Udon noodle with my friends to support the victims. I am going back there in April to distribute cooked food for people again. For Fukushima, I left on the very day I heard the news of “No-go-zone”. I stayed
there for eight hours and shot in areas within three kilometers from the plant station. In the neighborhood I saw laundry hung outside, cherry blossoms blooming, rice fields worked for planting...it was a typical spring day in the Japanese countryside except that there was nobody around. It was so quiet and weird. You would never get it unless you go and see.
JV- Are there any past or present photographers you would like to meet in person and what would you ask them?
JN- I wish to see Taizo Ichinose, a photojournalist who tried to shoot Angkor Wat when it was under the control of Khmer Rouge. He was caught in
Cambodia in 1973 and executed later. If I could, I want to ask him if he was able to get a close shot that he desired.
JV- You described being in the darkroom a very “zazen” experience. What is your connection with the spiritual world and do you believe in God?
JN- I don’t believe in God, but I believe in souls of the dead. I sometimes feel that my granduncle, who was blind and a poet(haiku), is making me shoot.
JV- As a photographer, what has been your biggest achievement?
JV-What's the latest that has been happening with you? Any new projects? You’ve also recently joined a collective, please tell me about that.
JN-It was a big turning point in my life last year. I left the city and returned to my home village after almost 30years away from there. City life was easy and fun with the fellows, ladies, music and whisky in tasty diners or cool bars. Here I’ve got nothing, nada, 無.
However, I was on a mission – that is to learn how to make rice from my aging father. My family paddy field has not been planted for more than 10 years. After 5 years preparing, my father and I were able to get a good harvest this autumn.
While I worked on field, I have been thinking of photographing people in my village and the small towns nearby with Mamiya 6x6 , that Invisible Photographer Asia's Kevin Lee gave me when we visited Manila. I can't deny that I was influenced by Shoji Ueda. As you know, provinces in Japan are becoming more and more desolate while big cities keep on growing. My village is the same.
I have been feeling a kind of inferiority about it because I have been living here. Getting back, I found folks around me are trying to keep our village from perishing, so I am glad to be one of them now. I feel I’ve found there is a small yet ubiquitous happiness here that I have not noticed before.
Fortunately, I have been able to build a good relationship with the folks through fieldwork or village events. Besides that, I found many old diners and bars that tourists never visit. My project has already got started though, I am not using my Mamiya just yet. You know what I mean? Having said that, I will get around sometime, somewhere in the cities. I’ll shoot with the eye of a country boy this time.
Oh, I should mentioned that Jason Penner who is my mate in the collective, Burn My Eye, visited my village and photographed me cultivating the fields last spring. Including him, BME members are so cool and serious about their work. Thanks to the collective, my work was exhibited in France and UK recently.
I haven’t done anything for my collective yet they’ve always helped me out. At this point, John F Kennedy's address to the nation is running through my mind, you know. Well, (I promise to) try to do something for my collective someday after gaining more experiences and improving my English.