Eric’s Note: Junku Nishimura is one of the most talented street photographers that I know in Japan. Not only is he incredibly passionate about his photography (he shoots exclusively film and develops and prints all of his work) but he is also one of the most down-to-earth. I taught a film street photography workshop in Kyoto with him alongside Bellamy Hunt and Sean Lotman- which was an incredible experience. On the last night of the workshop, we were sitting in a bar in Kyoto and I conducted an interview with him. Here is a transcription (along with some edits) of the interview.
Eric: So Junku were going to start this interview. To start off, how many languages do you know?
Junku: Only Japanese.
E: What else do you speak?
J: I can speak a little Korean [laughs].
E: And of course Japanese?
J: [Laughs] Yes!
E: Junku , can you explain to us how you first discovered photography?
J: How did I discover photography? What do you mean “discover”?
E: Maybe the first photograph you saw?
E: So when you saw their photos, how did they make you feel?
J: Before I started photography, I was a quite negative person — drinking far too much. But after I picked up my first camera, it made me see life in a much more positive light. So in short, photography saved my life. Without my camera, I would just drink all day. But ever since I started photography, I started taking pictures, printing them – it was something I had always been looking for. So photography helped me cool down. Nowadays I no longer accuse people or start ruckuses when I drink. I’m much more chill now!
E: So talking about drinking– you often take a lot of photos of people in bars. How do you approach people? To my understanding some of the photos you take are with permission and some are without permission.
J: When I’m at a bar photographing people who are drunk (and I am not drunk) they get quite suspicious of me. However when I am drunk, we are the same and see each other eye-to-eye. There is no discrimination man! So as long as I see them eye-to-eye, they never hate me or are suspicious of me. They are cool with me taking their photo.
E: Have you ever had any bad stories of people getting angry for taking their photo?
J: No not really. I generally think that I am quite humble and low-key when I photograph. However I do have one story of someone reacting a bit negatively to me. I once was taking photos of a drunk guy on the subway, who suddenly said to me that he was a policeman. He asked me what I was doing. But when we got off the next station, I found out he wasn’t really a policeman.
E: So you talk about photography changing your life. Who are some influential people you met who influenced your life and photography? Photographers in specific?
J: There aren’t a lot of photographers I admire, but the ones that I do admire are great. They are mostly Japanese, like Katsumi Watanabe, Isao Yamaguchi- mostly Japanese. Most Japanese photographers aren’t so famous, and they never try to be famous and show off. They are very humble photographers. But their work is great so I want to stay low-key too. There are lots of Japanese photographers, you know?
E: Two of the most famous Japanese photographers are Daido Moriyama and Araki. What do you think of their work?
J: I didn’t find out about Daido Moriyama until recently, perhaps around only 5-6 years ago. So I don’t consider being influenced by him – but I respect him. I read a book on his biography – and it seemed that we had similar life experiences, just like me! I dig Daido and like him.
E: How about Daido’s photographs?
J: I like them- but the way he shoots is his own “Daido style”. I don’t think I should try to imitate him. I don’t try to imitate him. That is his style, very high contrast. He can explain why he does that- but beginners tend to imitate Daido. I used to print my photos with high contrast as well, but nowadays I prefer less contrast with better tones. Some people say that my photos have high contrast—but take a look at my old work! For that reason I would like to go back and re-print lots of my photographs with less contrast.
E: What about Araki?
J: Oh I love Araki more than his pictures [laughs]. He’s alright. But his wife is dead, his cat is dead – so I wonder what he is thinking now? Sometimes I care about him. He has cancer at the moment too. Maybe he can recover from his cancer. I also think he is a sensitive guy. I love him and his character.
E: One thing that interests me that is you used to work as a salary man for 18 years. How do you think working as a salary man influenced your photography?
J: One word, essential. It was essential that I was a salary man. It influenced my photography a lot, because I was someone who contributed to society (as a salary man). I would bow, do my duties. I think it was good for me to experience that salary man life. But sometimes I still dream of going to my customers, still bowing, apologizing. I then wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats and thank it isn’t real!
E: So how long have you been doing photography full-time now?
J: I’ve been serious with my photography for about 8 years now. It has been 3 years since I quit being a salary man.
E: Now that you think you quit being a salary man, do you think your photography has gotten better- more focused?
J: Definitely more focused. It helped me become more involved in photography. Life is so hard, but I never regret choosing photography as my life. Now I’m much happier in life.
E: Give us a day in your life. When do you wake up in the morning and describe the rest of your day.
J: Oh man — I’m so lazy. My mother still yells at me to wake up early in the morning. I wake up at 6am, but sleep again until 8:30am [laughs]. I try to get up early in the morning.
E: Do you usually go out and shoot first in the morning, or develop and print?
J: I try to be cost-efficient and save money for traveling so I generally wait at home to get print orders from people. So if I get an order, I generally print my work and go to work.
E: Describe how you develop and print your work.
J: Before I enter the darkroom, I take a cold shower to prepare my mind and soul. [Haha I'm just joking]. I usually dry my negatives, cut them, and then choose a record to listen to. I love to listen to hip-hop music, especially Boogaloo, old 1960’s, latino music, Village Callers, Joe Bataan, and sometimes Sir Mix a Lot [laughs]. I love west coast music rap. I love “Too Short”.
E: So when you’re printing your photos, how do you feel?
J: Printing is kind of like fishing. And I love fishing. It helps me concentrate. I can’t explain it. I feel so calm and at peace. I love the darkroom. One good reason I don’t do digital is because I love the printing aspect.
E: So show us your pretty tool. Tell us the story of your Leica M5.
J: I love the M5, because it is heavy- and it is so smooth to operate. It feels solid in my hands. It is like an octopus that grips itself to my hand.
E: Tell me about the lens you use.
J: It is a 50mm Summarit. I got it because it was the cheapest lens out there. I was lucky because some people say it is terrible, but for me it is good. I love it.
E: You shoot a lot at night, so you push a lot to ISO 1600.
J: Yeah when I’m shooting at night, I generally shoot at 15th of a second, f/2.8 as my aperture, with ISO 1600.
E: Why do you shoot mostly at night?
J: Actually, I like taking photos in bars more than in the daytime street. Sometimes I shoot during the day, but the night speaks more to me. Maybe it is because I used to work as a DJ late at night. So shooting at night brings back nostalgic memories from the past. And of course, I can drink at night.
E: Share with me your stories of being a DJ.
J: I was a DJ in Kyoto with Ex-Mondo Gross– we were good friends.
E: Junku, where are you originally born?
J: Yamaguchi, it is a west prefecture of the main highland in japan. The village I grew up in mainly dug coal. I remember when I was a child, there were so many people who lived near my house. My mother had a small business knocking on doors. She would take me at times, and I remember the candy I got!
Even until today I remember all of the coal miner families in my village. I miss them a lot, so I think that through my photography I’m searching for similar people that I remember from my past. I haven’t seen a lot of people who took care of me during my childhood in a very long time. Sometimes I hope I can see them in public. So I guess when I am out photographing I look at people and some of them remind me of people from my childhood.
E: So you try to find people in the streets who remind you of people from your childhood?
J: I miss the people from my past a lot, but I think this makes me stuck. I believe that photographers should think about new ways—and look into the present and future. But I’m not that type of photographer. I miss the past, past, past. Always the past. I still think a lot of my childhood and the coal-miner people. So I guess I still stick to that.
E: So you are from Yamaguchi but you moved to Kyoto?
J: My parents are still alive in Yamaguchi. I came to Kyoto for college. Don’t ask me about school!
E: So you’ve come and taken great photos in Kyoto. What are some of your favorites shots here in Kyoto?
J: I like taking photos of old friends in Kyoto when I was 18, 19. So when I have a reunion with them 20 years later, I like to take photos of them. And most of my favorite pictures in Kyoto are of my friends.
E: Do you find yourself shooting more street photos or photos of your friends?
J: I am a street photographer at the end of the day. I take photos of my friends and family, but at heart I am a street photographer. Yeah, I respect commercial photography, but its not my style. So after quitting my salary man job, I want to do what I like doing.
E: With your photos, what are some projects you are working on now?
J: [Sigh of despair]. It is difficult, because I don’t like making themes when I’m out shooting. Especially in Europe, they decide themes. But for me, I don’t agree. I try not to think about themes. I just keep on shooting. And when I can’t drink anymore, I go home, sit down, and then decide on themes afterwards. I will take a look at all of the shots I took during a certain period and then group them into themes.
E: So Junku how do you edit a photo? How do you know if you like it or don’t?
J: Three things:
- It is all about the expression of people and the mood.
- The light.
- The background.
Those are the three things I look for in my photos. I don’t stick to composition. Not to say I don’t appreciate good composition. For example, I like Alex Webb’s work a lot. I really dig his color and composition. However I can’t do what he does so I get quite jealous at times.
E: Speaking of color, have you ever experimented in color?
J: Before I got a darkroom, I shot with color negative film. But it is totally different. From shooting in black and white. The subject is different, the composition is different. So I had to change my mind from shooting color to black and white.
E: So what do you like about black and white?
J: Black and white is essential, right? I like the color-blind world. Color- I don’t need it. I just need to take a picture. So in black and white I can get rid of distractions and keep it simple.
E: Junku, there are a lot of photographers who look up to you, love film, black and white, and the nostalgia you create. What advice would you give to street photographers?
J: When I take photos of people, I try not to disturb them or look too directly at them. I think it is a huge problem.
Also in photography, I think it is important to capture two parts of humanity:
- Good aspects of human beings
- Our disagreements with human beings
Photography should show both sides. For example, many of Martin Parr’s photographs have critiques on people and of humanity. But I also think that he genuinely likes people as well.
For me, I always try to show the positive aspects of humanity. I think it isn’t okay. I should shoot both ways (positive and negative). But I can’t. I want to shoot the good aspects of people. But I should shoot the negative, I cant. It’s my issue. Perhaps I can focus on it later.
E: What is the favorite photograph you have ever taken?
J: The one of my father taking a nap with two cats. I love that. I shot that picture 2-3 years ago, but that scene was continuing since I was a child. I always had 2 cats (they are dead now). I want to make life eternal, but it is never eternal. I take pictures to create an image – to keep the sense of nostalgia.
I’m so nostalgic. Some people might not like it. But that’s my way. Some people understand my pictures, that’s fine.
E: Who are some people you would like to give a shout out to?
J: I would like to give a shout out to people on the internet. Face-to-face, not so many. But I want to say hello to my friend who I met face-to-face after the internet. So IPA’s Kevin, Steven, Bercelona’s Alfonso, Nicholas Demonic. And you man, we met at last! And Bellamy and Jimon and Nicholas. And that guy, Olivier from Paris who visited me. I’m so glad to meet these people. And Gabor, Helen and Eric in NYC. There are a lot of people to list, I don’t think I included them all here!
E: and you have a lot of fans- what do you want to say to them?
J: I really appreciate your support – not only your support. I am very grateful that you feel something from my pictures. I’m very happy, man!
E: Thank you very much Junku.
Follow Junku Nishimura
If you are a fan of Junku and his work, support him and his photography by purchasing a print. I ordered a few from the past, and not only are they high-quality and beautiful (Junku hand-prints them all himself) but they make lovely art for your walls.
If you are interested, you can email him at email@example.com for more information and a price sheet.
Do you have any other questions you would like to ask Junku? Do you want to give him a shout-out? Leave a comment below!