Photoessay: Isolation in Tokyo

A0000900 copy Reflections

The more time I spend in places like Tokyo – big cities, specifically – the more I get the impression that people fight harder and harder to maintain their own personal space; it’s almost as though there’s some strange inverse law that dictates the smaller the available physical space for each individual, the greater the social gulf between them. Cities seem to have become a collection of people who mostly happen to live together for reasons of convenience rather than community; this is visible in the lack of any sort of pride or loyalty in its inhabitants; it’s every man and woman for themselves. Perhaps the internet is partially to blame; we no longer have to actually know our neighbours and live with them; if we don’t like the people who immediately surround us, there are plenty of online communities full of others who are closer in interest – hell, this site is one of them.

A0000812 copy Separation

I’m not saying it’s a bad or good thing; it’s a fundamental shift in society that comes with the opening of communication across great distances. What I do find interesting from a social observation point of view is that it has fundamentally changed the behaviour of the individual, to well, make them seem more individual. Distinctiveness is emphasized/ encouraged and taken to extremes, in some cases. Yet – there are clearly a lot of other individuals who think the same way, because in a large number of cases, these people tend to congregate somewhere they feel comfortable; where they blend in to their surroundings. For that to happen, the surroundings must have been created – by somebody else who also understood and felt comfortable with that idea. Paradoxical, no? From a photographic standpoint, this creates a lot of subjects. As many of you will remember from previous photoessays and discussions on this topic, I’m spending more time photographing the idea of man rather than an individual man; this results in a lot of unidentifiable silhouettes or motion blurs or the general deindividualization of the human. (I’m aware that it’s ironic for me to do this at all, because I’m effectively doing the same thing: separating myself as observer from the rest of the world.) This set is the opposite, but not quite: it is the idea of the isolated individual, but deliberately lacking that little something – call it a spark of captured personality, perhaps – that defines the individual. Tomorrow’s photoessay will be the opposite: swimming in packs. Or, you can simply not think about it too much and enjoy the images 🙂 In any case, I would like to provide a little more context and thought behind the rationale and whys of my image-making. MT This set was shot with a Hasselblad 501CM, CF 2.8/80 and CF 4/150 lenses and the CFV-39 digital back.

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Blending in, I

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Blending in, II

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A watched pot does in fact boil

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Blending in, III

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Blending in, IV

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When your hobby becomes your job

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Blending in, V

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Day’s end


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  1. I always find it interesting that you can even work in those street situations. Living in the west, particularly the Rocky Mountain west, people on the street are more rare then in larger cities, and thus the street photographer sticks out like a sore thumb… and folks around here are prone to give you a “look” like you’ve invaded their privacy beyond measure, even if you’re just holding a camera. They might not give you much of a second look if you’re shooting a Cartier-Bresson sized camera, but if you pull out a DSLR, you must obviously work for a newspaper, and that’s invasive unless there is a public event that warrants it. 🙂

    So in this instance, you have a relatively isolated population, with lots of room around them, but who’s spidey senses tingle at the mere presence of a camera. It’s far easier to do in a city like SF or Seattle. We are “bubble protective” around here, I guess. I’ve had people who suspected I took their photo who came up and insisted I delete it on the spot. Extreme privacy drowning in anonymous obscurity. Self-importance, witness protection, or paranoid delusion? And even when I shoot a very public event, I get people literally starring back into the camera as if to dare me to move my trigger finger. Make my day, punk. Thank heavens for the lowly humble NEX7, where you can appear to be fumbling with your gadget, completely uninterested in your “victim”. Better still, shoot via play memories, while appearing to answer a text. I envy the congested isolation you work in.

  2. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Reflections, Separation and Blending in II
    make me think of some of Giacomettis work …

    “.. it’s every man and woman for themselves.”
    Yes, but I often noticed that in many cities also long before the internet. But I agree with your analysis.

    It would be interesting to hear – or see – your views on differencies in the human atmosphere between e.g. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Prague, Tokyo?

    “.. pride ..”
    Comparing photos from the Western world and from Africa, I find pride in people much more often in Africans.
    I’ve often wondered why.
    ( One of my theories, they don’t use perambulators.)

    • Kristian, please, please, please, if you get a minute, give us your full theory on the prams: I have to know!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        It is, of course, just a guess!
        I believe (it’s only a belief) that always carrying a baby gives him/her a greater feeling of security and togetherness, compared to rolling him/her in a pram.
        And that might be a foundation for more confidence as the child grows, and perhaps also for being sure of oneself.
        As I said, just a guess…

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Other reasons might be found in
          Laurens Van Der Post : Jung and the story of our time.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Thanks for that—will look (and I’m a huge admirer of C.G. Jung and his ideas).

            On pride and prams: interesting. My Japanese friends asked me a similar thing about children sleeping in their own rooms. In Japan, kids sleep with their parents, same bed very often, until quite old; of course, in the West, even from newborn most kids are put in their own room—my Japanese friends asked me if I didn’t think this was strange and if it had an effect? I answered: being able to measure the size of the observable universe, yet not know what the weather will be in three days time with any great precision, that’s strange; Leo Messi being awarded “Player of the World Cup,” that’s strange—that you say tomahto and I say tomayto, that’s the story of life. Does it have an effect? Impossible to answer! Assumes people are robots.

            Africans certainly stare the camera down with some interesting power. Though, I’m not quite sure how they feel about all this—if there’s one photo book we’ve all seen and will see again and again and again, it’s First World Photographer goes to Africa and Photographs Peasants. Nick Brandt documenting the disappearance of the eco-system on the Great Continent is more important and useful work, I think—though this is just the opinion of one random internet guy. And it’s not to say I’m not interested in Africans… I just feel like we might be damaging them and ourselves somehow, by making these endless studies. It makes me uncomfortable. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in prams 🙂

            Cheers Kristian

            • Isn’t the separation of children a very western thing? Once you reach university age – off with you! In the east, it’s normal to live with your parents til marriage (and sometimes beyond); that said, I’m sure economics have more than a small part to play in this.

              I think you’re thinking subconsciously of Salgado 😉

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                Then there is another separation in the western world:
                Children are isolated in school, isolated from reality up in their twenties.
                Yet we all know that we learn how to live and work in the world best by imitation!

                Re. Salgado:
                I know, as yet, nothing about him.

                But he has an exhibition in Stockholm now.

                ( When will it be your turn at the Fotografiska? 🙂 )

    • Cities are getting more and more similar – though I feel there’s more human community/ companionship in the smaller cities. I think my photoessays from Amsterdam and Prague show that; can’t comment on Frankfurt as it’s still on my to-do list. I definitely felt it when I lived in New Zealand, though. One of the most friendly places on earth. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the physical environment, too?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Amsterdam is an international harbour.
        So is Gothenburg.
        And I find they have parallells in their atmosphere.
        And Gothenburg is much more practically managed than e.g. Stockholm.
        And I think there is a difference between German cities and Dutch cities.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Other examples:

        There is a special kind of friendliness and helpfulness in the north of Sweden, which I also found in the Outback in Australia.
        I think it comes from both places being very sparesly populated, people know they depend on each other.

        In two places in Germany I found an atmosphere that was much more alive and welcoming to strangers. I was told, both times, that the region was of old a throughfare for migration.

        • That might well have something to do with it, too. That said, NYC is perhaps one of the least friendly places on earth because of the lack of permanency…

  3. Ming, that first picture is just outstanding, even when compared to your usual high quality of work. I think it perfectly expresses your isolation of man in modern times theme.

  4. Hi Ming
    I often say your images lack soul, but this set really speaks to the soul of an übertech, ultraclean, megaurban civilization. I fully agree with your argument re solitude in the crowd, driven by electronic connectivity replacing physical involvement…
    Good stuff

    • Thanks – not everything requires blur and grain…personally, it’s not my preference of aesthetic, but I can see why it works for some things.

  5. As a long time resident of Tokyo, I’m never sure if it’s worth me chiming in on these, and previously I haven’t really dipped a toe in… But they are always nice sets and the photographs are impeccable. I used to feel confident judging your, and anyone’s, photos Ming, as I know what I like and I’m not uneducated in looking at pictures (motion pictures; I own over 500, seen most of them more than twice). During the course of trying to teach myself how to copywrite better, I went through a ton of literary criticism, and along the way I seem to have also picked up an idea or two about art from one of the great disciplines (literature). But of late, I’ve lost all appetite to have a say on images—I’m in this “it is what it is” period and it seems almost silly to me now to effectively grade, as it were, created images. It’s like that misses the point entirely.

    But on Tokyo—just one word: Thank God someone comes here and doesn’t attempt to be Daido Moriyama for the millionth time; or Bruce Gilden; I am sick and tired of the endless shower of “Tokyo street” images that always seem so precious—like a teenager’s art class homework. On the subject of people concurrently insisting on being individuals but congregating in packs and never truly diverging, Tokyo street photography is as good an example as any: we have legions of analog rangefinder and post-modern compact snappers, clobbering us over the head with their good taste and rejection of the rules, and spitting out badly focused, badly framed, obvious photos obviously about nothing—and trying to sell us that we’re looking at the work of an individual, someone with taste and a philosophy. The revolutionary image makers who never set foot outside of Shibuya/Ginza/Shinjuku/Nakano/all the usual places; the new and emerging exciting talents that come to Tokyo and go to all the same places that yes people who actually live in Tokyo notice at a glance and don’t find interesting because we’ve all seen the scenes and the people that the bright young things have found for the first time and present thinking that they’re saying something. I mean, forget even leaving Tokyo, which might be a good idea, but forget even leaving Tokyo: who has shot the financial district, for example? The “salary man” is a trite image that Tokyo street shooters like to present to us like a cat dragging a mouse in — as though men don’t wear suits and go to work where they come from — yet they never venture into the so-called “bed towns” to see the salary man stepping of his 1.5hr train commute to see his family, for who he does that 10hr day and three hour round trip Monday to Friday. They don’t because it would smash the slightly zoological bent all these photographs take. Which of these samey Tokyo street photogs goes the other way to catch their salary men in the City, in the a.m., doing their thing and keeping Japan PLC ticking over very nicely thank you very much? Not so many. But sloshed salary man on a Friday night knees up or random salary man minding his business going from A to B, we get rattled with them. In grainy underexposed 400TX and Tmax. To death. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. Maybe I’m wrong and it is something in the City that makes people do this… Even if it were: Thank God you escape the trend, Ming.
    My own view is that photography of Tokyo, if it’s going to show the inhabitants at a general non-specific level should be human—actually show people as people. I bet you nearly every traveller that comes here — even the hipster street shooters — leave talking about how kind and polite the Japanese are. And it’s hard to argue the point, indeed, they are very kind and polite. Yet they get shot and presented as though exotic animals in a zoo, by the same hipsters who just enjoyed their welcome. Photography of Tokyo should present a more honest picture of Tokyo—one of the safer, kinder, milder places on Earth.

    I can respect your take, Ming. People are not the very epicenter of your personal work generally and you don’t seek to do anything with them qua them specifically, in your off-the-clock photos; in fact, as you mention above, if anything you wish to withdraw any sense of character from the equation and keep the human element as neutral as possible. I can accept this take. It’s certainly more authentic than mega-close ups of high-school girls or OAPs or office workers on the trains, or signs in mistaken English (alert for Westerners! This might cut both ways!! Have you ever watched yourselves using chopsticks, or your wrongly stroked Chinese character tattoos, etc… but the Asians don’t really exercise their license to make sport of you, think about it), or 50 year old women out shopping, just trying to treat themselves to some nice stuff in the Ginza… you’re more authentic than that MT. I’m not sure if I’d say authentic to Tokyo—but I don’t sense that this was ever the mission here: it’s about this over-arching idea of yours, so in that case being authentic to the idea matters. It’s plain you did that.

    Congrats to whoever got the CFV39. Look at those colors!

    • Well, I for one am glad you did chip in, Tom – if I had a dollar for every time I was told that my work isn’t enough like [fill in the blanks], I’d be able to retire. But that’s the point in a nutshell, isn’t it: if Daido or Gilden or whoever was like whoever came before, then they wouldn’t stand out and they wouldn’t have their own distinct style and aesthetic. Copying them is not going to make images that stand out. Their images may provoke and be memorable by consciously enhancing discomfort, but I believe in going the opposite way – abstracting man, considering the environment/ context, and looking for balance and harmony instead. Natural/ transparent is the order of the day: I am observant and a conscious excluder, but I seek to present what is, not necessarily the preconceived impressions I wish to project on the world.

      As for the CFV-39: yes, gorgeous color. It remains the only camera which does not require me to make a custom profile or post-capture adjustments once white balance is set; it’s really that good. And I’m happy that it went to a very deserving chap, I think: he’s a fairly active member of the below-the-line commenters. I’m pretty sure you’ve corresponded with him, actually. 🙂

      • Aha!

        Yes, actually—harmony is an excellent choice of word. Thanks for that. It certainly captures your aesthetic well, without boxing you in too much; but it also brings out why your photos of Tokyo are a cut above since “harmony,” though the younger generations try to move away from tradition (nothing new there. Oh hey! did I manage a trick 🙂 ) plays an important part in the Japanese psyche.
        It’s not like the Japanese are the only people interested in harmony, and it goes without saying that humans as a species rate this quality, certainly the inexplicable satisfaction it brings to us, so we can find it anywhere we look in all cultures—but the Japanese stand out as a civilization that has placed harmony very highly in its Worldview. And even more apt, perhaps, as I get the inkling that “harmony” is more a visual word for the Japanese than the aural word it is for Westerners.

        Good choice of word.

        • Actually, I was told that my aesthetic is very much Japanese in balance and palette – if not minimalism. Perhaps it’s the subconscious influence of visiting pretty much every year for the last seven or so…

          • Could be.

            I think you’d enjoy the artworks in a recent copy project I’ve been working for the Kyoto National Museum: translating and copy editing and précising descriptions of artifacts and artworks. It’s fascinating work, and having the pleasure to look at all these creations I think there’s a unique balance between harmony, grace and rough organic perfection in imperfection that we might successfully label “Japanese.” Though to be sure, some of the museums artifacts from China and Korea exhibit similar qualities (though this may be self-selecting, i.e., the Japanese collectors, historical and modern, may only have bought in foreign works that hit their spot, so to speak).

            Can definitely assent to your photographs, your taste, feeling similar.

            • Hmm. I’ve never sold a print to Japan other than yourself though…

              • I’m not sure Japan has that thriving an art market to start with—even people who own their own homes tend not decorate the walls (invariably plain white; they don’t even try wallpaper). This said, I think it’s just time for the awareness to build; though as you know, it’s not like it’s a lucrative market we’re talking about in the first place. There are only so many people of high distinction, taste and refinement in Japan 🙂

                • Well, it’s not exactly easy to nail a frame to a shoji 🙂

                  • But might be interesting to project onto one 🙂

                    When we were looking for a house over here, traditional Japanese style ones were briefly on my list to look at precisely for shōji (障子)—built in diffuser panels as standard 🙂 With three kids though, the idea didn’t stand scrutiny. And then we saw what decent looking Japanese houses in Tokyo costed; and then we saw what the ones in our price range looked like…

                    Will be nailing your art to our western white walls this summer holiday, MT.

                    • I wouldn’t project onto it: but yes, the idea of using them as diffuser panels in a future home did cross my mind more than once (and the ceiling, and other walls…

    • Tom,
      your long piece against those that come into town (a town you obviously love and know well) and shoot it copying clichés both in terms of subject and in terms of style, well, ok, I may agree. Those film-toting rangefinder-happy grain-pushed guys are just what they are: people that have a preconceived notion about a city and try to monkey-duplicate it in the few days they have to give free rein to their aspirational exercise. Why, the same likely happens here in Paris, where few venture outside the usual suspects of tourist areas and seek anything other than Doisneau postcards. Oh well, let them do their thing. You do yours and be happy!

      • Thanks Giovanni. I’m happy! I regret the negative tint in my post, so sorry for that.
        I’m not interested enough in getting Tokyo to even try and capture this city; I’m also not good enough 🙂
        And the whole premise assumes that we can do something like capture a city with a still photograph. Can we? Can’t we? I can see an Albert Camus style meaning in an answer such as: well, we can try!

        And perhaps it’s these triers that bring the most original work.

        So I’m not interested in Tokyo… and recently I started to think what it was, if there actually was something, that I’m trying to get with photos. My answer for now is: my friends, my family. The rest is just me fluffing about. I do have a large amount of Tokyo randomness in my Flickr; but it’s just that, randomness. Not intended to be anything, or do anything; just me sating a shutter urge (and posting because I’m in love with myself!).
        I honestly wonder in this age of Globalization, how anyone is to unearth the contemporary character of a place (which can never die, I’m convinced) without proactively imposing their labor in doing that on the work, i.e., you can’t just photograph a place now since on the surface places are only getting more similar; yet humans, all biology, instinctively wants to diverge and this is expressed in folk culture, language, small lifestyle things… so the character is there, it just has to be dug out—but since it’s not on the surface, the person doing the digging has to make an assumption that it’s there, in effect say “this is what it’s like” before he’s actually seen any proof that that’s what it’s like… this level of insight and skill is way beyond me. And as I say, I’m not even interested in the project to begin with—I just like taking photos of my kids jumping on the sofa, etc.

        But I do enjoy watching people who know what they’re doing with cameras and post processing; I can watch almost any subject when it’s that. This set is a great example 🙂

        • Cities are definitely merging into homogeneity – the more I travel, the more I struggle to find the differences. You really have to know where to look, as opposed to them jumping out at you – even in a place as distinctive as Japan, the gap is shrinking.

          • I agree with both of you guys, the surface has been omogenized by global brands and distribution chains, so much that traveling seems less interesting than it used to be. And yet, people have not (yet?). But it’s far more difficult to show THAT. in a photo than just the surface of things, buildings and all. Still, it’s also more satisfying when you DO manage to get to that point below the surface. And o do that, you must often venture outside the city centers, as Tom was suggesting, or inside people’s lives, even less immediately availble to the short term visitor. Which is why I find it’s becoming far more satisfying to shoot in one’s home city than when traveling!

    • Great to see your thoughts on all this Tom. While I do hate to draw up comparisons, I was somewhat reminded of Constantine Manos, though I don’t think he has been to Tokyo. Ming’s images somewhat made me think of him, though having seen Ming’s images for a while, I’m getting to the point where I recognize is style signature.

      We’re becoming more urbanized, as a planet. I spend much of my time in a city that is not very dense, which doesn’t present too many “street photography” opportunities, yet that same distance between people exists here. There is a fine art in ignoring others, and now technology (smartphone screens, headphones, giant sunglasses) allows many more to tune out the world around them. Pockets of interaction exist, but they tough to get into for outsiders. As someone who has traveled far from my origin, I have always been an outsider, yet I have been fortunate to meet many people. As my mom puts it, I never met a stranger. I do wonder if some of the conflicts and differences in the world are from people tuning out more. The internet at times brings out the worst in people, because there is little to no chance that harshness will be punished. Anyway, a big thanks to Ming for posting this. Beyond the images, this is probably the best post I have read. Lots to consider.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Hi Gordon, nice to speak again. Constantine Manos was great, thanks for that. The Soviet set was interesting for how un-Soviet, and how very ethnically Russian it came across, not chance, I think… the first photo in that portfolio was an instant winner; I gravitated to the touch in all the photos… The “Athenians” set was brilliant. CM’s composition and gentle humor reminded me a of a guy I follow on Flickr, I doubt he’s a pro but it doesn’t make much difference, he’s surely studied an art of some sort though, Shang the Gardner.

        The internet seems to bring out both extremes on manners—I’m always surprised at how irate things like being slightly off-topic can make people in an environment designed precisely for talking back and conversation. Why should that grate in the slightest? And you certainly would shout at someone across a coffee table, “no! that’s not the original topic and you’ve ruined our conversation by mentioning it!” Conversation conducted by humans diverges, drifts, skirts around issues and outright changes the subject. We all know that. Something about it happening in conversation online annoys people, and brings out this almost Victorian level of stiffness and anal retention in us. You can also see it in the telephone voice almost everyone, myself included sometimes, puts on like they are writing science reports for high-school again…
        And then there’s the flip-side you mention, the complete lack of manners and entire departure of all social intelligence from online contribution and comment. We saw a bad example yesterday BTL on the MTxLC piece.

        On shutting ourselves away, I wonder if it’s just in cities? I’m not convinced that it’s something about cities, which must have engendered this desire for distance since time immemorial; and wonder if the degree to which we all hide away isn’t a modern ennui that affects everyone, everywhere, in the developed World right now.

        • What I don’t get is if we want to be alone, why on earth do we congregate together? Surely convenience doesn’t outweigh happiness.

          I think the ennui is due to consumerism: most of the population are consumers, few are creators. And they buy/ use/ demand more faster than the creators can create; partially because we become accustomed to the new and require a larger and larger hit each time to keep the excitement up, but partially also because it gets more and more difficult to push the envelope the more technology progresses. But of course those not involved in creating do not understand that…I can say from experience that it’s much harder to write a new article now than it was two years ago; simply because I’m running out of things to say!

          • I think the answer is simply actions speak louder than words. People don’t want to be alone; but we relish putting it on once safely in the group. Having our cake and eating it too. Doesn’t get much more human!

          • Running away to get together reminds me of going to the desert in California. The weekend would bring an exodus from the city, often with large RVs, campers, and trailers. Then many of those people would also congregate in a large dirt parking lot. I guess getting away from it all is not what it use to be. 😉

        • Hi Tom. Nice choice following Shang. A bit of editing, and he could put together an exhibit.

          I grew up in a city, and I really enjoy cities. It’s only been a few times that I have been in very large and crowded cities, though I tend to like the energy in most. One exception for me is Los Angeles, where too often there is a feeling of stress and tension in the air, so I’ve rarely liked when I had to go there for work projects.

      • Manos’ work is oddly familiar. In fact, it feels somewhere between myself, Ciao, and Saul Leiter. On the whole, I do like it.

        I also can’t help but feel that looking for – forcing – the perceived cultural differences is getting both cliched and reinforcing of stereotypes that perhaps aren’t necessarily a good thing.

        • Exactly my point, MT. Agreed.

        • Saul Leiter is a further direction, though I have always liked his work. I had a time period when my personal work moved in that sort of direction, though I wasn’t finding as much interest from showing it to others. That was in a time of a new hyper-realism and heavily post processed images (like Tim Tadder style), so I suppose my timing in doing that was just too far off.

          Visual cliches are tough too avoid at times. I suppose many of us working photographers have been handed samples from a client (or art director), who then wanted us to copy a certain image style. I think we need to be able to say no to such things, but early on that was tough for me to do. I hope to not have too many visual one-liners. 😉

          • I think we working pros need to be able to consciously separate personal from professional; it’s bloody hard! But otherwise you run the risk of your work being not sellable, or worse, your personal work lacking integrity and conviction.

            • I think I should try that direction again, and see how it evolves. There have been times it seemed like a good idea to fit into expectations, though it’s probably too predictable. Visual integrity … yup … that’s why we need to push forward with personal work. Eventually, that personal work will find the right audience. Thanks again for the reminder.

              • Gordon, I’ll piggyback off your comment. As always a great essay and photographs (after all, a Ming photoessay), but the best ever because of two of the most interesting, you and Tom, engaging. Just to comment, the reasons we congregate are very complex and I don’t want to spend much time thinking about it. But I have felt for a long time that there is a need for isolation to preserve one’s own identity and individuality when population density reaches a certain level. With time it seems to become manifest in the culture. Many thanks to Ming for capturing this in his art.

  6. “I can’t say the Japanese felt happy to me; it felt more like they were engaged in a dutiful struggle than anything else.”
    Couldn’t argue with that as a broad view. Certainly covers the work week for me and nearly everyone else I know, Japanese and not.

  7. Michael Matthews says:

    The “Blending In” series is a delight. Is number IV a lifestyle photographer on assignment? Or an inept undercover cop? And does he really think we buy the idea that he’s about to use the cigaret lighter app on his iPhone?

    • Thank you. Short answer: I have no idea, and I think that’s part of the fun – form your own conclusions, and the picture raises far more questions than it answers…

  8. Some really nice clicks and a very nice insight into cities, people and how we live in cities now. I liked the way you pointed out the possibility of ”it’s almost as though there’s some strange inverse law that dictates the smaller the available physical space for each individual, the greater the social gulf between them.” Regards.

  9. Ming… your prelude story to these wonderful at times strong images offer us an unique biased and alerted mind prior to watching the content of the images. Do you see what I see and does my images sustain the story? For me yes.
    Hence these images becomes a strong evidence to the fact that big cities are both for the individualistic and the collective minds. Hiding perhaps or showing off. We see both types present in the public space.

    That leads me to what surprises me one time after the other how lousy I am guessing what these individuals are doing professionally if not obvious. A first violinist in the National Symphonic Orchestra or a nurse in a hospital? Obviously an image like *Official* leaves little doubt, but the next thought could be *Is he happy there in the middle of Big Tokyo?*

    I would not be sure how I would have interpreted the single stand alone images with out the context you observed and passed on.

    • The context definitely matters. Happiness is an ethereal thing and difficult to capture in a photograph, but very easy to feel (or not) as an observer. I can’t say the Japanese felt happy to me; it felt more like they were engaged in a dutiful struggle than anything else.

      • No wish to change the subject *isolation*. That’s very relevant and maybe even becoming a pretty dominant problem living in big cities. At least when we look up sales figures for drugs against depression or take a look at a waiting list for consulting a good shrink.
        Happiness is true enough a difficult thing to catch in stills. The observer would be confronted with determining if it’s happiness or just a momentaneous laugh or smile?

  10. Actually, he is *not* watching the kettle directly. I bet it started boiling as soon as he looked away. 😉
    “Blending in IV” lol! I initially thought how the heck is that blending in? Then I considered the background properly, and thought..”ah, yes” 😉
    Love these images, just wondered how *you* managed to “blend in” with the big Hassy?

    • It was definitely boiling at some point!

      Japan is full of photographers carrying all sorts of gear – one of the many reasons I enjoy shooting there. People surprisingly don’t give the Hassy much of a second look, or if they do, smile and assume it’s nostalgic retro cool.

  11. I often think why I enjoy being alone. Quiet. This was also the case pre-internet. I personally don’t like the bustle of big cities.

    I guess that’s why I’m a solitary photographer – my best images are landscapes! When I’m on the street in a large city, I’m really a lone hunter, which I suppose is recommended, but uncomfortable social dynamics make me unsure, so sometimes I avoid jamming my camera in where it needs to be: that loud asshole waving his hands around, the crying child, the stoic mother… Feels weird, but I keep practicing.

    I love the images, but the commentary was nearly as enjoyable. Thanks!

    • I still very much feel alone in a big city; perhaps even more so. As for jamming my camera where it ‘needs to be’ – depends on what you want to shoot, I suppose. Can’t help but feel that intrusive street is somewhat passé – not to mention disrespectful to the subjects.

  12. Strong set Ming, Third image is great 🙂

  13. Very nice captures. Well done, nice work.

  14. Von Manstein says:

    Heh heh….you think Tokyo is bad? Come to China. The people there in cities like Beijing and Shanghai will eat you alive.

    • I admit that China scares me – and I’m Chinese! I have no intention of going there anytime soon…

      • Shooting in China is lots of fun and not at all scary. People in Japan totally ignore you and you feel like you are on a different planet. The Chinese, in contrast, are usually friendly and engaging.

        BTW, great colors on the first two pics. Were they ETTR as well 😉

        • I actually like being ignored while shooting…

          Everything is ETTR unless it’s film.

        • Von Manstein says:

          Not my China. Ever try getting off a Shanghai subway train? You better be ready to knock people out of your way as those coming on the train will NOT wait for you to exit. If you don’t knock people out of the way, you will get pushed deeper into the train, and not get off. Chinese people individually are very nice, in a shallow sort of way (they want to impress their neighbors being super kind to a foreigner). My wife who is Chinese gets the real treatment when I’m not around. As a society, China is an extremely rude and nasty place. It is almost impossible to spot empathy for others here. And I look deep and hard for it. It is very wonderful on those rare days you can see any empathy at all.

  15. As you learn, wow, do we ever have a lot to learn from you. These are beautiful images, to say the least, and clearly meet the requirements for your intended theme. Frankly, I think the latter is very hard to do. I may like the last sushi bar image best–we have to chose, right, if we buy only one. But I really like smoke and window light, so the tea kettle may trump the sushi. Not sure how you produce such high quality work in what looks like a short time to us. Thanks for sharing. It brings us back to this site every day.

    • Thank you! Lots of coffee, little sleep and plenty of shooting. What you see is mostly only what I produce for myself. The commercial stuff is almost always under embargo…

  16. They are all wonderful Ming. Three has such a wonderfully subtle composition.

  17. Especially enjoyed reading this post. Very insightful and I find myself nodding in agreement.


  1. […] flickr contact Ming Thein has posted a brilliant photoessay at his blog: Isolation in Tokyo. Incredible work. […]

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