The Humanistic Street Photographer: Interview with Satoki Nagata from Chicago

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Photo by Satoki Nagata. Click to read more.

Eric’s Note: I recently taught a street photography workshop with Satoki Nagata in Chicago, and had a chance to sit down for him for an hour and interview him. This is a transcription based on recording we made. If you want to learn more about his philosophies in his street photography, and how he combines it with documentary work — make sure to give it a read. It is a very in-depth interview, which I personally think you will gain a lot from.

Also make sure to attend “Lights in the City: a multimedia presentation” by Satoki at the Harold Washington Library Center, Pritzker Auditorium at Monday, August 5, 2013, 6:00pm.

Great to have you Satoki. Can you start off by telling us more about your personal background and how you got into photography?


I came to the US in 1992 as a scientist. During that time I discovered street photography by photographing people in the streets of Chicago. After discovering that photography was my true passion, I quit science and I focused all of my efforts on street photography. I also enjoy doing documentary photography as well.

How did you discover street photography?


When I started to photograph on the streets, I actually had no idea what street photography was. I just enjoyed taking photos of people on the streets. Soon I discovered that there was a actually a term for what I was doing: “street photography.”

How did you learn composition and style in your work?


So when I first started to take photos, I just looked at my photos and thought that some were interesting or “good.”

Soon I discovered Flickr, and I started to upload my work there. I would be very happy when I got comments, and at first I used that as a barometer if the photo was good or not. However there were times in which I uploaded photos that I thought were good, which got no comments. Then at other times, I would upload photos that I thought weren’t so good– and they would get a lot of comments. (People likes high contrast, eye catching images so I made these images and got many comments and favorites. But I thought it was too easy and felt something wrong)

So I just want to know: why do people like or dislike my photos and what made a good photograph or bad? So I decided I needed to find a teacher. I found my teacher, Damaso Reyes who is a photojournalist and artist. When I started to study with him, he was young, around 30 years old. From him, I learned what makes photography art.

How did he teach you how to be a better photographer? What are some lessons you learned from him?


90% of what he taught me was the philosophy of photography. He told me to not worry so much about technical things– as you can learn them from books or the internet. But it is very difficult to learn the philosophy side of photography. You also need to learn philosophy how to make great art. He first taught me that.

The second thing that he taught me was how to develop my own vision. And how that is important to become from a good to excellent photographer.

Can you expand a little more on these philosophies you learned from him?


To reiterate, I learned that the most important thing is to develop your own distinct vision as a photographer– to see the world in your own way.

I learned my lessons from him through assignments. The purpose of each assignment was to find and develop our own visual voice—point of view. I worked on assignments with him for nearly 3-4 years.

One thing I find interesting is I look at your photography and you have lots of different approaches in photography.

For example, you do a lot of documentary work in which you enter a community. Your Cabrini-green project comes to mind, in which you spent 3 years getting to know the community and the people who lived there (behind the scenes).

However you also do a lot of candid street photography. What comes to mind is your Chicago lights series, in which you shot in the snow and rain with flash—creating visually elegant images. I find this approach to be very different from your documentary style photos.

When it comes to your style, how would you describe your style or vision? For you—how important is telling a story and the content versus composition and beauty?


Its really hard to say, but from my vision—for example the intimate documentary work and the candid style – I use the same vision. I don’t see a difference. They look different visually, but the basic vision is my vision.

Through my photography, I also want to discover something from inside myself. I feel that directly shows through my documentary work.

In regards to my “Lights in Chicago” project, I often asked myself: “What is street photography?” The difficulty of street photography is that it doesn’t have a clear definition. We can’t define it.

Therefore the photographer has to know exactly what he or she is doing. What kind of photos they take. Why they take the photos they take. How they take their photos? They are all related.

Street photography is all about photographer’s vision for the streets and people’s lives. There is no debate between candid or posed. Portrait or not. Not about “decisive moment”, documentary or not, wide lens or not, not about DSLR or rangefinder, hipshot or not, Prefocus or not. These debates are no meaning and useless to make better images. Compared with other genre, street photography is the one with no limitation. There is just one question to be answered; what is the photographer’s vision to the world. If there is no vision, image become nothing more than snap shot.

So through my “Lights in Chicago” series, I wanted to discover: “What is street photography?” I wanted to show people through my series what Chicago was like during the winter. What it felt like– and to show the everyday lives of people. I discovered how to show these feelings through the visual aesthetic of using an off-camera flash on a stand with slow shutter speeds in the snow and the rain (often lit from behind). I thought those images were good to show what I wanted to show.

Through my images, I wanted to make something that was different– even in the realm of street photography. Even though a lot has already been done in street photography, I think that it still has a lot more potential to create something new. I think as street photographers, we should try to create new expressions and cultivate new ways of taking photos.

Tell us more about your Cabrini-Green project. Can you share why you decided to work on it, how you were able to gain the trust of local residents, and maybe about difficulties you had?


Cabrini-green is a very closed community. In order for the project to work, I need to become accepted by the people who lived there. There are a lot of people who are afraid to enter the community, as it is full of violence and crime. However those are just misconceptions of the people who live there. They are just regular human beings, like you or me. However they are afraid of people from the outside– very much of how the outsiders are afraid of them. Through my project, I wanted to break and change the pre-conceptions people had of me (and I had of them).

At first the people of Cabrini-Green were suspicious of me. They weren’t quite sure what I was doing there, or why I was there. However I will share a story in which I was able to build their trust: About a month ago, I started a new project– documentary work that expanded on the Cabrini-Green work. It was focused on the south side and westside of Chicago. The situation is currently very bad, there is a lot of gang activity and crime in those areas (whereas it has calmed down a bit in the Cabrini-Green area).

When I first started to work on the new project, there was a march against closing schools in the area. There was 3-5 journalists over there including me. I just followed the march and took photos.

One interesting thing that I noticed is that photographers from TV stations all used telephoto lenses and worked from a distance. In my case, I like to shoot close-up, using a 35mm or 50mm prime lens. If I saw something that I thought I need to capture, I would go close, wait, and try to capture the best moment. Sometimes I wait for 1-2 minutes (or even longer) in front of person in closed distance.

Anyways, after taking photos of the people in the march– I overheard them talking about me. They said: “Who is this guy? What is he doing?” After they talked amongst one another, they approached me, shook my hand, and thanked me: “Thank you for coming.” I then discovered that they realized that I was serious in documenting them.

So I think that is the attitude that is important. I showed unintentionally my subjects how I really wanted to document them. I think that is one of the reasons why I can relatively easily enter those different communities. They often accept me to enter their private spaces—like bedroom or bathroom, and let me take photos of their very personal real life.

When you take photos in their house of personal moments—do they forget about you or act like you don’t exist? How do you become invisible in those situations?


Technically the best way to become invisible when documenting these kinds of situations is just spend a long time and let them comfortable with my existence in their space.

For example, when I first spend time getting to know a person or a family, I sometimes just keep my camera in my bag– and I just talk with them. I can spend several hours with them just doing nothing– and then I leave.

When I come back, I often just hang out, just like a friend or family member. But we are not friends. I don’t go there to become friends with them, I am there to document their lives as a photographer.

I also tell my subjects stories about myself—and open myself to them. If we open ourselves to our subjects, our subjects will open themselves up to us too.

But the most important thing is to always be a photographer, even if we don’t have a camera in our hand. That is very important—because people still have barriers in intimate moments. But only photographers can enter those intimate moments, pass that line, and take photos.

How did you overcome your fear of approaching strangers and interacting with them?


I think that this is a mental issue that many street photographers face. Usually people are very open. In my experience, whenever you ask people to take their photograph, 99% of people say: “Okay, no problem.” Or maybe they ask “Why?” If we have a clear answer- most people say no problem.

So the problem is that the majority of people in the streets don’t know why you want to take a photo of them. If we have a very clear reason, or purpose—-they become comfortable, and we have no room to hesitate.

The majority of street photographers who are afraid to take photos of strangers don’t have a clear reason why they want to photograph. So you have to ask yourself why you want to take a photo of a stranger. If you don’t have a clear reason, you might not be serious enough. If we want to accomplish anything, we need to be serious about it. Another point to bring up is that if we want to take a great(good?) photo, you have to take control every step of process of photograph. You need to control your own fear and hesitations. So taking a photo of a stranger is not a goal–it is a step.

Can you tell us about the “.7 meter challenge?”


My teacher, Damaso, gave me the “.7 meter challenge” as a second assignment. .7 is the minimal focusing distance of a Leica lens. So the assignment was that for two weeks, I could only take photos of strangers from .7-1 meter away.

I feel that this is a very effective assignment to overcome your fear of shooting strangers. Due to the fact that you have an assignment, you now have a reason to shoot up-and-close.

However when I was doing this assignment, I had concerns. I would sometimes be afraid of how people would respond. How do I deal with refusal? In the end, it is a fear of refusal from strangers.

For the .7 meter challenge, I decided to go to people who looked friendly who would be okay with me taking their photo. For example, families or nice looking people. So the first 4-5 days I approached friendly people, and it was easy.

Then I told myself: I need to practice being refused. So I looked for people who look like stubborn, middle-aged people, or tough young people who may say no. I approached them—trying to purposefully get refused. The funny thing is that they said “yes” as much as friendly looking people. This was a huge epiphany to me, as I realized that my preconceptions of people who looked like they wouldn’t like to get their photos taken was false. Most people are friendly, especially in Chicago.

How do you know your photos are good or not? What do you think makes a great photograph?


In my case, I want to create photos that are art. So the question I ask myself is: Will this photo be good from now, 40 years later, or even 100 years later? I set very high standards for myself– and encourage everyone else to set higher standards for themselves.

What do you want people to feel when looking at your photos?


I like 1 out of a 100 or 1 out of 200 of my photos. Sometimes I take 4-5 hours to post-process one photo. When I change tone curves in my photos, I even stop breathing! I put my life and soul into creating my images. I hope that when people see my photos that they can see my effort—and feel it. I want to show my passion to others.

You worked as a scientist for 20 years, but you are also very artistic. How did you get from science into art? How did your background in art help your photography?


I don’t think I’m a good scientist even though I did it for 20 years. So perhaps that is why I changed my carrier to photography.

First I thought science was a creative job—so I chose to become a scientist as a creative activity. The first 10 years was fun to discover new things and publish papers. And you could get attention and respect from good work—and better positions.

But after that, I realized: this isn’t a creative endeavor. Science is like a small company. But the worst thing if it were a company—it would have to create something useful to people. The problem about science is that 75-90% of science doesn’t directly help society or knowledge. I thought being a scientist is waste time and money.

What were some skills as a scientist or work ethics that helped your photography?


Photography is all about vision. Therefore it is especially important for us as photographers to develop our own distinct vision. That distinct vision is based on a person’s life experiences.

For me, as a scientist for 20 years—I tried lots of things other than science when I was young. In my 20s I enjoyed surfing, painting, and writing. Those experiences in life are very important to develop our own vision, because we need to these experiences to see the world. So lots of experiences (in other art too) is very helpful into becoming a good photographer. Not just science, but other things too.

Share more about the technique and the equipment you use. You shoot with a Leica M9, M8, and Fujifilm x100– how do you use your tools?


Usually on the Leica M9, I use a 35mm or 50mm. If I use the 35mm on the M9, I use the 50mm on my Leica M8 or the 75mm. I use my Leica M8 for close-up photos. For normal to wide lenses, I use the M9. Sometimes I use the Fujifilm x100 for dark conditions with depth with field—because it has good high-ISO capabilities (better than the Leicas). Those 3 cameras are my main cameras.

How did you discover Leica, and why do you like to shoot with rangefinders?


I actually started shooting Leica for a stupid reason. When I first started, I shot with a Canon DSLR on the streets for a long time. I took photo in color and JPEG, no black and white, no RAW format, and no adjustments by program.

Then when I started to discover more about street photography, I found out that most street photography was done in black and white. I also discovered a lot of street photographers shot with Leicas. Therefore I thought to myself: Maybe I should shoot with a Leica and not a Canon. So that is the stupid reason.

However when I started to use a Leica (the M8) and started to shoot in black and white for around 3-4 months everyday, I think my eyes changed into seeing the world in black and white. My eyes also adapted to shooting with a rangefinder.

Were there benefits of shooing with a rangefinder?


Many people say Leica M is small so people don’t notice it—or you can get closer than the big huge DSLR. Maybe that is true, but focusing is very important to me. The focusing is very fast compared to a DSLR. It is also much more accurate (for my shooting style).

Often I take photos in dark situations. Autofocus is useless in dark situations. In the street, we often want to manipulate photos of very complex situations with many layers or reflections, we need manual focus.

So autofocus is really hard in some situations. Autofocus automatically thinks for you (and is often wrong) and inaccurate. And manual focusing in DSLR is difficult. With a rangefinder using manual focus, we can focus exactly on what we want to focus. So that is the benefit I like about rangefinders.

Can you talk more about your philosophy of black and white?


In the beginning, I thought black and white was the tradition or street or documentary photography. Now I realize it is more than that. I prefer black and white because it helps me focus on light, shadows, shapes– and I enjoy the timeless feel (especially for documentary work).

In certain cases, especially in relatively low-contrast conditions, sometimes black and white doesn’t work. In that case, I want to do color photography. But unfortunately I spent many years only making photos in black and white. I often see in black and white. But it doesn’t mean that black and white is better than color.

Do you see yourself working more in color in future projects?


You’re working on a movie documentary on the tougher areas of Chicago. Can you tell me more about your concept and dream behind it?


I am expanding my documentary projects from Cabrini-Green work into the westside of Chicago, as they are in really serious conditions—high crime and gang activity.

I thought to myself: I need to document this. The idea of creating a movie also came to mind. However, I have never made a movie before. I have never went to art school or video school either. But I believe in my vision. I think I have a vision as a photographer that will translate well into making a movie.

I don’t want to make a regular documentary movie. I want to make art that shows my vision. I spent 3 years in Cabrini-Green, so I know how to show people through my photography. I want to use the same vision in my movie.

At the early of July, I will show a short preview online—2 months from now. When people see it, they will feel what my concept is. The basic concept is that it isnt a documentary movieit is closer to photography. So many clips, re-arranged—like a photo book. So we can start from the middle, end, or the beginning.

Can you tell me about the team working with you to achieve your vision?


I don’t have experience making a movie—so I need a good team. I have two videographers, who have great skills to make a movie—a documentary. One of videographers did it for around 3-4 years professionally. They have the skills and abilities to make a movie. Another person – she has been making short experimental movies for many years. She has a very distinct vision.

One person is a French music composer, who is very important in this movie. He has been making music for movies for many years.

We are from five different countries and each person have own different points of view. I am very excited about this team.

So my movie is about the photographic eye, highly artistic—with high standard music. So maybe it isn’t a movie exactly. But its not photography. Maybe something in-between a movie and photography, with music. I want to try a new visual art. Art should be openit shouldnt have restrictions.

Can you tell us about street photographers here in Chicago?


Chicago is an interesting city. There are not many street photographers here. But each photographer here has a very unique vision.

I think for example, Vivian Maier—her photography is historically very good. But until recently, nobody knew about her. So its interesting, because she didn’t want to show her work to the world.

There is another street photographer Gary Stochl who is now probably 50-60 years old. He also took photos for a long time, but until recently never showed his photo to others. Somewhat recently he took a stack of photos and went to the university art department, and the professor was surprised of his work.

Similar to them, Brian Soko—he is a really great photographer. He has been working for 15 years and produced lots of nice photos. But until recently, he never thought about having exhibitions and sharing his work with others. It is interesting that many photographers here in Chicago like to work, but don’t like to share their images with others. They just pursue their own distinct visions.

If you started your photography again, what would you have done differently?


There is nothing I would change. I was really lucky I met a very good mentor, Damaso Reyes, and I cannot imagine meeting any photographers better than him. He is an excellent teacher. I think the timing was good. Everything is okay.

If you didn’t have a mentor or him as a mentor, would your photographer have changed a lot?


Without him, I couldn’t develop my own vision. I probably would try to imitate the work of other photographers for a long time, try to get many comments and favorite on photosharing site, chosen by photo contest site—and could not develop my own vision for a long time.

Can you tell us more about Bruce Davidson and how influence on your work?


I like his work a lot, but I didn’t imitate him. Of course our photos look very different. But his philosophy and thinking about what photography is—or what a photographer is—or how he sees street photography is very similar to mine.

For example, we have to be human when photographing people. We shouldn’t take pictures sneakily.

When we take photos on the street, he says he wants to take photos of this street. Very specific. I like that thinking, because when I’m shooting on the street, I want to shoot the streets of Chicago. I want to show somehow—that this is the streets of Chicago (not just London or anywhere else in the world). I want to show that this is Chicago.

Davidson also says that photography is a challenge—something that challenges myself or. We always want to challenge ourselves, to take better photos.

“Lights in the City” at the Harold Washington Library Center

satoki bio

Photographer Satoki Nagata will give a multimedia presentation on his exhibit at the library, which includes two recent projects. Lights in Chicago is an exhibit of his street photography, where he uses innovative flash and long exposure techniques to capture people’s emotions living in the city. Cabrini-Green’s Frances Cabrini Rowhouses is a documentary project that focuses on the residents, where he has spent three years capturing intimate moments of their lives.

Photographs and movie preview will be shown in presentation. Movie is about people’s lives of Frances Cabrini Rowhouses and west-side of Chicago.

Exhibition dates: June 28-August 23, 2013

Time: 2:00pm

Location: Harold Washington Library Center. (Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center / 400 S. State Street 60605) – Google Map