Faces of Tokyo: street photography in the megalopolis

Tokyo: a street photographer’s paradise? Alfie Goodrich thinks so.by Alfie Goodrich

Over the past decade or more, I have had the pleasure of visiting Tokyo. These days it is home to me, my family and my career as a freelance photographer. I couldn’t think of a city in the world I would rather be right now, that combines such an interesting visual landscape and such a relaxed attitude to photography amongst its population.

London, where I spent most of August 2008, is the complete opposite. In one day there I was threatened with violence, arrest and was first-hand witness to the child-molester and bogey-man paranoia at the surface of a large majority of the population, brought so energetically to the surface simply by being on the streets with a camera and pointing it at people. France – the birthplace of street photography – is largely the same.

London’s Metropolitan Police has recently had a much publicised campaign about  photographers, suggesting that ‘terrorists use cameras to plan their attacks’. Odd, I though that most terrorists would have used an iPhone and Google Street View to do that…..

Maybe it won’t be long before this fear, privavcy and ‘I know my rights’ culture will arrive in Japan. For now, at least, its streets present a far less stressful place to soak up everyday life in all its wonderful glory.

And that – as I tried to explain to the Londoner who was threatening to assault me [“I’m gonna kick your fu-kin ‘ed in”] for taking a really cool picture of him near Picadilly Circus one day –  is the thing I find most odd; why is it OK to serve up the gory and intricate details of ‘everyday life’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble-spots in the world, and yet being out on the streets to soak up everyday life in your own country is being gradually criminalized and is widely regarded as an invasion of privacy at best, and the activity of a pervert at its worst?

If this demonisation of photography and ignorance of its ability to capture the beauty as well as the pain of life carries on we will be running the risk of being so saturated by other people’s hardships yet so unaware of the exquisite intricacies of our own lives that we become totally numb and hollow human-beings.

I like a bit of privacy myself, especially when it is so scarce a commodity these days. But I never take embarrassing pictures of people on the street and I always try and respect them, communicate with them and share my photos with them if I can. Japanese people are on the whole very cool with this. And if they don’t want their picture taken, 95 times out of 100 they just turn the other way. Only in the very few dodgy areas of Tokyo have I ever had a problem and these days I tend not to point my camera at two groups of people in the city: the yakuza and the Africans who work for them. That generally goes a long way to me keeping myself 100% out of trouble.

For me, street photography and street photographers have always held a special fascination. The photographic heroes I had as a child, then as a photography student and now as a working professional have mostly been photographers for whom the streets played a large part in their own photographic careers: among them the likes of Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz, Eugene Atget, Heinz Held, Robert Doisneau and Edward Steichen. Their depictions of France, America, London and so many other places, breathed a vital immortality into the mundane. They froze normal, everyday life and preserved it for the future.

To search for the pulse of a country, a city, of its neighbourhoods and individual streets and of its people; this is the journey of the street photographer and social documentist. A journey through the drama, the minutae and the mundane of everyday life with the patience of a fisherman – casting one’s eye into the sea of human existence  – catching the tiny moments that most people don’t see.

My opnion is that we need this sort of photography more, now, in the fast-paced world we live in than we did 100 years ago. We need it because it is a way to help us see the world around us with different eyes.

I was out recently in Tokyo and got chatting to someone who lived in the neighbourhood I was photographing. His reaction to my shots is something I shan’t forget and can’t underestimate the significance of: “Do you know, I have lived in this area all of my life and I have never seen the things you have seen with your camera….or if I have, I have never seen them the same way as you did.”

A Gallery of Tokyo Street Photography by Alfie Goodrich

Tokyo Street Photography
127 photos
View this on Flickr.com >

There’s a book of my Tokyo street work coming soon and if you want to come out and have a lesson with me, about shooting street photography here in Tokyo. Drop me a line.

And for all those of you who ask, here is my approach to shooting street in Japan:

1. I dont hassle people. If I am shooting from a distance, with a long lens, then afterwards I always try and make eye-contact with my subject and show them the back of the camera [if digital] and, of there is an opportunity, say hello, smile, wave. Basically I try to acknowledge them to say ‘thanks’.

2. If the moment presents itself, I give them a business-card or postcard with a photo of mine on and my contact and web address.

3. If someone doesnt want me to shoot them, they either look the other way or make it obvious some other way. No one in Japan is edgy or aggressive about having their pic taken. Most dont mind. If they do, they are usually polite about it and just look the other way.

4. I try never to take pics of people in embarassing situations or doing things that I think would make them feel embarassed. Generally, if I feel I have caught someone in a moment that would make me feel embarassed or didnt paint me in some sort of flattering light if it were me in the photo, then I delete the shot.

5. I shoot with a mixture of lenses, all on DX chip Nikon D300, so times the focal lengths by 1.5 for the equivalent on FX or film:

20mm f/3.5
50mm f/1.2
50mm f/1.8
85mm f/1.4
135mm f/2.8
80-200mm f/2.8
300mm f/4

6. I also still shoot with film, on a Nikon F4 and with my 1955 Rolleicord, 6x6cm camera.

7. As for people’s rights and my rights: if we are in a public place, then I am quite within my rights to shoot the pic. If I am using it for anything other than a front cover of a magazine or in an article where I would need to or want to attribute an opinion or comment to the person in the shot [or where this is inferred], then I dont need people’s permission or a model-release to use the shot commercially, in editorial or for an exhibition. If it is for a cover or for an article where I am attributing some opinion to the person in the shot, I get a model-release signed when I shoot the photos.

Wherever I do publish shots, I always try to get a copy of the publication, book or an invite to the exhibition to the person in the photo.


About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks.

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