If anyone has the art of food down to a science it is the Japanese. Everywhere you turn there is some sort of delciousness being prepared. From full blown kaiseki meals to surprisingly light tempura dishes, Japanese food is known for its simple flavors and exquisite presentation. Even school children enjoy this cultural tradition when they open their lunches to find animal shaped rice balls and carefully carved vegetables.
This February, Qatar Airways contacted me with a very specific challenge. The in-flight magazine wanted me to explore the art of Japanese food. Commissioned to shoot Empire of the Senses, an editorial exploring the art of Japanese cuisine. While on assignment, I was tasked to align my photographs with Oryx's March theme completely dedicated to "taste." With this in mind, I made my way to some of Tokyo's finest restaurants to shoot (and nibble) some of the finest food Japan has on offer.
Naturally, I was very excited to accept Oryx's challenge. I was also excited to see the piece come through design and into the hands of readers on all Qatar Airways flights. Read the full editorial piece here.
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Behind The Shoot | The Kenyan Maasai
We are saturated with images. The internet has given us a never ending stream of photographs. Everyday, I see an image that blows me away. Perhaps I see something that makes me curious or that inspires me. Perhaps I come across a photograph that is technically sound or a shot that took great effort to create. Just as frequently, I come across photographs that are simply beautiful.
I am often tricked into thinking that the person capturing these frames is some sort of superhero photographer with unlimited access and/or resources. In many instances, they are. Photojournalists are indeed risking their lives in war zones to document our world. Nat Geo photographers are on assignment for months to get splendid shots of our natural world. High profile portrait photographers are given exclusive access to celebrities and events. But, not every image is captured out of position or because of deep client pockets. Sometimes, great photo opportunities happen by chance.
When a group of Kenyan Maasai visited a school I was working for, I simply asked them if I could make some portraits. With permission, I spent fifteen minutes making portraits of the Maasai. There was no planning involved. There was no contract or access point. I simply asked a group of people for fifteen minutes of their time. Imagine that.
What can be learned from this? Not all photographs are special because of the extreme effort it takes to make them. Photographs are special because of their subjects.
3:10 on a Saturday
As the train doors opened, the platform bustle entered the car. Considering that the Tokyo bound, JR Line train had been absent of sound since the the last station, the voices were jarring. But the chatter was secondary to the barrage of unmistakable rhythm. Somewhere near, taiko drums were being hammered. I had to see it. Though I was exhausted from my family portrait shoot in Shibuya, I grabbed my gear and pushed against the human river flowing into the train.
It isn't hard to find Japanese festivals. A matsuri will be crowded with throngs of people. The drums will be beating and the smell of festival food wafts in the air. I didn't know what kind of festival it would be. But I knew there would be plenty to see.
Using my ears as guides, I exited the station and turned a few corners. And there it was, the Kichijoji Autumn Festival. In contrast to a western autumn festival, the Japanese don't have a million pumpkin-spice-whatevers for sale or antiquated images of American Indians sitting happily with small pox infested colonists, What the Japanese do have is a sense of belonging, cultivated by deep cultural traditions.
Like most autumn festivals around Japan, the cultural eye candy in Kichijoji were the mikoshi. A mikoshi is a palanquin used as a portable shrine. Shinto followers believe that the mikoshi is a vehicle to transport a deity here on earth. To move a deity between a temple's main shrine and a temporary one (i.e. during a festival), a mikoshi is used. Frequently resembling miniature buildings, the mikoshi are beautifully accented with ornate architectural features. Gold leafed pillars, stone roofs, etched wood siding... It's all there.
Yet, before resting a mikoshi on an uma (meaning horse in Japanese) those carrying the mikoshi jostle it wildly as to amuse the deity within. Lines of men and women dance and chant in unison, while the pole bearers shake the mikoshi and the deity (Mind you, if I were a god within one of these shrines, I would have no choice but to yak my yakitori everywhere).
An hour later, I had exhausted a memory card and had treated myself to a few highballs and street skewers. I had exchanged hugs, hive fives and bows galore all without seeing a single gourd. Rest assured that next autumn when I hear the taiko drum beating, I will get out of the train in into the streets of Tokyo.
I could hear it from blocks away. Bustling. Shouting. The familiar muffled-bullhorn-yap of a policeman on a megaphone. Riot? Protest?
With the election days away, tempers flared in the capital of Japan as hundreds of Turkish nationals gathered near their embassy in downtown Tokyo to cast early ballots. The crowd, mixed with both nationalist and pro-Kurdish supporters, caught the attention of Tokyo's Metropolitan Police as brawls began to break out in the streets. The mild chaos that ensued highlighted the ongoing tensions between the People's Democratic Party (pro-Kurd) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogran. Turkish elections will be held November 1st.
Muay Thai Madmen
1989's Kickboxer was a not-so-blockbuster that knocked the socks off of every dude is America. In order to avenge his brother's paralyzation, Kurt Sloane (Jean-Claude Van Damme) takes the good fight to Tong Po, Thailand's undefeated Muay Thai madman. The movie is full of Hollywood violence and 80's cliche. Though pure fiction, the film is freaking awesome. What isn't make believe, however, is the art of Muay Thai and Thailand's national obsession with the sport.
Muay Thai is an integral part of Thai culture. The sport has existed for centuries. For an ancient Siam, Muay Thai was the art of the battlefield, an essential close quarters technique. Because of this, King and commoners alike became obsessed with Muay Thai. Despite its violent nature, Muay Thai was even taught as a part of school curriculum up until the 1920's when the nation appealed to reason and acknowledged inquiry rates. It was then that the art went into the gyms and clubs spread throughout the country.
The 1930's ushered the most radical changes in the sport. Cups to protect the groin were introduced and gloves (instead of fabric strips) went on the hands. Stadiums, instead of makeshift rings and courtyards, began popping up during the reign of Rama VII before the second world war.
Muay Thai Today
The fascination persists. Imitating the sport is as much of a Thai's childhood as learning songs about the elephants that foreign visitors now ride atop of. Several nights a week, radio and television stations broadcast the fights to millions of loyal fans.
Outsiders question the obsession with a sport so violent that during the reign of the Tiger King, hands and forearms were bound with strips of horse hair to inflict more damage upon the opponent (Even ground glass was mixed with glue and spread over the strips). But those familiar with the sport agree that the obsession can easily be explained.
At each Muay Thai event there is ceremony. There is ritual. From Chang Mai to Bangkok, Chiang Rai to Samui, Thais and farang (foreigners) fans alike understand that Muay Thai is much more than violent fist-a-cuffs. It is an art form clouded in both mystique and tradition.
Make sure to check out a Muay Thai fight the next time you are in Thailand.
As a portrait photographer, it is always pleasant to receive an assignment request that gets you out of town. Not only do I love traveling and experiencing the Korea that lays outside of Seoul, I love the opportunity to take my camera to shoot subjects that are out of the ordinary for me.
The assignment was dual. I was sent to Busan to not only capture a cover for Hong Kong Express' UO Magazine, I was to also shoot several locations for a shopping editorial.
Model Angel Jion and I hopped on the KTX on Friday afternoon and s[ed our way down to the southern tip of Korea. We had some time to kill so we went to the beach and ate a pizza.
We woke early and headed out to Gamcheon Village, an artist community on the outskirts of Busan. For a couple of hours, Angel and I explored and took advantage of our time on assignment. Once we had the shots we needed, I sent Angel back to her hotel and I got to work on the second part of the trip.
Soon enough, I had all of the good gravy I needed for the editorial client. I gave Angel and rang and we decided to meet back up. With the magazine cover and editorial completed, Angel and I spent our remaining time in Busan exploring the streets and making portraits.
All in all, a decent weekend with a great company (and a cover shot to boot)!
Jazz Kerouac and the Jazz Men of Seoul
Before I started my photography business, I got lost in books. I still do, but not like I used to. I wasn't always a fan of reading until college. It was then that my friend Dennis turned me on to the Beat Generation. Up to that point, my literate life basically consisted of Cliff Notes and tattoo magazines.
But thanks to my mate Burns, my late teens and early twenties were filled with the likes of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Kesey. However, it was the stack of Jack Kerouac novels that I loved most.
Kerouac's staccato verse instantly produced mental images of cigarette wrinkled men blowing their horns with air as fast as their lifestyles. Just reading about it made me want to be a character in the book. I could visualize the scene, hear the jumpy beats and see the beatniks swaying and dancing.
Though, I didn't feel the need to patron the jazz clubs of North Carolina (Are there any?) to prove my visions correct. I perceived to know what jazz clubs were like simply by reading the prose of Beat Master Jack.
Fast forward a decade. No longer do I read Kerouac (Nor do I have the desire to jump in boxcar heading across the country). I have traded my love of Beat literature for a love of Canon and Fuji manuals.
Though I must admit, when a client sent me out for a look at Seoul's thriving jazz scene, I realized that I had the opportunity to again flirt with the scenes Kerouac once set for me. As a portrait photographer, Kerouac fan and musician (the later is debatable), photographing some of Seoul's jazz men was a welcomed editorial commission.
Spending several evenings in Seoul's jazz clubs, I did not find cramped, smoke filled basements and leathered jazz masters. There were no beatniks screaming, "Blow!" I couldn't find a trace of Charlie Parker or Dean Moriarity passed out under a table (Seriously, you must read On the Road no matter how cliche it may now seem). In fact, I found the exact opposite of what I had expected.
In Itaewon's All That Jazz, middle-aged Koreans sat nibbling on lavish cheese and fruit plates. Hongdae's Club Palm hosted lovers more interested in batting eyelashes at one another than the stand-up bass being plucked. Likewise, Once In a Blue Moon's dress code was surprising for even Apgujeong. I was almost turned away because I didn't have a sport's coat. Seriously, it just felt stuffy.
The closest my formative, Kerouac visions came to reality was in a small venue a stone's throw from Hongkik University in the hipster enclave of Hongdae. Without the pomp and circumstance of the other haunts, Club Evan serves bottled beers and crams youthful jazz fans as close to the stage as possible. While there is no blue smoke, there is a lively atmosphere that, I suspect, would make Kerouac proud.
With the editorial assignment finished, I found myself both satisfied with the images and the fact that I had actually been inside a jazz club. In fact, I had been in every jazz club in Seoul. Now, I am dealing with my desire to rummage through a sealed box or two to find some Kerouac novels.
"He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows its not the tune that counts but IT."
- J. Kerouac
White Lies Burlesque
Asia, in general, likes to keep the sexy behind closed doors. That is why the White Lies Burlesque Review have an important role in Seoul's eclectic nightlife. These cats intend to bring the boudoir under the bright lights. While the group has had its share of controversy, the overall impression from both the foreign and Korean population of Seoul has been overwhelmingly positive.
Burlesque in its purest form is sensual storytelling made popular in years long past. But don't think that a trip out to see this crew with be full of sorid men and 1920's jazz music. The performers of this troupe (male and female) bring a new twist to the old burlesque tale, enchanting mixed crowds with pasties and poi (fire spinning), strip and swing.
Each one of the rotating members brings their own talents and personality to the stage. This is not surprising seeing that individual members of the group greatly contribute to the artistic and intellectual capital of Seoul's foreign community when they aren't on stage.
If you are looking for a interesting date night or simply for something different, check out White Lies at one of their frequent performances in Seoul (or internationally). Be prepared to be out late and pay the babysitter overtime.
Who Are The New Block Babyz?
Who ever heard of the New Block Babyz (NBB) anyway? When I was asked by CrayonBeats magazine to capture some street images of K-Pop group NBB, I immediately asked myself, "They mean New Kids on the Block?" Of course they didn't mean New Kids. If they had, I would have just died and gone to Heaven (kidding). Obviously, I still have a soft spot in my ear for 'Please Don't Go Girl.' They meant New Block Babyz.
When I arrived in Hongdae for the shoot, I began to prepare my gear. Nothing fancy. While my Canon 6d was being prepared I readied my 600d and a single 17-40 USM L Series lens. In fact, it was the lightest I have traveled in a minute. I was tired and wanted to go home after a day of work. I wanted to play Call of Duty. But my energy level picked up as the members of the group slowly trickled in.
Minutes into our shoot, we were interrupted. Young girls noticed us and wanted their pictures taken with the Babyz. So, these kids are somewhat known? Perhaps they play the local YMCA every other Saturday night?
Oh no. On all accounts I was wrong. Indeed these jokesters are making a name for themselves in this behemoth of an urban center. Needless to say, I was shocked when I later found out that an NBB member was, in fact, a VJ for Korean MTV.
At some point New Kids on the Block were NBB, young and talented (or at least marketable) and full of zeal to be larger to the public than Jesus Christ himself. Sometime, twenty years from now, a photographer will be going to shoot the next generation of Block Kids or Babyz or whatevers and thinking, "If this shoot was of the New Block Babyz, I would die and go to Heaven."
It cycles back doesn't it.
Award winning photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Specializing in portrait photography, he shoots a variety of portraiture, editorial, and event, and commercial photography assignments. Andy is a husband, father, and lover of fried food.