Camera Settings no.2: Photos of Tokyo, Japan by Damon Coulter

Skytree in silhouette seen above the rooftops of Shibamata, Tokyo, Japan Monday February 16th 2015.

“A camera gives me a good excuse to go somewhere amazing.” Photographer Damon Coulter on his home of Tokyo, Japan.

What kind of place is Tokyo?

Tokyo is huge, it is hard to say that it has one over-arching personality. It is better perhaps to think of it as a series of smaller towns, each with their own styles and idiosyncrasies, joined together in a marriage of convenience. The energy, and to be honest the mess, that this hodgepodge of characters bouncing-off each other creates is incredibly interesting for a documentary photographer like me and as attitudes and fashions spill-out and spread from one area to another or are subsumed by new or more traditional ideas it is always a pleasure find and shoot something you might never have imagined or seen before.

While there are, of course, the cliches of the famed Japanese modernity such as high-tech skyscrapers, bullet trains and robot shop-assistants there are also places where old ladies visit shrines to rub statues to cure the ills of ageing and places where kids challenge conventions in dress and attitudes or live in their own unique realities. Or there are millions of people that live in suburban indifference everyday, crammed into dull suits and duller trains for brutal commutes to offices that seem, at first glance, to be so removed from the exotic image we have of Japan and Asia in general.

Yet at festival time, in those same grey streets, those same grey salarymen might be found putting on some traditional clothes and parading a portable shrine around in a noisy crash of colour and culture. It is a wonderfully unpredictable city most of the time.

Scaffolding and construction site covers shield the demolition of National Stadium, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.

Scaffolding and construnction site covers shield the demolition of National Stadium, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.

Women perform a traditional white heron dance, (shira sagi no mai) during the Sanja matsuri in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Women perform a traditional white heron dance, (shira sagi no mai) during the Sanja matsuri in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Docomo Tower at sunset, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Docomo Tower at sunset, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Why did you choose these photos of Tokyo?

Tokyo National Stadium demolition shows some of the changes I was talking about. The original Olympic stadium, that is being demolished in this shot, was built for the 1964 Olympics and marked Tokyo’s recovery from the ruin of WW2. The new stadium that will replace it will signal a new chapter in the life of this city. Plus I really liked the abstract nature of the scaffolding.

Sanja matsuri is one of my favourite photos of the matsuri or festivals that happen regularly throughout the year in Japan. Just a street portrait of some girls in a stork costume; it doesn’t show anything of the crazy energy of this famous, three-day event but I like it because it hopefully shows some of the stillness that can still be found during these deeply historical celebrations, even in one of the largest festivals in this massive city.

The last photo shows a typical street scene in the centre of the city at sunset. I like shooting around Shinjuku, which is perhaps the most diverse and interesting of Tokyo’s towns. Sunsets are always good for photography anyway but the dark, canyon-like shadows of this metropolis do not often give me opportunities to enjoy them. I shoot a lot at night which has its own character and interests but I always like to catch the borders of the day if I can.

I’ve got just one hour to take photos of Tokyo. Where should I go?

If you had just one hour in Tokyo, I would head to Shinjuku and do a circuit around the station. The west has skyscrapers and parks and a slightly worn at the elbows nostalgia for the Bubble economy of the 1980s. The east is gritty and shifty, the night-life lives here, but even a few streets away the feeling and atmosphere can change dramatically. You could spend hours, days, years even exploring these streets and photographing interesting scenes and people.

What camera kit couldn’t you live without?

Recently with colleagues at Japan Street Lens we have been lucky to be sponsored by Sigma and I am loving the 24mm 1.4 ART lens for street photography but something I am never without is a blower brush. I like to keep my lenses clean.

Why photography?

I started off climbing and travelling and used a camera to record my adventures. A camera gives me a good excuse to go somewhere amazing.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned taking photos?

I have been lucky to have met and learnt from some very good professional photographers as I moved my travelling hobby towards something more important. I don’t think I’m there yet but the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that to do it well you have to put a lot of energy into. All the photographers I know, including Tony who is letting me write this on his site, work really hard at it.

First they have the talent of course but as Steven King once said: “Talent is as cheap as table salt. The difference between a talented individual and a successful one, is a lot of hard work.” Even the most successful never feel complacent with the skills they have; the place they are or even, surprisingly with the stunning images they make and are always looking to find something else that inspires them. They in turn inspire me.

See here for more of Damon Coulters’s work:

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