5 Lessons Shomei Tomatsu Has Taught Me About Photography

SHOMEI TOMATSU | Coca-Cola, Tokyo, 1969
SHOMEI TOMATSU | Coca-Cola, Tokyo, 1969

I recently did a workshop at the studio of my friend Bil Brown, and was blown away with his awesome collection of Japanese photo-books. He re-sparked my interest in Shomei Tomatsu.

I’ve seen many images of Shomei Tomatsu before, and was intrigued by his mysterious, surrealistic, and extreme compositions. His photographs had a sense of darkness to them, longing, and a bitter-sweet nostalgia of the past.

Initial impressions of Shomei Tomatsu

Shomei Tomatsu - Eiko Oshima 1961
Shomei Tomatsu – Eiko Oshima 1961

In the West, we know all the American and European photographers, but the Eastern photographers are relatively unknown (except perhaps Daido Moriyama and Araki).

Wanting to learn more about Shomei Tomatsu and his work, I started to scour the web for interviews, quotes, and his images. I couldn’t find much— but consider this article as a brief accumulation of what I have learned personally.

Shomei Tomatsu was a photographer born in 1930, and passed away in 2012. He is generally considered one of the fore-fathers of the Japanese photography movement, inspiring other contemporaries such as Daido Moriyama.

Tomatsu was also one of the founding members of the “Provoke” movement in Japan— which started off as a small experimental Japanese photography magazine (co-founded by photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Koji Taki, and writer Takahiko Okada in 1968.

The magazine would try to provoke new ideas— and did so not only with photography, but with poetry, criticism, and new concepts. Below is the founding statement of intent from co-founder Koji Taki:

”We photographers must use our own eyes to grasp fragments of reality far beyond the reach of pre-existing language, presenting materials that actively oppose words and ideas … materials to provoke thought.”

The work of Shomei Tomatsu and the other co-founders of the “Provoke” movement deeply influenced Japanese photography in the 70s and 80s (Daido Moriyama joined in the second issue).

Chewing Gum and Chocolate by Shomei Tomatsu
Chewing Gum and Chocolate by Shomei Tomatsu

Shomei Tomatsu is best known for his surrealistic street photography and documentation of post-war Japan (especially documenting the tragedy of the atomic bomb). The work I was most drawn to was his book: “Chewing Gum and Chocolate” in which he wrote:

”In 1945, its cities devastated, Japan was inundated with American soldiers,“ he wrote. ”We were starving, and they threw us chocolate and chewing gum. That was America. For better or worse, that’s how I encountered America.”

“Chewing Gum and Chocolate” was a critical view on American culture— and the profound influence it had on Japanese society. His photographs are critical, sad, and devastating to the viewer.

Shomei’s work is relatively unknown, and I find deep inspiration in his dark and surrealistic work. Not only did he use photography as a socio-political statement, but he also used it was a way to better navigate himself through the post-war Japanese society.

Below are some excerpts of his thoughts and philosophies on photography— which have personally touched me:

1. Never stop watching

Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled from the series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, Yokosuka, 1959
Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled from the series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, Yokosuka, 1959

As a photographer, we are observers. We observe other people, we observe society, and whenever we find something that is personally meaningful— we click the shutter.

What Shomei Tomatsu said is that in photography, we are constantly watching. However what makes us different from others is that we don’t analyze or interpret the scene (like other professionals):

“Sometimes a photographer is a passenger, sometimes a person who stays in one place. What he watches changes constantly, but his watching never changes. He doesn’t examine like a doctor, defend like a lawyer, analyze like a scholar, support like a priest, make people laugh like a comedian, or intoxicate like a singer. He only watches. This is enough. No, this is all I can do. All a photographer can do is watch. Therefore, a photographer has to watch all the time. He must face the object and make his entire body an eye. A photographer is someone who wagers everything on seeing.” – Shomei Tomatsu

When I look at Shomei Tomatsu’s work, his work does have a deep criticism of American influence on Japan, and the atrocities of war.

However I think what Tomatsu is trying to say is that as photographers, our strongest asset is our eyes. As photographers, we must learn how to see. We must learn how to record, and while we don’t have the power and influence as other professionals, we can still make an impact through our images.

2. Distill your experiences

SHOMEI TOMATSU | "Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation and Fire, Nagasaki", 1961
SHOMEI TOMATSU | “Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation and Fire, Nagasaki”, 1961

“A single photograph is a mere fragment of an experience and, simultaneously, the distillation of the entire body of one’s experience.” – Shomei Tomatsu

Moments are fleeting. Experiences come and go. But photographs stay forever.

What makes photography unique from other forms of art is that it is the most instantaneous way of capturing a moment, expression, or feeling.

Photography is also incredibly personal. How can you distill your life experiences into a single frame?

3. Affirm your subject

SHOMEI TOMATSU | Hibakusha Tsuyo Kataoka, Nagasaki, 1961
SHOMEI TOMATSU | Hibakusha Tsuyo Kataoka, Nagasaki, 1961

“Sometimes when I face an object I feel revulsion. If that happens, I don’t release the shutter. Whatever one believes, the act of taking a picture implies the affirmation of the subject, whether consciously or not.” – Shomei Tomatsu

Photograph how you would like to be photographed. Shomei Tomatsu only photographs when he wants to affirm his subject. He doesn’t take photos when he feels revulsion.

When I’m out shooting on the streets, I want to document beauty and positivity in the world. I generally try to not take photos of homeless, the destitute, and those struggling.

However at the same time, we need to document the horrors and tragedies of the world. If nobody ever documented famine, violence, or war— how would future generations know what to avoid?

My practical advice in photography — follow your heart. If you feel that taking a photograph of a certain scene or person feels unethical to you; don’t click the shutter. Photograph what feels authentic to you.

4. The dream camera


As photographers we often are overly-obsessed with the gear. In my personal experience, I’ve found that small, unobtrusive cameras work the best. These cameras allow us to connect deeper with our subjects, without having any sort of barrier.

Shomei Tomatsu talks about his dream camera below (which strangely enough, sounds like a smartphone):

“I dream of a new kind of camera connected directly to the cerebral cortex. It should be no bigger than a pair of eyeglasses and no heavier than a hat. It would work continuously, automatically adjusting its shutter speed, aperture, and focus, zooming in a moment from extreme close-up to extreme long shot. The photographer would only have to think that he wants to take a photograph of a thing. The film would wind automatically, and you would be able to take a thousand photographs without changing it. It would be both black-and-white and color. Recording one’s position might be impossible, but the date and time of each photograph would show on the edges of the film—automatically, as on a calendar watch. With this new camera attached to my body, I would just shoot and shoot and shoot…” – Shomei Tomatsu (1968)

If you have the “photographic impulse” to shoot, scratch that itch. Use a small, compact, and unobtrusive camera. It might be your smartphone, or a compact point-and-shoot. It might be a bigger camera. It doesn’t matter— as long as you are able to focus on making images and experiencing life.

It doesn’t matter how many megapixels or detail you have in your images. What is most important is that you are a keen observer of reality, that you interpret the scene from your perspective, and that your photos provoke a certain emotional response to the viewer.

5. Contemplate

SHOMEI TOMATSU | Untitled (Yokosuka), from the series "Chewing Gum and Chocolate", 1959
SHOMEI TOMATSU | Untitled (Yokosuka), from the series “Chewing Gum and Chocolate”, 1959

“In short, [photography] is a matter of turning loneliness into thoughts.” – Shomei Tomatsu

For me, I find photography is a way to take a more “zen” approach to life. Photography help me slow down, and better notice and appreciate the things around me.

A lot of photographers are lonely, and use the camera as a tool to keep them company. And when we make photographs, we think about what we are doing, why we are taking photos, and meditate upon our thoughts.

When you are shooting, are you in a contemplative or meditative mood? Does your photography cause you to think more, or less? When you shoot, are you in the “zone” or do you enter into a “flow state”?

What I think Shomei Tomatsu is trying to say is this: use your camera as a tool to document the world around you, to contemplate on society and the world, and provoke an emotional response in your viewer.


Shomei Tomatsu | Boy and the Sea, Tokyo 1969.
Shomei Tomatsu | Boy and the Sea, Tokyo 1969.

There is still a lot I don’t know about Shomei Tomatsu— I recommend you to pick up his books, and see the emotional response you get from his images. Read the features below to learn more about him, and also read some more of his quotes to get more into his mind:

  • “Photography means releasing oneself from one type of gravity and placing oneself in a space where a different force is trying to move you.”
  • “In this, photography is the same thing as love. When my gaze, diving into the sea as my subject, converges with the act of photography, hot sparks fly at the point of intersection.”
  • “A photographer looks at everything, which is why he must look from beginning to end. Face the subject head-on, stay fixed, turn the entire body into an eye and face the world.”
  • “Let’s say that I sleep an average of six hours a day—that leaves eighteen hours: 64,800 seconds. If I take a photograph in 1/1000th of a second, then the slice of time represented by that picture is 1/64, 800,000th of one day…”

Books by Shomei Tomatsu

Chewing Gum and Chocolate by Shomei Tomatsu
Chewing Gum and Chocolate by Shomei Tomatsu

Features on Shomei Tomatsu

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