Satoki Nagata: How to Stay Inspired and Motivated in Your Photography Long-Term

Satoki Nagata is a photographer-artist I deeply admire. When I heard he was in a deep depression with his photography, I was shocked. Fortunately he is currently re-gaining his photographic wings– and producing new images. In this interview and feature, Satoki shares some personal thoughts on re-gaining motivation and creative ability in his photography and creative life:

ERIC: Once you achieve so much success (light series, street and documentary series)— how do you stay inspired to keep creating new things?

SATOKI: I lost motivation and creative ability for two and half years. It was in depression-phase.

This screen shot represents how my photographic activity changed in recent 10 years. These numbers show how many images I processed including raw files from camera and edited images by Lightroom. Fig 1.

satoki lightroom
Fig 1: Photos processed in Lightroom by Satoki. Note the considerable dip in 2017 and 2018.

I consciously started photography as art in early of 2009.

In 2012, number was decreased but it was not a bad sign. From practices in previous years, I understood photography and found my style so I executed more carefully and made less discarded shots.

In summer of 2015, I went to mild depression phase for couple of months. I recovered by the end of 2015 and fairly good phase until summer of 2016.

Then I went to deep depression phase until 2019 which I have never experienced. I did not just stop doing photography but I could do nothing. I could not touch cameras, computer. I rarely checked E-mails and completely stopped SNS activities. I could not engage with outside world for two and half years.

My experience looks extreme, but it is, I think, every photographer faces similar situation more or less; lost motivation.

Continuing is from Satoki:

Why I lost motivation?

I had two main long-term projects; fine art street photography “Lights in Chicago” and traditional documentary “Frances Cabrini Rowhouses”. I was working on these projects for 5+ years and these projects were near completed.

I could not find next project that I could focus on. From this reason and others, I frustrated and later it caused me stress and anxiety. It was complicated. I lost motivation because of depression or I went to depression because of lost motivation? Bad cycles occurred.

What was it like being in this phase for matters pertaining to photography?

I could not go out and shoot at all. I could not touch camera. I declined, or lost opportunities such as assignment works, exhibition and publishing opportunities, or others.

These opportunities did not help to re-motivate photography but caused stress and strengthened anxiety. I did about 10% of them and that was my limit in this phase.

How I recovered from this phase?

These things I did might help to recover from depression and re-motivate myself:
a. writing
I could not produce any new images but occasionally I could think and write about my photography and other matters. I wrote how I started photography, why I liked it, what was the philosophy behind my work, etc.  
b. fixing stuff
Initially I could not touch my camera equipments but later in some point, I picked up them. I cleaned camera and replaced screen protector. I bought new lens filter and replaced it, and fixed homemade focus tab of one of my favorite lens. I fixed favorite boots, jacket and coats those I used when I went out to shoot in the past. This process made me feel that anything can be fixed.
c. go through previous images I made before
I tried to find my favorite images I did not choose before from computer. It was as if I went out and made new images, for remembering process of photographic activities.
d. help from friends
Many friends in Chicago as well as through SNS helps me a great deal from the bottom to recovering phase. I posted about my depression in Facebook in January 2019 and I received many messages and comments. Some people in Chicago took me out and talked with me, visited galleries and museum. One of photography exhibition at Art Institute of Museum was excellent and certainly it was help me to remember how art helps our minds.  
e. go out and shoot
I did stop making “Lights in Chicago” series in 2016. At that time, I thought project was complete. 
In January 2019, when we had a snow in Chicago, I finally went out with camera and flash. I received a short E-mail from one of photographer’s friend. It was just a regular E-mail asking how am I doing lately and about his recent update of photographic activity. With some reason, this E-mail made me go out with camera. I was still in bad condition so I said to myself “just one click will be fine, no need to think good images, just one click”. That first day, I clicked four times. No satisfied images as expected but something was changed inside me. I went out to shooting following two weeks and made some new satisfied images. That was I think the time my long depression phase finally touched the bottom.

In conclusion(?) 

When we feel frustration and lose motivation, keep in mind that we do not lose interest in photography.

During process of pursuing photography, we always face the limit and get stuck, and not easy to overcome it. This causes frustration and sometimes leads to lose motivation. It is quite normal and actually important process to become a better photographer.

To push your own limits and to expand your vision is a tough challenge, and very uncomfortable– so you can lose motivation. Sometimes it is so hard that we feel we want to abandon photography.

How to deal with the situation?

Well, there might be various way depending on each case. Since we cannot make new images, probably it is a good time to think consciously what and why photography and what is the goal. And, intriguingly, we realize that for searching answer of these questions, we do photography. 

Ultimately, to go out and keep shooting might be the only way to re-motivate ourselves.

From Lights in Chicago 2019.

“Lights in Chicago series” are mostly focused on visually aesthetic images. This image has such “Lights in Chicago series” characteristics with the element of our society in 2019. For me, this is different and something new than I made before:

Michigan Avenue, Chicago 2019

From Lights in Chicago 2019.This image is visually different than before. I chose dark background in “Lights in Chicago series”. To find different vision, I tried to do in brighter ambient lighting condition. Image could communicate different atmosphere or feelings from previous images.

Michigan Avenue, Chicago 2019

From Lights in Chicago 2019.

Similar idea of previous image, I tried to make images in bright area with hard and big snowflake, and thick snow background. I did not chose this type of condition before. In the result, image became very different than previous images with some elements I could not capture before. It is abstract-type yet street elements are clearly see. I like clock, “time” element in the image. 

Michigan Avenue, Chicago 2019

These three images are made in 2019 but basically same vision of previous “Lights in Chicago” series.

Grand Avenue, Chicago 2019

Columbus Drive, Chicago 2019
Chicago Avenue, Chicago 2019

Photographer film maker

Born and raised in Japan, Satoki Nagata first came to the United States as a scientist. After ten+ years in the field of neuroscience, Satoki recognized the connective limitations of science. He soon thereafter reallocated his professional focus on visual creatives

“Definition of Street Photography”

“Images created from the photographers’ distinct point of view to capture the dynamics between humans and their created outdoor environments”

The streets are created by us, humans. We alone have the ability to create, we lead our lives in the environments that we create. Thus, the points of creation and inhabiting are closely related.

Street photography therefore is the attempt to capture these dynamics through photographic images, from the photographers’ individual and distinct point of view.

Satoki Nagata
Chicago 2016

Satoki Biography

From the practice of Zen Buddhism I have learned that our existence is composed of interconnected relationships. This notion has inspired me to use photography to reveal and establish such dynamics and connections.

While in Japan, I attended graduate school where I gained Ph.D. degrees in Neuroscience. After moved US in 1992, I started using camera and capture the people and city of Chicago. I learned photography from photojournalist Damaso Reyes.

Professional long-term project started in 2009 with “Chicago Redline station”, later it was expanded to “Cabrini-Green: Frances Cabrini Rowhouses” in 2010. These projects pervades to the present along with all the projects that have emerged from my continuing practice.

Photography is driven by vision and content. I find my subjects by following the currents and finding the social whirlpools of metropolitan Chicago.

I started using a off camera flash on streets in late 2011 to search different images which became my another series called “Lights in Chicago”. Through unique illuminations, I aim to capture social and cultural complexities within our society. In opening my own mind to new and often frightful vulnerabilities, I offer the viewer an opportunity for parallel understanding and connectivity.

Satoki Nagata

Contact Satoki

0.7 m The Magnificent Miles from Satoki Nagata on Vimeo.

Satoki Interviews

Satoki Nagata: People and their life in Chicago

Satoki Nagata: Documenting the World to Discover Yourself

Chicago Lights: Flash Street Photography by Satoki Nagata

Satoki Nagata Interview: Why Each Photograph Must Communicate Ordinary Life’s Complexity

Starry Street Photos of Chicago Captured Using an Off-Camera Flash


The .7 Meter Challenge
The Humanistic Street Photographer: Interview with Satoki Nagata from Chicago

Inspired Eye
Interview with Satoki Nagata (Night Street Photography)

Satoki Nagata Interview: Why Each Photograph Must Communicate Ordinary Life’s Complexity

Chicago Lights Photography

Entrevistamos a Satoki Nagata, un japonés en las calles de Chicago

Quel romantico inverno a Chicago

Diffusion UK
Lights in Chicago: Satoki Nagata


My Modern Met
Glowing Silhouettes of Strangers in Chicago

インタビュー:世界が注目する写真家SATOKI NAGATA、光と影が織りなすLights in Chicago

THE ART OF LUMIX: Creators: Satoki Nagata
Lights In The City

Inside my camera bag – Street Photographer – Satoki Nagata

Huck Magazine
Satoki Nagata

SLR Lounge


Finding a visual voice through street & documentary photography – An Interview with Satoki Nagata

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