During a period of wanderlust in my life I stopped in the port city of Jacksonville, FL and started a life there. I met my wife, got married, and made plans for the future, and even though a number of positive things happened in my life in Jacksonville it never quite felt like home. When my wife and I got married I understood that her job would take us to new locations and that thrilled me. When she told me we were going to Japan next excitement overwhelmed me. You know Japan — the lights of Tokyo, and the geishas of Kyoto — the only two sides of the country you see in popular culture.
When we moved to Japan we had two options: Okinawa or Yokosuka. If you’ve seen Japan on TV you likely know two different cities: Kyoto with it’s geishas and culture, and Tokyo with it’s monolithic buildings and lights. Neither were options, and so I settled on what seemed familiar and chose the port city of Yokosuka.
You’ve probably never heard of Yokosuka before. It has a curry recipe named in its honor, Commodore Perry has a manhole cover cast in his honor here, and of course there’s the Terror of Mechagozilla. But of the places in Japan I mentioned it’s the least famous in terms of popular culture, but it’s actually surprisingly rich in photographic history which I didn’t know.
I arrived in Japan with wide eyes and lofty expectations about being embraced as an American; I figured I’d be received like Ryan Gosling with a camera bag. My knowledge of the world outside of the United States amounted to the following: what I heard on NPR, a drinking trip I took once to Canada at the age of 19, and a mission trip I took to Mexico to build houses in high school. Living far from home had help me to realize that there are other places than where you grew up, but outside of that I knew little of the world.
In Yokosuka city we have the amenities you’d expect in the suburbs. There’s a Livin, which is the Japanese equivalent of a WalMart, two shopping malls, and more grocery stores than I can count. We also have something not too often found in the suburbs: a superb art museum.
A year after moving here and six months after my own project began the Yokosuka Art Museum had am exhibition of photographs and art created in the city. The catalog reads like a who's who of Japanese photography. Moriyama, Ishiuchi, Shomatsu, and Hamaguchi are the first names to come to mind from the show catalog. The show really floored me; the streets I’d been pounding for months were the stomping grounds of giants before me. I imagine it’s the same feeling a paleontologist gets as they dig ever deeper to realize they’re standing on an important site. It felt like someone awakening something already in my mind, but unknown to me.
I ingested everything I could about the city and it’s photographic history. Books, websites, and blogs fueled my quest for information about the place I was starting to love. I’m not a master photographer, and my work is in no way comparable to the those listed above, but there’s something reaffirming about seeing the same subjects you’re photographing after they’ve been photographed by others. It’s not a comparison of skill, but rather an affirmation that you’re on the right path. It’s an affirmation that seeing is universal and that you are in fact capable of it.
Through seeing, studying, and loving the work of those who came before me during my time here I learned that while the idea may not be unique, that is, to document your city or it’s inhabitants — the approach may be. The masters before me explored a city under occupation and the turmoil of protest. They looked deeply into a city as it changed, sometimes poetically, and sometimes rapidly, while I explore it as a foreigner in question of my own presence here.
Before living here I’d never given much thought to a long term project. I mean, I’d thought about the idea of doing one; how I’d travel to cancer alley in Louisiana and live there documenting the lives of locals, or how I’d hop a train to some farther off place and document the journey. I thought about them romantically, but never gave thought to the logistics or the hardships that actually come with them. Like a lot of photographic pursuits there’s an air of romance about the idea and the execution proves to be the hard part.
Shortly after moving here, when nothing photographically was going well, I stumbled into a project which I proceeded to work on for three years. The Project has changed shape, form and name more times than I want to remember over the course of my time here, but being here forced me into it and the size of my city made me stick to it.
It’s easy in America to to skip from one project to another, at least to me it has been. I would always associate travel with photos and spend a lot more time in the car than I would actually shooting. I think getting out of your head and mind are great components to making photos, but I also think being stuck in a place is powerful too. In Yokosuka, you don’t just hop in your car and take off for somewhere else when it’s hard to make photos at home.
We talk a lot in the collective about being in a rut and how to get out. One thing that Yokosuka has taught me about getting out of ruts is that you have to stick to it. A couple of times a week I’d walk the neighborhood near Yokosuka Navy Base. It’s a fading district that was once neon and glitz and today is more massagy and broken light bulbs. You can only walk a place like that so many times before you hit a wall.
How many times can you take the same photo? Some days it felt like I was shooting the same thing over and over again, but in that repetition though I found a rhythm in which I could actually make photos. I’d pass a scene more than once, often several times in fact — sometimes I’d even take the same photos again and again — and then I’d see some detail that had eluded me. Often times the detail would be a crucial element to the story I was trying to tell. Being confined to shooting in one place made it so that I had to get over the hurdles and roadblocks if my project was going to continue.
I feel an affinity for Yokosuka because of the growth I’ve done in this city. Here I learned that my passion is black and white photography, and that within that realm I love an aesthetic that isn’t wildly popular. The 35mm camera has become my preferred tool of choice, not out of necessity, but because I love the format and the results.
One night early in my life in Japan a friend of mine looked up at the stars and belted out “I love this Yokosuka city!” I thought he was crazy to love this place; I still sometimes think he’s crazy, but two years later I realize that I love this Yokosuka city too.