The photos are of people I approached on Tokyo streets, mainly in the Aoyama/Omotesando area, between 2000 and 2004.
2000, the year I began photographing people, was a period of drastic change in my life time when I had lost the confidence to go on living. As it happened, my apartment was just a short walk from Omotesando and Aoyama, so I often found myself wandering into that lively neighbourhood, gazing at the passers-by and the people perched on roadside railings or seated in open-air cafes. They all seemed like players acting out their roles on life’s stage. Each individual appeared so unique that I never tired of looking at the passing parade. In fact, I discovered I was able to lose myself when watching people.
Some of those players seemed to have a special presence. Intrigued, I felt an urge to capture them on film. Until then I had only photographed people who posed for me, and had never aimed my camera at complete strangers. I did not think I could ever do such an invasive thing.
Although my world had fallen apart, I had not lost the ability to take photos. One day I made up my mind. I remembered the backup camera that had been resting in the bottom of my camera bag, always on standby in case of trouble with my main work camera. It would be less off-putting than professional equipment. I attached a standard 50 mm lens to this simple camera and walked out on the stage. Ever since, it has been the only camera I’ve used.
At first I was too timid to aim the camera at anyone. It took me several days of warming up, waiting for people to look away before I took shots… until that one person appeared. Unconsciously I aimed the camera and clicked the shutter.
“Not so fast! You just took my photo didn’t you? Twice in fact! I heard the shutter twice!” Ah… she’s perfectly right to be incensed, I thought. I froze for a second, but then mustered courage, apologized, assured her that I would feel exactly the same if in her position, explained that I would not be able to capture a natural expression if I had first asked permission, and promised to give her the photos and film in a few days. She calmed down, apologized for being so annoyed at the outset, told me something about herself, and gave me words of encouragement. In those few minutes, the glimmerings of a friendship appeared.
Later, when developing those photos to cabinet size, her severe glance attested to my existence… the existence that I had so recently wanted to eradicate.
That day was my baptism as a portrait photographer. Ever since, I have spent my days in this pursuit. That first experience convinced me to try to communicate as much as possible before and after taking photographs. I fully understand how objectionable it is to be photographed off-guard. Sometimes people refuse outright, some days I can traipse all over without encountering just the right subject, and on occasion I find myself in hot water.
When I come across people with that special presence and experience the joy of knowing that the photo will work, all my concerns evaporate. Without the camera, we would simply pass each other by. However, when they permit me to photograph them, they are in a sense accepting me, which has steadily restored my confidence to go on living.
Instead of selecting a specific category of subjects, I only photograph people who move me. The locale is a rather limited area of Tokyo but the subjects include a variety of nationalities, ages and occupations. My finished work springs from those brief intervals on the streets when my subjects and I cross paths for the first and probably the last time.
In my life, everything seems to be like those subjects?appearing briefly and then disappearing. I have gained a new appreciation for the immediacy of photography as the sole means of recording constantly changing subjects at a particular instant in time. The subtlest transitions in moods are reflected in facial expressions at such split-second rates that no matter how fast the shutter clicks the resulting photos always witness the changes.
Most of the subjects were photographed on busy streets, yet in the moment of that one-to-one connection they emanate a tranquil, profound presence.
In the process of being photographed, these people have shared with me a tiny fragment of time in this very short life. Each occasion has been very precious, as in the spirit of the tea ceremony“ichigo ichie” (once in a lifetime). They lived at the same time as I did, these people in my photos. Each of them glanced in my direction, so that when photographing them I felt I was also recording a little of myself.
Shirley Ann Johnson
2004.10 Himeko Kodama Passers-by
published by Creo, Tokyo, Japan
94 b/w pictures
Edition : Hard cover