It was not long into my trip when I came to realise that the Land of the Rising Sun is a great place for neophyte photographers of street life to hone their skills. Waiting for the connecting flight at Kansai Airport, I surveyed my fellow passengers and found them wearing similarly stoic, silent countenances. The few ones who were exempt were those who still sporting black in their hair; their ebullience standing in stark contrast to that of their composed elders.
I formed a theory that these calm folk, seemingly oblivious to the antics of a mad world, would not be perturbed by the intrusive glare of the eager camera.
And because it is Japan, enter a haiku interlude before I proceed .
Noh faces, gazes
downcast, lost unto themselves,
While maintaining some discretion, I snapped occasionally surreptitious shots of people , well, being people.
Well, turns out my theory couldn’t hold water, or maybe i just wasn’t doing things the right way. In the soon to be relocated Tsukiji Fish Market, taking photos was akin to playing whack-a-mole as many fish-mongers gave me the fish-eye. I suppose it was hard to justify holding a camera when ‘No Photo’ signs were plastered all over the place. A pair of geishas I chanced upon along the alleyways of Kyoto had their pale faces turn a shade whiter (if that was possible) upon seeing the camera-toting me. Turning away, they had to stop to remove their sandals, and I took a shot of their costumed loveliness… from the back. On hindsight, I rue not plucking the courage to speak to them. Perhaps a simple “Watashi wa anata no shashin o toru koto ga dekiru?” (May I take your photo?)would have granted me a glimpsed into their mysterious world.
In my early attempt to learn street photography, I realized the great importance of sensitivity. Not everyone shows their displeasure with angry gestures or words when they realize they’ve been photographed, just as not everyone who’s had their photo taken would demand for money afterwards. In Japan, where politeness is taken to an extreme, I’ve learnt to read subtle signs of discomfort, like the eyes that shift away and the slight change of body weight from one foot to another.
After 13 most memorable days, ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the best photos of people are taken unawares. Using a portrait lens with a quick focus time and choosing the right moment when the subject is engrossed in a moment are key ingredients to getting a natural, unposed shot. But if blending in inconspicuously is not your forte, asking for permission with a sincere smile is the next best option.
Well, all was not lost for me in the Land of the Rising Sun. I realized that if all else fails, you can always take a shot from far, far away.