Below is the English-translated version (with original unedited questions and answers) of an interview I did for Tilman Haerdle of Kwerfeldein – a German photography magazine and photo community. The original article in German can be found here.
TILMAN HAERDLE: This is the second and last part of the small interview series with the New York photographer couple Sion Fullana and Anton Kawasaki. The first part can be found here. Anton Kawasaki struck me on Instagram, because he told some longer stories to his pictures, not unlike what makes Humans in New York — but always “imagined,” because all his pictures are candid shots.
TILMAN: Anton, what prompted you to shoot street photography? Was it the starting point of your photographical endeavours or are there roots further back in time that are unrelated to street photography?
ANTON KAWASAKI: From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been an avid “people watcher.” When I was young, I used to wander by myself to crowded areas and just observe life around me — and it’s still something I occasionally do today (though now I’m armed with a device to capture certain moments, rather than committing them to memory).
And when I think about what kind of photography has always attracted me (before I was actually taking photos myself), it was ALWAYS images with people in them. A well-done portrait was always appealing, but it was the photos of CANDID moments that truly captured my eye and triggered my imagination — as it reminded me of the times when I was people-watching myself, and wondering what everyone’s story was.
In all other kinds of photography, whether it’s landscapes, still life, architecture, or even most portraits, there’s often a very controlled purpose to the capture — a particular vision that the photographer wants you to see. But with street photography (and the best kind of photojournalism), it’s chaotic, unpredictable, ever changing, and somehow magical — and it takes a very particular skill to hone in on a “decisive moment,” or find that fascinating aspect to a character on a street that may go unnoticed to the average person.
I suppose I was always attracted to the “challenge” of taking street work, and so that was the type of photography that I started with and it’s still the one that I’m mostly interested in today (though I love doing portrait or event work too). There’s also the fact that I’m only interested in shooting with my iPhone — and I feel it’s a device best suited for street photography (whereas the other types of photography would probably benefit from a better camera).
In your blog post (“What ‘Mobile’ Means to Me”) you explain why you shoot exclusively with your mobile phone. Although traditional cameras still have an abundance of functions, respected street photographers like Eric Kim recommend to use such cameras more or less in a completely automatic mode, much like a smartphone works. Apart from your personal constraints (Anton is unable to walk normally since a serious accident and needs crutches), do you still think that using normal cameras is no option for you? Consider the additional fact that at least on IG your sharing seems to be far from “instant,” so vital aspects of connected smartphones don’t come into play with your way of strict editing and sparse publication. The reason I’m asking is predominantly that among good photographers most have refrained from posting to social networks immediately. A stronger process of editing and selection prevails, the “instant publishing” has seemingly less importance after the first years of euphoria have gone by.
I know what you are trying to say when you ask if I still think using a “normal” camera isn’t an option for me — but I consider the iPhone a pretty “normal” camera. In fact, mobile cameras are the most-used cameras today. People that use high-end DSLR’s are the anomaly these days.
And yes…I have zero interest in using a “traditional” camera, as you call it. For one, the quality of the iPhone is sufficient enough for my needs, and there’s nothing that a DSLR has that’s so important to me. “Better quality,” some say? To me, what makes an image great isn’t how many megapixels it contains, or the super-sharpness, or whatever. It’s the MOMENT. And I don’t really care if that moment is captured with a Hasselblad, a mobile phone, a Polaroid, a pinhole camera, a disposable, or whatever. Sure…there are differences in quality and output with all of them — but to me that’s just part of the charm of each camera.
In fact…I’m not particularly fond of SUPER sharp images anyway. I hate those new mega high definition TV’s that show every pore on a person’s face, or the high frame-rate look of the current ‘Hobbit’ movies. A lot of people get hooked on having the “best” equipment out there, but I think we reached the point of “perfect quality” (at least in my mind) a long, long time ago. Now, companies just keep trying to sell you an “upgrade” to whatever equipment you may have, so they keep having to come up with new features over and over again — even though these cameras now go way beyond what most of us actually need, or sometimes want.
So why should I spend tons of money on another camera, when I already have a great one that’s in my pocket? It doesn’t make sense to me. Even if someone gave me a DSLR as a gift, I don’t think I’d want to use it. It’s too much to learn, and too many unnecessary functions. Even before the days of mobile devices, the only cameras I ever owned were simple, easy-to-use point-and-shoots. Again…I’ve only ever been interested in the MOMENT, and it never mattered what I used to capture that moment — as long as it was uncomplicated.
As to your other point about the “instant”-ness of mobile photography — I’ve always said it’s one of its greatest strengths, as well as its major weakness. It’s quite incredible that we can shoot and share images so instantly — and that’s changed photography forever.
BUT… it’s easy to fall into the “social sharing” trap. I totally did that the first year or two of Instagram — where I felt compelled to upload something every day. But I noticed the quality of what I was sharing was all over the place. So I forced myself to slow down and be more selective. And now I only upload pics I’m very proud of — though I admit I’ve gone too far the other way, where I find flaws in photos that 99% of the population would probably find perfectly acceptable and upload-worthy. It means I have lots of pics sitting in my iPhone’s camera roll that no one’s seeing.
On one hand, that’s probably hurt me a bit — I’m no longer in the “mobile photography spotlight” as I once was, and it’s probably cost me some press, or coverage, and maybe even a few gigs. On the other hand, I feel the mobile photography community has gotten a bit out of control, with too many people vying for attention — but that’s social media in general, which I’ve been finding myself less and less involved with.
I pretty much have the opposite of a “Look at me!” mentality, and so the more I see things going that way, I tend to run in the opposite direction. It’s probably not the best attitude to build awareness of my work, but it certainly keeps me sane, happier and more productive — and that way I can just shoot what I like freely without the pressure of trying to fill a daily Instagram quota.
Besides…I think photographers should NOT always share everything all of the time. I’m also a huge believer in photos being printed and NOT just seen on a small phone screen. So what happens if you want to put on an exhibit, or publish a book? There should be work that remains a mystery until it’s seen in person, where it hasn’t already been posted in a dozen places online. That’s when photography truly comes alive for me…
The “Only in NYC” series depicts people who all seem to be very eccentric and odd. As you’ve travelled to quite a few places over your life, do you have any idea why it’s especially NYC that brings out this kind of people?
Well I don’t think NYC is unique to “weirdness” at all — there’s certainly plenty of kooky characters in other places of the world. But NYC just seems to be a natural breeding ground for inherently interesting people. Whereas weird people in other cities can be anything from pretentious (“trying too hard”) to genuinely scary (and dangerous), the oddballs of NYC just seem to be unique and naturally quirky. Weird people seem to really stand out in other cities, whereas in NYC they tend to blend in with everyone else and are sometimes a comforting, welcoming sight to native NYers.
We love our characters — whether it’s the wild and colorful bearded drag sensation Miss Colombia, the amusing Blackwolf the Dragonmaster, the lovely Green Lady of Carroll Gardens, the obnoxious Naked Cowboy (or Naked Cowgirls — both the pretty one and the scary one), or numerous other familiar faces — they make NYC a magical and fun place to live in.
I think it’s the fact that everything and anything can happen in this city, mixed with the fact that NYers don’t seem to ever be shocked by anything, that creates the perfect environment for eccentricity. You can truly do (or BE) whatever you want here, and there’s something truly liberating and freeing about that. Sure, it can create some uncomfortable situations every now and then — but I’d rather have that then a truly boring place where NO ONE is interesting or different in any way. I’ve been to towns like that, and THOSE are scary places for me to be.
NYC has always felt like home, and the eccentric characters that inhabit this city feel almost like family. Maybe the odd, black sheep part of the family…but you’d still defend their existence.
The “Instant Moments” series relies at times heavily on a decisive moment. Do you foresee such events unfolding? Do you stake out locations for possible opportunities?
Once in a blue moon I might try and stake out a certain location if I think there’s some interesting moments or people around, but that almost never results in anything satisfactory. My best shots are usually the result of me just being hyper-aware of what’s happening around me, and often anticipating a moment right before it happens.
Sion Fullana and I always tell the students who take our online Mobile Photography Workshops to observe what’s happening around them at all times, and pay close attention to little details. One exercise we give the Street Photography students is to go to a crowded area and purposely keep their mobile devices in their pockets, and instead take “mental shots” with just their eyes. Most beginners tend to make the mistake of shooting whatever they see that moves with wild abandon, but without any real PURPOSE behind the shot, or knowing if it’s actually any good — but if we make it so they can’t shoot with their camera, then they are forced to actually observe what’s happening. We then have them write down an “instant” that they saw, which — when described to someone else — would make for a compelling photograph. If what they describe is NOT interesting, then the photograph would probably be forgettable too.
When you do an exercise like this long enough (which Sion and I do all the time), you start to really hone in on the moments that REALLY matter, and you DO start to forsee shots right before they unfold. It’s almost like a sixth sense that you need to train and sharpen.
Your images vary in orientation and format and in their editing style. Many photographers try to create a signature look in their gallery. To me that feels very familiar, as my postprocessing is dictated by the way the image speaks to me. Do you feel the same or are there other reasons for not trying to unify the visual appearance of your images?
Other than the variance in orientation, and the use of both black & white and color, I don’t see THAT much difference in the way I post-process my photos. But I totally get what you mean… I don’t really have a consistent format/style to my images. Despite that, I really love it when people can pick out my photos just from the subject matter, or when someone says “that’s a very Anton Kawasaki-type photo” (even when it’s not actually one of mine, but it just reminds them of my work). I do think I have a certain sensibility and consistency to WHAT I choose to shoot, and HOW I shoot them. There are recurring themes I go back to, or particular stuff that interests me. It’s my way to have a “signature” without really having one, I guess.
In terms of color vs. black & white, I really don’t like to be tied down to just using ONE way of showing my photos. I do have a tendency to keep photos in color whenever possible — I don’t know if I’m subconsciously trying to buck the usual B&W trend of street photography, or if I just prefer to portray moments the way I actually saw them.
I tend to resort to black and white ONLY if the colors are doing absolutely nothing for the image, or working AGAINST the “readability” of the photo. I totally get why so many street photographers resort to B&W so often, though — it’s sooooo much less complicated to work with, and easier to make your images look good. Color is VERY hard to get right, and I’m always wondering if I’m being too stubborn by using it so much.
With the different orientations, I blame Instagram for how many “square” shots I have, especially with my older stuff. There’s no question that square images look best on IG, and I really kick myself now for falling for the “tyranny of the square” mentality in the early days of the app. I finally broke free from that, thank goodness (and of IG in general) — but sadly the majority of the world is still convinced everything has to be square, which is just really frustrating.
I MUCH prefer a landscape orientation for street shots. (I also prefer viewing photos large, and printed, for that matter). I almost always hold the iPhone horizontally when shooting (the rare “portrait” shot is usually due to me not having enough time to tilt my camera before losing the moment, or not wanting to look too conspicuous). But at the end of the day, yes…my post-processing (including cropping) is always dictated by how the image “speaks” to me, and what I feel best serves the actual moment.
While I appreciate artists who define their work by a particular and consistent “style,” I find that way too limiting for my own tastes. I don’t want to be restricted to ONE orientation or ONE look for all my images. I want (and need) options. I feel like the moments I capture deserve to be presented in the best way that suits them. Sometimes that’s landscape. Sometimes that’s square. Sometimes that’s color. Sometimes that’s black and white. The only time I like consistency with my work is when I’m presenting a series — but even then I don’t think a slight variation here and there is the end of the world.
I like to think my images are unified by the content and themes, but hey…I might decide to change all that up too one day. And that’s my prerogative.
Your “Street Portraits” are very intense. Some are so close that I wonder if you engage with your subject. I’ve come to like talking to people before I photograph them. Do you only take candid portraits or are you sometimes interested to know more about a person and ask them for a portrait?
They are all candid!
I realize there may be confusion in the way I titled that particular section of my website (“Street Portraits”), especially because I try very hard to differentiate the terms “street photography” (which I consider to have three constants: people, in public places, and candid) with “street portraiture” (which is just like regular portraiture — meaning engaging with the subject — but often with a stranger you just met). I make this distinction all the time with our Mobile Photo Workshop students, who often confuse the two. While sometimes both approaches can result in similar images, they both require vastly different skill sets, and should be treated quite differently.
It’s funny that we were discussing a lack of consistency in the way I present my images earlier, but there is definitely a very consistent way of how I shoot — and that’s NEVER engaging with my street photography subjects, either before or after. That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of times I’ve WANTED to talk to someone I was shooting, and perhaps find out more about them. There’s also been plenty of interesting people I just wasn’t able shoot for whatever reason (like them being too fast), except if I was to maybe flag them down — but instead I just let them get away. I’ve kicked myself about a few of those over the years…
But at the end of the day, I generally prefer candid shots — and I think I might have a silly superstitious streak within me where I just can’t bring myself to engage with anyone that I’m trying to shoot, for fear it would spoil the “magic.” It’s NOT really due to any shyness or fear, but more out of not wanting to ruin that anonymous connection. I kind of like creating my own stories in my head for my subjects (sometimes I very purposefully “create” a story that’s not actually playing out in real life), and I like seeing how other people view those same images and how they interpret them. Whether it’s the same way I do, or something entirely different…I’m fascinated by the possibility of different meanings coming out of the same photo.
Street Portraiture, of course, can also yield amazing results — you might meet one heck of a fascinating character, with quite an amazing story. Or…you might not. And if it’s the latter, that imagination from a possible candid moment is now ruined. I guess I just don’t ever want to take that chance!
I really DO want to do a series someday where I engage with strangers and then shoot them, just to exercise that muscle more (after all, it’s a small part of our online workshops, and I should practice what I preach). But I love taking candids so much, I’m afraid I’ll never actually do it on my own — it will probably have to be for a paid assignment, or something I’m asked to do. Let’s hope it happens!