For my first interview I was able to sit down with a friend made during 2002 while living in San Francisco. He recently relocated to New York to take full advantage of the short remaining time on his visa. New York beckons as one of the most challenging locations in the United States and a point where the world, its cultures, industries and ideas merge to create new forms of human expression.
Joji Shimamoto grew up in Chiba, Japan, a place he compared to New Jersey because of its size and proximity to Tokyo. We sat down at the ‘Bar and Grill’ on 83rd and Amsterdam in Upper Manhattan for a few pitchers of Kirin to discuss his creative philosophy. He is what I would refer to as a hands on type of photographer. Attempting to do a lot more with the photo then just use the moment captured. He works to create new ways for the viewer to see into the moment, past, present, and future. Most recently delving into color, he believes his eye sight has now changed from his previous focus on black and white a greater confidence in what he captures in color. Not that being published means one photo or photographer is better than another, but it is sure to help build confidence. Joji has most recently had two photo’s of Venice Beach released in the Japanese publication ‘Tokion.’ Just the night before this interview he’d organized and promoted a roof-top party in Brooklyn. With full on DJ’s spinning and wall displaying his photography experiments with light boxes back lighting particular photos wrapped around the box he gathered the peoples reactions into feedback on his work.
Joji Shimamoto catches the light. “I do photography, always catch the moment, but now as I’m making the light, maybe I’m thinking about more mixed media as my next form of shooting pictures and present some other style.”
Moments of Truth~ You develop your photos different too, using some interesting techniques like splashing and drips. How do you come up with those ideas?
JS~ Actually I began using those elements in High school, because the first time there I was in the darkroom with no teachers and had a kind of freedom to do anything. Tools were scarce, there was a brush so it was like I was drawing with the developer and maybe two or three years later, at the dark room in college I thought “I wanna do it [dark room development experiments done during high school] again.”
MOT~ Do you know why you gravitate toward photography versus other mediums like say painting, sculpting, music or design?
JS~ Because photography is like reality, it’s the only way I can show my life of reality, and, yea, I guess it’s like pure trueness to me captured through taking pictures. I think the most key thing is that when I was in high school, I had the key to the dark room and if I was bored with school so all the time, say well even night time you know or be up around dawn, I’d get done with whatever I was doing and go to the dark room and smoke cigarette, it was a safe spot to smoke cigarettes with the red light and they had a small CD player. I would bring my favorite CD and just listen to music, smoking cigarettes and printing all the time.
MOT~ And this was back in high school?
JS~ That’s right. Eight years ago, not that long.
MOT~ Still going strong, still love it?
JS~ Yea, but like I would change a little bit, like the presentation. The way to show the people my pictures, a little bit different. But like my main things is still the same, just taking my life, what I saw and sharing my view. Because now I’m spending time in New York City one Japanese kid set in. . . most Japanese people don’t get to spend time here, and I just want to show them what life is like over here, yea.
MOT~ So where exactly did you grow up, what was it like? Your community, how would you describe your neighborhood?
JS~ It’s nothing. It’s like deserted, forty minutes train ride to Tokyo, and everyone is always going to Tokyo to have fun. When I was in junior high school I was hanging out with kids that were kind of considered gangsters. My parents worried about it, because I wouldn’t go home for like five days at a time, just hang out at my friend’s house.
MOT~ Do you think your environment and that situation influenced your views; how you approach the photography, capturing life around you?
JS~ Oh yea, sure, a little bit, because I think every kids always they like, I’m not sure how to best say it, but they want to be gangster or bad people, and I did too. So I just saw that and tried to be cool. No more though, it’s stupid [trying to be a bad person to be cool] but it’s like a version of having fun with the homies, you might get caught up in doing some bad stuff that’s my junior high school times. Around this same time is when I began skateboarding. Now it’s much more common to find someone skating in Japan, but when I started skating, skaters equaled bad boys [an activity that was initially looked down on by Japanese elders].
MOT~ Ah, okay, so is that why you started skating?
JS~ Nah, I remember the first time I saw skate, at some park in Tokyo, I mean I’d kind of skate even when I was six or five but I could only do this, [tapping his hands on the table as if he has a mini-skateboard in his fingers he motions just the most basic type of movement] I didn’t know how to ollie, and in junior high school when I saw an ollie for the first time I thought “what the fuck, jumping, oh so cool! I want to do that,” and I started. I was lucky, because in Japan skateboards are so expensive, like three times as much [as the US].
MOT~ What, like $300.
JS~ Yea, say for everything complete. Some three hundred something or more. But I got a deck from my friend’s cousin, we went to skate with him and I said “I want to go” and he let me use this deck, graffiti on it, but it didn’t last long. After about two weeks it had broke. Skating is one of the key points for my life because in skate you have so many people and so many things I can see from skating. So many things I’ve learned from skating, like attitude, how to talk to people, how to approach the world. Because skaters just do it man, doesn’t care about it, if some one says stop you’ll stop and move on, but they’re not going to go up and ask, never asking, just straight skate. That has been something I’d apply to my shooting. Now I do it a little different. But before I’d just walk up and be shooting, and if someone said “Stop!” then I’d stop. The same approach as skating. (finished with a soft chuckle)
MOT~ That’s just how you get down. Just do it! So what do you think inspires you the most to keep you motivated and energized to keep going?
JS~ Actually, I would say two or three things. One is like from my friends, my friends come out in a book, get their work published, having a good project and getting a lot of exposure or if I’m looking at magazines and say find Kento’s or Dustin’s picture accidentally I think “oh shit I want to like keep going.”
MOT~ So some healthy competition a little bit with your peers?
JS~ Yea, I might say that. If I see you doing good I want to push too. Another is from my old pictures. I could be going through old negatives and never printed this picture, but maybe three years later I see the picture and wonder “why didn’t I print this one?” And think, hmm “oh, I have some good pictures.” Motivation often comes from an event like yesterday, I threw the party and showed people my work and they might say “Wow, that’s great” and I believe I’m doing good. Yea, because I some times worry about it, “how am I doing” but once I have a good exhibition or show the people, I receive a lot of feedback and know to keep going. Just sharing with people.
MOT~ What’s another, do you think? Another reason for motivation, you describe the competition, exhibiting your pictures and getting feedback, vibing off of people…
JS~ And well, I would saaaaayyy, ummm “Love.” (said in a low voice with a soft embarrassed giggle)
JS~ Yea, Love. Because I’ve learned recently if I like someone I will do more, because I want to show her my way show them. If I have a lover I can do much better.
MOT~ You think so?
JS~ Yes, but like a real one. Yea, yea (at this point a little nervous about this thread of the subject) hahahaha. But I think motivation is going to be about what somebody likes or other
I just want to share [with] most people.
MOT~ Do you think while you were learning photography, say in high school, did you have a mentor, or anybody that inspired you?
JS~ (shaking his head and digging deep) Actually my school mate, she’s Korean, she’s really into photography. We the main ones to use the dark room. Her stuff is more fashion, like taking people. At that time I took mostly cityscapes, cities with people.
MOT~ Did you learn anything from her?
JS~ Just like different approach. I think mostly just me, I think about it and it came out. My photography is one idea and theirs is theirs. They’re taking their life and I mine. It’s different, I can only capture my life.
MOT~ So how did you learn about photography, the different equipment and processes? By reading books, talking to people…?
JS~ I just learn the basic, the very basic, how to print, develop the film, that’s it. Because in high school there wasn’t really a teacher. The teacher was a beginner too, learning it all for the first time too, we are learning together, no assignment just shoot shoot shoot and print print print. That’s how I came up with my style.
MOT~ What do you think about the difference between digital and film?
JS~ I don’t care actually. Like my ideas don’t matter if it’s film or digital, it’s about catching a good moment, a good picture is good. I’m not doing Photoshop stuff. I do like film though, because you have to wait to see it, sometimes there are surprises there. Digital is about grabbing a moment and sharing while film is developed in the dark room and seen by only me, and going “je je je.” So for fine art I like film, because I can do more.
MOT~ Before you go out shooting, do you have any exercises, or do you just have your camera with you all the time?
JS~ Generally I had my camera all the time, but this year it’s changing a little bit. Now I am making a once a week book, so I have to shoot it. Sunday is always a deadline…
MOT~ Is it a personal deadline?
JS~ Yes, a personal deadline for the personal book. Sometimes Sunday [comes around] and I don’t have enough pictures to make the book [forcing me] to go out and shoot it. Today I didn’t carry a camera because I wanted to take a rest. That’s why I’d like to have a small camera in my pocket, just in case. So many things are going on, and I want to shoot everything. Catch as much as I can. Like on the subway tonight I saw some kids. . .
(Then I rudely interrupt suggesting Joji take some pictures with my camera and we don’t get to finish that story)
MOT~ Are there any books or specific resources that help you?
JS~ A book by one of the best photographers in Japan, shoots everything, maybe every moment. Seeing his book inspired me, changed my photography a little bit.
MOT~ Do you think there’s a point when it’s too much?
JS~ No, I don’t think it’s ever too much. I think too much is good (in the background a siren blares, and you see his eyes light up at the prospect of a great photo op) I think art if you are happy, happy with it, with what you’re doing it’s not too much. If you are happy with what you’ve created, that’s art.
MOT~ How would you describe your process, from your idea to going out and finding things, finding moments, your flow from beginning to end?
JS~ (A long pause)
MOT~ Have you ever thought about it?
JS~ No, not really. Actually, I do have some time line. Shoot shoot, I would say while I am shooting pictures there’s something, because when I see the old pictures I can get back to the point. I don’t know how to explain, photography sometimes tells the future, and sometimes I can go back to a picture, and remember what followed and it was like those pictures predicted the future. I think that the process of developing the negative, well, so many processes in filming. I shoot it and put it inside in my brain, then print out the film, and look through all the negatives to choose the one to print. That’s the process. A really good moment is going to be remembered.
MOT~ Do you think a really good moment is emotional, an emotional connection or more a spiritual connection?
JS~ I would say spiritual connection with the moment. Sometimes it’s scary. One example, I got arrested recently right, before I got arrested I’d made a book using for the back cover using a picture of a kid posing near the police car, kind of making fun of the police. After getting out, a couple days later I was shooting and a the picture I took happens to look like a girl in jail. It’s spiritual. Anyway, I would say the process is a making of my lifeline, making my history.
Trying to capture the moment is also like capturing a parallel world. And the blurriness [helps represent] the difference from the reality, you know.
(At this point, the beer, lack of good sleep, or the back ground action is starting to takes its toll on me. I’m about to miss a pretty profound explanation of Joji’s work and philosophy. Luckily for me he takes the time to expand on this idea)
JS~ I like blurry pictures, the movement, it’s like drawing sometimes [with light] and I when I try to capture the moment also capture the modern world. Ten years later my pictures [taken now are] gonna be [like] I was in a parallel world, because I’m trying to shoot not normal stuff, it’s normal but different the variety of a drama moment. Not quite the answer to the question but, hmm, that’s what comes to mind, my life.
MOT~ How do you know when something’s done, or pick out that picture that you like?
JS~ It’s automatic, I just know.
MOT~ Well, how do you feel, what is it inside you telling you this? I mean well why is one better then another?
JS~ Ahh, it’s all good, (laughs)… I have no idea. I would say that they touch me, maybe it looks like a movie shot or something. It’s hard to describe.
At this point our conversation trails off into other matters for about ten minutes before this women wanting to buy a cigarette interrupts us. Actually, I think he made about $3 selling three cigarettes to different folks randomly asking if he’d sell them one. They followed through and paid up, I was surprised. He liked to point out that the brand was ‘Peace’. So it seems proper to end this with the stock phrase:
“Peace, I’m out.”
For some great examples of his work, stop by his lower east side Manhattan show at Sunita bar 106 Norfolk St in New York near the Essex subway stop. And be sure to drop by his web site Jojiphoto.com or become his friend at myspace.com/jojiphoto.