Ani Watanabe

An essay on photography

Photography is to express what comes naturally to someone, to tell their personal stories – and then pursue the most suitable circumstances and equipment to encapsulate that into an image. Ani Watanabe, a man with a wealth of experience looking at images through his work as an Art Director, and now as a photographer in search for answers behind his own photographic identity, gives us his insight into what a photographer keeps in mind.

photo & text : Ani Watanabe

No Two Images Are Alike

I find, as I take a photograph, that I end up going back to the same place again and again. When I attempt what I believe to be a different approach, I am immediately reminded of a similar approach I had already done in the past. Although the same level, the height is that tiny bit higher. It is a never-ending cycle every day.

Photography is an art form unlike that of a drawing or a sculpture that is visualized in someone’s mind; it is simply scanning an object that anyone can see with their own eyes. However, it is a big mistake to say that taking a picture of the exact same thing would produce the same results. As it is an artistic form of interpretation to put it in another way, let’s say if there is a photographer in front of “a single rose”, there would be different interpretations of that rose produced in a number of minutes. What makes a portrait more complicated than a rose is the expression of the person in front of the lens, something I believe is dependent on the conditions and also the photographer who is facing the model.

‘Emotional Triggers’

With a model I meet for the first time, I spend at least more than half the allocated time just chatting to them. It is not to make them feel at ease or to get along with them but to carefully observe all the facial expressions they have: the face they make when they talk about fun things to the the expressions of when they feel sad. When the model and the studio assistants start to wonder when I will actually begin, that is the moment I pick up my camera. Actually the shutter is only released for a few minutes as I have already decided the images I want to take based on what I had observed in our conversation. I use what we had talked about as a trigger to capture the face I want. As feelings and expressions are connected, I refer to the trigger that guides them as an “emotional trigger”.

Finding One’s True Self

My ideal portrait is one of the face that the person has shown throughout their life, but it is not quite as describing it as a simple face but yet a natural face. The closest description to what I am trying to say is the face their family is most familiar with. I really love it when the person I had photographed informs me that their parents loved the photo. I am pleased beyond words when people who know them best compliment my work.

To achieve as natural and simple a photograph as possible, I do not tinker with the color too much, and I choose a straightforward lens. The leaps and bounds made in digital cameras took photography into a new direction, one which led people to experiment to their hearts content, though it is not my style.

Between Photographer and Subject

Why I used the scanner analogy earlier is because we use digital cameras as if they are high-resolution scanners. Change in texture can greatly vary depending on the physical format of film; switching between a 135 and 8×10 even changes how we feel about taking photographs. I believe digital cameras took that feeling away. I often hear about people talking about how shooting with film brings that little extra something to the table. I wish they would not say such an idiotic thing. Even digital has that, and there must have been people in the days of film who did not possess that themselves.

No matter how much the essence of photography progresses and changes, other than the sensibilities of the photographer and the subject, the equipment and technology that stands between doesn’t matter. Rather to have an environment where you would forget there is a lens and camera around in the first place around is superior.

Focus on Those Around Us

Even with all the pleasure I get taking photographs of people, my photography exhibition at ‘Tokyo Design Week 2016’ was based on the theme of ‘first encounters’.My intention was to make clear the record of someone whom you have just met, therefore I made sure the shoot ended after around 30 seconds with 3 shots or so and very few words exchanged.

In the exhibition booth of TDW, I lined up portraits, photographed in front of a black background, that I had taken in Fukushima, Paris, Tokyo. With Tokyo representing home, and Paris being the closest home away from home for me, I wanted a location to represent away. It was here that I had the opportunity to photograph the people who work at SIGMA’s Aizu factory in Fukushima. The black cloth background that I have used for the last few years completely eliminates any sense of location, bringing the focus only on the person in front of the camera. Other than the names of the three cities mentioned, there is no telling as to where they were taken. I want to make it so that, say you assume the person in the picture is French; your guess is that it was taken in Paris.

Achieving Reality

I offered to photograph more than 100 visitors in a special booth I had set up at the exhibition. I had even photographed myself as if I were a visitor after viewing the exhibition. It was a strange situation where I stuck images up of these people, not especially dressed for the occasion and not looking their best, at the same location the day after. The lack of preparation in these portraits is what make them real and beautiful images in my mind.

Being a bit technical, I used a strobe for the Fukushima and TDW images whereas I shot outdoors using natural light in Paris. They felt disjointed when lined up at the exhibition but that is good enough for me. Perhaps you could say natural light is Paris-like, whereas artificial light is very Japan-like. However what they have in common is that only one lens was used: a SIGMA 50mm lens. It is not chosen for its particular focal distance but its guaranteed high quality of imagery. It is my best lens when I want to reduce the worry about options at a location, and it was only this lens that I took along for my Paris shoot.

‘The Art of Photography’

Whenever photographing people, as soon as there is a sign that the photographer is worried than the subject becomes anxious. They start questioning whether the photographer is “any good at all” and become simply bored by the constant changes in the angle and the lens. Timing is the key: the very first moments of a shoot, that point where our consciousness’s become locked in, the atmosphere in the latter stage where tiredness sets in – the personality of the photographer comes out in the choices they make. When shooting a professional model, they constantly bring good results. Of course, this is because they are professionals. However, when shooting someone who is not used to their picture being taken, more often than not, the first few shots are the best. Most of the skill behind photography is not about shooting technique, but from communication. There are people who use buzz words to describe their approach, but they are merely stating the obvious. I think that such phrases are inappropriate, which is why I avoid to use words.

The Way With ‘Words’

We write plenty of words to accompany photographs we upload on SNS. Not an explanation of the photograph, but to write words of what we felt at the time and which have nothing to do with the image. I think juxtaposing words and images tends to make them sound vulgar, like cheap poetry you find on landscape photography. Photographs tells us all that needs to be said so more words than necessary are not required. In addition, photographs to explain words are just as dull. They become like the diagrams in an instruction manual. So during the times you want to upload a photograph onto Facebook, open up the photograph you took that very day on your computer. As the added advantage of digital is that the photograph you just took is already there, there is no point to bring up an old photograph from the past. To mix the past with a timeline where time is literally moving forward is to spoil the image.

Upon choosing a photograph, words that you would associate with it would naturally come to mind. Even though they would have nothing to do with the circumstances at the time the image was taken, words you want to write down would appear. The internet was originally only a form of text communication, but the rapid progress it made has allowed the internet to handle visuals. But take a look at what is around: Line, Twitter and even e-mail, we notice that words still constitute most of our communication. The majority of people who like to express themselves have an excellent sense of language and have a high level of literacy – which lends to their sense of visual expression.

Language vs. Visuals

It may be the cool thing to say that words do not matter as long as the photograph is fine, but the majority of who say such a thing is in fact running away from them. It is not the need to explain the meaning of a painting, but you have a responsibility as to what kind of message led to that painting.

Describing it in the way the mind functions, it is impossible to make visuals without a linguistic interpretation – like how it is impossible to take an image of a sea based only from the literal sense of the word sea. As you face the waves on the coast and release the shutter, words like bright and dark, calm and rough subconsciously race around your mind despite being so close to the sea.

The Root of Expression

A strong relationship exists between literary sensibilities and the emotions behind a photograph. In other words, there is a direct connection to visuals from something like a book you are reading, a movie you had seen, or the lines from theater. That is why when you take a photograph of a rose, you settle on a visual based on stories of roses you have been touched by. Even when photographing people, say from a social group like the elderly, or young ladies to muscular men, your mind accesses a literary database when framing the image. If it is true that watching a lot of movies makes you a better photographer, you do not become better from studying the composition and angles from the movies, but it can only be because of being touched by their stories.



Settle for the Horizon

As it is not easy to imagine worlds outside of what we have in our own database, what is best is to learn of fascinating stories from around the world.

To tie in your photography with your own experiences and thoughts is a journey in itself, so I believe it is important to look at other cultures and the world outside your own. I always think that “the camera should be on the horizon”. What I mean by that is that photography should not have the attitude of looking down upon or revering the subject, but it is essential to maintain the correct level by always calmly evaluating the situation you are in, and to be humbled by the vast world in front of us.

Living and Breathing Photography

Besides portraits, I am moving forward with a number of other projects. My zine ‘GtA’, featuring images of the streets I have encountered on my travels, has reached its third issue. I am accumulating photographs I am thinking of putting into future projects, from ‘symmetry photography’ where I am restructuring everyday photographs into line symmetry, to combining meat and the body in ‘MEAT’. It is trial and error and experimentation on an everyday basis. This is what I love doing. We say photography resembles our eyes, however in my case it is what keeps me alive. That is why to stop taking photographs is the end of me.

Ani Watanabe

Born in Yokohama in 1964. After working for advertising agency LIGHT PUBLICITY, he founded NINJAFILMS. Changed career from an Art Director to a photographer in 2006. Maintains a policy where he only uses equipment which he has personally bought and mastered, before selecting the best for each shoot that faithfully and reliably recreates what he wants.

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