Interview: Tatsuo Suzuki
The Punk Who Photographs Gritty Shibuya
MONØMANIA did an exclusive interview with Tatsuo Suzuki, the man who documents Shibuya and also the founder of the street photography collective, Void Tokyo. The photos below are a preview to his self-published zine series, aptly named “Tokyo Street,” which is released quarterly since 2019.
Meeting the man in the flesh
I first met and interviewed Tatsuo Suzuki in mid-2017 for a feature of Void Tokyo on my then-publication, Frame Zero. We met at Moyai Statue, the lesser famous meetup spot near Shibuya Station. At that time, I instantly knew that he was unlike other Japanese, who would conveniently ask to meet at Hachiko Statue, just because it was more popular. Weird, but good. I wasn’t mistaken.
He was with a co-member of Void, Tadashi Onishi, who helped us with the English translations. I followed both gentlemen as they walked towards Top Coffee, an underground cafe just a couple of minutes away from The Scramble. We had a long talk about Void Tokyo and I admired how promising the project was, until now.
In the same year, special thanks to Japan Foundation Manila, I was fortunate to invite Tatsuo as the only visiting artist from Japan at MONØMANIA, which was then a black & white photography fair in Manila. He was warmly welcomed by Filipino image-makers and through his artist talk, translated by Celene Sakurako, he instilled a highfalutin inspiration to all of us. I am eternally grateful for his presence at that event.
In 2018, when I was still studying the Japanese language, I met with Tatsuo again. I almost became his English teacher as he was preparing for a trip overseas. Unfortunately, I was still living in West Tokyo and I was too far from where he lives (somewhere in Kanagawa), and we couldn’t come up with a good schedule.
In the same year, however, I joined Void Tokyo’s street photography competition in Koenji and was part of their group exhibition at Clouds Art + Coffee. There, I realized how so many people, locals and foreigners alike, look up to Tatsuo and his love for the craft. I didn’t wonder why, though. I was one of them, anyway. I understood how they exactly felt.
Come 2019, I met with Tatsuo for an interview for MONØMANIA — at that time it was for this publication. We were assisted by Chihiro Kobayashi, a good friend, who also happens to be Tatsuo’s editor and designer. Again, we were at Top Coffee and I realized that nothing has changed in the past couple of years — the cafe’s atmosphere still smelt like an incubation of smoking salarymen. But more importantly, Tatsuo still possessed that non-intimidating attitude and the kindest smile, ready to entertain my questions in staggering Japanese.
Although it’s a fact that Tatsuo used to be a musician, I wouldn’t refer to him as an ex-punk because he’s been living the punk rock lifestyle to date. Before I met him in person, his photographs already spoke to me on a different, inexplicable level. It went beyond seeing in black & white. It had something to do with the emotions I felt as I went through his photographs online. I assumed the one behind the camera was a man (I don’t know why) but I never imagined what he was like.
Band shirts, like that of The Cramps, that have been worn through time and frequent use, a compact camera dangling down his right wrist, and a set of eyes that are quick to notice any shot-worthy scene — these three things sum up what Tatsuo looks to me.
Tatsuo started photography about 12 years ago using a bulky Nikon digital SLR. The sight of homeless people lured him to take portraits of them, albeit from a distance. Stealing scenes from their daily lives in a distance eventually bored him. Later on, he found himself exchanging stories with the homeless, knowing about their lives, and taking close-up portraits that reflect their unfortunate lifestyle.
“At first, I only shot pictures of the homeless because their appearance had a huge impact on me. When I knew about how they became homeless, that impact grew stronger. This is why I continued documenting them for several years.”
Most of the homeless people whom Tatsuo encountered had mental illnesses. He called it, “sickness of the heart,” like half of their lives are left in delusion or suffering from schizophrenia or depression.
This challenged him to take the homeless’ portraits. Knowing intimate details about their lives, like understanding how most of them think that tomorrow they might eventually die, kept him away from them.
And while he tried to avoid his first subjects, he slowly shifted into using a mirrorless Fujifilm camera and took candid street snapshots instead. He delved into “encountering moments” and making distinct compositions to create photographs. Since then, his Tatsuo’s photography metamorphosed from a hardened pupa to Kafkaesque creations.
The street, its people, and music in between
Tatsuo’s photography, to me, has a heavy gravitational force. It has a push: seeing his photographs on Instagram, for example, makes me zoom the image here and there. If it featured a model or another artist as his model, it makes me curious about that person, too.
And it has a pull: seeing Tatsuo’s photographs make me moves a few steps back. I sometimes find myself examining his superb composition and how he comes up with such pieces that leave a mark in my photographic memory.
Out of all the Japanese black and white photographers whose works I follow, Tatsuo’s work is the most distinctive. And because there are too many street photographers in Tokyo, almost all images bear the same approach, the same story, sometimes even the same light and shadow. This saturation could be disheartening, at least to me.
It’s quite different from Tatsuo’s approach and style. Even though as I interviewed for this piece, I also really couldn’t pinpoint yet what constitutes that push and pull. Until I asked him about what music meant to his photography.
Tatsuo’s good taste as a musician is reflected in his photography. As he did when he used to play the guitar, his emotions and intentions remain synchronized. Like how his fingers used to strum his guitar, he flicks the shutter button to create a magnificent clash against his subjects. A bad collision. A high tension. Both which yields powerful imagery. The semblance is uncanny.
“I go along with solid beats. The tension and the sensations. Rough and tingling. With these, I produce spicy pictures. Simply rock and roll.”
Japanese photography in the future tense
Shooting in the same place for several years could be a huge challenge for many photographers. Scenes can be repetitive and having the same routine could be a chore. But Shibuya, Tatsuo’s chosen turf, has been rapidly evolving, especially for the last five years. And it’s constant changes make Tatsuo more adaptive, more versatile, and more unique in expressing his ideas and thoughts through photography.
“Shooting, selecting, developing, and then looking back. That is the repetition and it’s painstaking. Of course, you can take a picture without thinking, but you end up with similar photos. So how do you overcome this? Street photography involves a certain amount of risk; it can be quite tiring. If you feel tired, you won’t be able to take good photos. To me, proper rest is needed to take proper photographs.”
But what “makes” a Tatsuo Suzuki photograph?
I asked him this question and I didn’t get what I was looking for. It took me a long while to finally get answers by myself. I interviewed Tatsuo about five months ago, but aside from timing, I also struggled to find the words to complement/compliment his pictures. As I write this now, I realized I didn’t need to overthink because his pictures strongly speak alone to whoever views it.
True enough, his works summoned me to a personal level — they remind me of the many reasons why I love Japan. Each reason deserves a single story, which will take a lot longer for me to ruminate on.
Tatsuo Suzuki is actively contributing to the future of Japanese photography. Through the group effort of Void Tokyo, a street photography collective that aims to record the visual changes in Tokyo as the 2020 Olympics approaches, Tatsuo and the gang have influenced both established and emerging photographers to keep the game strong. Void Tokyo is now on its sixth volume.
Through Tokyo Street, Tatsuo continuously develops his perspective. In it, aside from candid street snaps, he also highlights portraits of other artists and models. It is a convulsion of gritty Tokyo and black and white noise. Tokyo Street is now on its third issue, which can be bought online and via select stores in Tokyo.
More than being known in Japan, Tatsuo Suzuki’s photography is highly recognized in Europe and America. Recently, he graced the pages of Pen Online, and soon, his long-waited publication with Steidl will materialize in May of this year.
I am one lucky soul to have personally met Tatsuo-san for a bunch of times, so please excuse my fangirling derp face in the above photos. That’s just how down-to-earth he is. He is, indeed, one of the most approachable yet most bad-ass photographers that I look up to and I will continually keep in track of his new projects until he gets tired of doing it. But the latter’s just impossible.
To get a deeper understanding of Tatsuo Suzuki’s photographs, one must look at and listen to them closely and distantly, and then closely again. And again, and again.
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