ERIC KIM

12 Lessons Araki Has Taught Me About Photography

Colourscapes, 1991. Photo by Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki (more commonly known as Araki) is one of the most controversial figures in the photography world. While he is a rock star and a superhero in Japan, a lot of the outside world sees his work as sick, pornographic, and misogynist. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Warning: Photos are NSFW.

How I first discovered Araki

You can’t mistake Araki on the streets.

I first discovered Araki’s work when I was in Japan, and I would often hear his name said alongside Daido Moriyama— one of the most famous Japanese street photographers in history.

When I first saw Araki’s work, I was a bit shocked. Girls tied up in ropes, lots of nudity, close-up of genitals, and his sexual images were unlike anything I’d ever seen.

But upon closer look, I realized that his work was unique. It wasn’t pornographic— a lot of his women showed fierceness, power, and a defiant look (even though they were tied up in ropes).

Araki is also one of the most prolific photographers in history. He was born in 1940 (currently he is 75 years old, in 2016) and he has published over 400+ photography books and magazines. He is constantly shooting everyday, uses many different camera formats, and is adored by all his subjects. And if you are curious, yes he does sleep with almost all of his female models (although Araki admits he is slowing down to his age).

‘Sentimental Journey’, 1971, Photo by Araki

My personal favorite work of Araki is “Sentimental Journey” where he documents his personal life with his wife (who eventually passes away). He documents their honeymoon, their marriage, her sickness, her death, and then his sense of loneliness and wandering afterwards. It is an incredibly intimate book, and something that touches your soul.

I still only have a superficial understanding of Araki (there are many other scholars out there who study his worth intensely), but I have still learned a lot of his life philosophies through his photography.

Although he is not a traditional “street photographer” (he is mostly known for his portrait and nude work), he also has done quite a bit of street photography in his day. He constantly is on the streets of Tokyo, camera-in-hand.

Let us use this time to see the lessons we can learn from Nobuyoshi Araki:

1. Photographs are diary entries

Satchin and His Brother Mabo, 1963. Photo by Araki

“Photographs are diary entries… That’s all they can be. Photographs are just documentations of a day’s event. At the same time, they drag the past into the present and also continue into the future. A day’s occurrence evokes both the past and the future. That’s why I want to clearly date my pictures. It’s actually frustrating, that’s why I now photograph the future…” – Nobuyoshi Araki February 10, 2012

Araki says that photographs are diary entries. You can see that a lot of his work includes the date stamp in his photographs. His photography is a meditation about time, life, and death. Not only does photography document the events of a day, it predicts what is going to happen into the future.

What inspired Araki to see photography as a way to keep a personal diary? He mentions in an interview below about how the cultural trend was diary-keeping:

“During the 1980s, everyone was taking pictures like a diary. In that cultural climate, the first cameras with a date function were introduced to the public. Such a camera allowed you to date all your photographs. It could be manipulated so easily. I took photographs, one after another, with different dates since I could switch the past with the future by manipulating the dates on an automatic camera.”

Furthermore, Araki says that photography is “lying” — because you are creating your own version of reality. There is no true “objectivity” in photography, because we always re-interpret what we see:

“Photography is lying, and I am a liar by nature. Anything in front of you, except a real object, is fake. Photographers might consider how to express their love through photography, but those photographs are “fake love.” That is how I make the future and past. That’s why I entitled it “Pseudo-Diary.” I can create 2020 in 2010.”

Takeaway point:

I love the idea that photography is keeping a personal journal or diary. In today’s cultural climate, it is all about sharing everything. And I would say, we over-share. We use social media to over-document and over-share our lives. We never have time to reflect, meditate on our own days, our own lives, for our own purposes.

I feel that photography should be a personal journey. Photography is often made less personal by oversharing. I still do believe in the value of sharing, but know that like a diary— you don’t need to share every single entry with the rest of the world. And that is what makes a diary so valuable — you can share your deepest, darkest secrets with yourself, in order to analyze your life, your day, and your future.

2. Life is notalgia

Sentimental Journey, 1971. Photo by Araki

“Photography, well, not so much photography but life itself, is nostalgia I realized, having seen these moments: in this day and age of digital media, in the center of Tokyo you see these sticks, right, they take these sticks and chase around crayfish and carp. Boyhood memories and stuff, that sort of nostalgia is the most important thing in life, the old man has realized(laughs).” – March 2011, Nobuyoshi Araki

Photographs are naturally nostalgia; because the moment you click the shutter, the moment has passed. Therefore when we look at our own childhood photographs, or photos shot a few decades earlier, we look at these moments with nostalgia.

I feel that nostalgia is important for a photographer, because it allows us to appreciate the past. It helps us remember the beauty of the past, the people of the past, and the past events.

However sometimes nostalgia can hold us back as photographers. We don’t appreciate the present moment (and possible future), because we over-romanticize the past.

Takeaway point:

Know the photos you shoot today are going to be tomorrow’s past. Photography is documenting history. Know that 30 years from now, the photos you shoot today are going to make you feel nostalgic.

3. Use life’s disadvantages to your benefit

In 2013, Araki lost the vision in his right eye due to a retinal artery obstruction. Instead of complaining about the injustice of life, he used it as an advantage to inspire his new exhibit of his work called “Love on the left eye.” The concept was that his photographs were split in half (there would be a photo on the left side, and the right side of the frame was all black).

Takeaway point:

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The best artists in history are the ones who used misfortune, difficulties, and setbacks to inspire their creativity.

If you have some sort of illness, disability, or are crippled— use that to your benefit.

You also might not live in the most interesting place in the world, you might not have the best camera, and you might not have much free time— but these are all “creative constraints” which you can use to your benefit. It is all about your attitude, mindset, and the way you see life.

4. Find inspirations from paintings

Past tense – Future, 1979-2011/2012. Photo by Araki

When asked about Araki’s inspirations, he mentioned how wood block prints and calligraphy inspired his photography and art:

“I’m influenced by paintings, Uki-yo-e (wood block prints of everyday life in historical Japan) and calligraphy. Specifically, I discovered the beauty of monochrome through calligraphy.”

Takeaway point:

Many photographers and artists don’t find inspiration directly in their own field—but from outside fields.

See how you can find inspiration in outside arts. Cross-pollinate your photography with theater, dance, calligraphy, fonts, music, architecture, painting, drawing, or any other art form.

By combining different types of art, you can be truly creative.

5. Shoot without prejudice

“In general, the most challenging aspect of photography is taking pictures without any prejudice. As I am taking pictures, I am so engrossed that I do not think of anything else – like how to take pictures, which technique I should use etc. The mere act of taking pictures, this is the most exciting thing to me.”

As photographers in the West, we are trained to shoot with prejudice. We are told to only photograph interesting things.

But in the East, they are a lot less discriminating. A lot of the Eastern philosophy sees everyday and ordinary life as interesting and meaningful.

Takeaway point:

Try as an experiment to photograph everything you see (no matter how boring it is) without discrimination. My suggestion would be to look at ordinary objects in your house, and try to make it interesting. Photograph from your gut, and don’t refrain from shooting a subject that you might think is “boring” or a “cliche.”

Of course you don’t want to share all your photos, but try to be less self-critical and self-censoring when shooting on the streets. Keep the passion and joy of making images alive in your heart.

6. On subjectivity in photography

MARVELLOUS TALES OF BLACK INK, 1994. Photo by Araki

When Araki was asked about his photography, he shared how subjectivity was important in his photography. The photographers from his generation were all about objectivity— photographing what something was. Araki saw things differently; he wanted to photograph something the way he saw it. The more personal he made it, the more subjective he made it. Araki explains more:

“I needed to break down the me-and-you barrier. I can say that I have collapsed the previous tradition of photography that emphasized objectivity. In the past, photographers felt they had to eliminate their subjectivity as much as possible. I consider myself a “subjective” photographer. I try to get as close as possible to the subject by putting myself within the frame. In addition, this action avoids making my photographs mere works of art. Photographs taken by others are better photos than I took [ laughs]. Sometimes I give my camera to a subject and my subject takes a picture of me.”

Takeaway point:

Get close to your subject and the action. Put yourself in the frame (whether figuratively or literally). Put your emotion and soul into the images you make.

Remember that every single photograph you shoot is a self-portrait of yourself. Don’t be afraid to show your personal and subjective view of the world. After all, that is what makes your photographs valuable.

8. On productivity

Untitled (Private Photography), 1993. Photo by Araki

Araki is known to be one of the most prolific and productive photographers in history. How does he stay passionate after all these decades? He explains more below:

“It is a way of life. Taking photographs is like heartbeat and breathing. The sound of pressing the shutter is like a heartbeat. I don’t think about productivity at all. I just shoot life itself. It is very natural for me.”

Araki doesn’t force himself to shoot. It is simply his nature. He takes photographs like a dog scratches himself. He does what feels natural to himself.

Araki also loves the act of shooting the most. That is what excites him and keeps him going:

“For a photographer, the moment he shoots is most thrilling. Developing and printing comes later; it is secondary. That’s why we are all poor. I enjoy taking pictures very much, but I am not thinking about the rest.”

But what drives him to click the shutter? Araki talks about the photographic “impulse” below:

“It must be kami (god). What makes a photographer take a picture? What makes an artist paint a picture? It can’t really be explained. It’s a kind of instinct or impulse.”

Takeaway point:

Do you love taking images? Do you love the art and the process of photography? Is photography something you do with your heart because you need to do it? Or do you force yourself to do it against your own will?

Know that you don’t need to always be shooting or always be producing. Follow your instinct. If you only prefer to shoot once every few days, weeks, or months— so be it. The important thing is to follow your nature (not the nature of anybody else).

9. On publishing photo books

Limited edition photo book by Araki

What keeps Araki going in terms of publishing so many photography books? He’s published over 400 books— what inspires him?

This is how Araki explains it:

“It’s like diarrhea. When I take photographs, I publish them immediately so that I don’t get constipated.”

He publishes so many photography books because if he doesn’t publish, he feels like he is getting backed up and constipated. He needs a way to release his images from his subconscious, and that is how he does it.

Araki also talks more about how he edits his photography books, and his creative process and collaboration with others:

“In general, I think photographers should edit as well. Making photography demands a series of choices, like, who to photograph and which photographs to show. I have so many photo books. However, I think I have the responsibility of editing my photo books. For those works that have the word “sentimental” in their titles, I edit them by myself. All my photos are great, so even if someone else edits them, it still makes a great book.”

Araki continues by saying how important collaboration is to make an interesting photography book:

“In general, most of the time it is more interesting when editors are involved. Photography is collaboration, because taking a picture requires collaboration with models, and editors are necessary collaborators for me. Collaborations make things better. One gets more excited (sexually) when someone else is looking, right?”

Takeaway point:

Photography is a social act. Both in making photos, and sharing photos.

I feel that every photographer should share his/her work. But however you decide to share your images— it is up to you. You decide how to share your work, when to share your work, and how often to share your work.

For Araki that meant to publish photography books. For you it might mean uploading your photos to social media, doing “zines” (magazines), self-publishing, doing exhibitions, or your own books.

Also when you’re putting together your work to publish, always try to get a second opinion. Try to collaborate with other photographers or editors (when it comes to selecting your best work, sequencing it, or designing your work). The more you collaborate, the more good ideas you can get from others, and the more flaws you can see in your work.

10. Capturing the soul of the subject

Nobuyoshi Araki, Kinbaku, 2008/2014.

What is the most important thing to capture, according to Araki? the soul of your subject:

“I’m trying to catch the soul of the person I’m shooting. The soul is everything. That’s why all women are beautiful to me, no matter what they look like or how their bodies have aged.”

Takeaway point:

How your subject look doesn’t matter. What is the most important is to capture their soul. To capture their emotion, their heart, their moods. And the more intimate your photos are, the more memorable and engaging they will be with your viewer.

11. Don’t be a professional

Past tense – Future, 1979-2011/2012. Photo by Araki

“Rather than shooting something that looks like a professional photograph, I want my work to feel intimate, like someone in the subject’s inner circle shot them.”

This is another concept I love from Araki— to make photographs that look personal, rather than “professional.”

Often we glamorize the idea of a professional photographer— with lots of fancy equipment, lights, assistants, and models.

But for me, I prefer the personal shots of others. I want to be transported into the shoes of the photographer. I want to feel intimacy with the subject in a frame. Because the more intimate the photograph feels, the more it pulls at my heart-strings and makes me see the world in a different way.

Takeaway point:

Don’t be a professional. Use cheaper equipment (smaller point and shoot cameras, or even your smartphone). Don’t use fancy equipment, or don’t feel the need to have a fancy background or scene.

Take photos of your everyday life, and personal friends and family in your own inner-circle.

Embrace the “snapshot aesthetic” — and show your closeness and intimacy with your subject with the world.

12. Shoot your own backyard

The Look, 1993. Photo by Araki

Many of us hate where we live. We wish we lived somewhere else— somewhere more foreign and exotic.

However Araki has made his work all in his own home-city. Sure we all think of Tokyo as exotic, but Araki declines (most of the time) to photograph in foreign places.

The reason Araki shoots in Tokyo isn’t because it is exotic— but because it is familiar to him. He also gives the advice to other photographers to shoot what is around you and close to you:

You have to shoot what’s around you, what’s familiar. I’m often invited to go overseas, but when I get there I always think, “Shit, I have to take more photographs of Japan.” So I focus on my neighborhood and things around me in daily life, like my girlfriend. I mean, we’re Japanese, so you shouldn’t even have to consciously tell yourself to shoot Japan. It should just come naturally to you. So in my case, I was like, “OK, I should shoot a bunch of Japanese people,” which led to, “Well, why don’t I shoot the entire country,” and that eventually resulted in this “Faces of Japan” series.”

Takeaway point:

I know it is tough— to appreciate where you live. To know that the grass is greener on your side (not on the other side).

My suggestion is to imagine yourself like an alien— coming to your own home city for the first time. What would you find interesting, unique, or weird? Document that.

Or you can think of doing a book or an exhibition on your own hometown. Take it seriously. Know the more “boring” and remote the place you live, the less likely it was documented by others. This is a huge opportunity.

Embrace life in the suburbs or anywhere that is boring. Remember to make the photographs personal and from your heart. Shoot what is familiar and close to you. Intimacy is what will make your photos sing to the viewer.

Conclusion

Photo from Sentimental Journey by Araki

Araki is still an enigma to me. I still don’t understand his entire psyche, why he photographs, and how he photographs. But what I do know is that he shoots in a way that is authentic to himself, and he shoots with his heart.

All of his subjects love him, and he has huge waiting lists of models who want them to photograph him. He doesn’t judge his subjects. He photographs the young as well as the old. He is active and engaged with his photography and subjects, and isn’t a distant bystander.

So friend, remember at the end of the day— photograph yourself. Photograph in a process that is authentic to you, and always disregard what others say about you and your art. That is what Araki does, and he has lived 70+ years faithfully to himself, and has created an incredible body of work.

See more of Araki’s work here.

Interviews with Araki

Learn From the Masters of Street Photography

If you want to become a great street photographer, don’t neglect studying from the masters of street photography.

If you want a distilled version, read my free ebook:  “100 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography.