A happy man: successful freelancer Akasaka Tomoaki on photography and life

What will you miss out on, by not living the life you want?
Credits Akasaka Tomoaki.

Akasaka Tomoaki dons white gloves and begins leafing through the photographic portfolio I brought. We are in his airy, tatami mat and exposed wood-beam house in Osaka, also home to his Photo Gallery Sai. Tomoaki, who looks much younger than his late 40s age, has been an active freelance photographer and journalist since the mid-90s when a natural disaster shocked him into career switching crisis.

Another Osakan photographer named Tsuchida introduced us. She described Akasaka as having a “Japanese face, but a Western mind.” With his bushy beard, quick English and easy laugh, it’s easy to agree with this assessment. She insisted he was the man to talk to for advice on successful freelancing.

He is taking the job of critique seriously, and I sit a little nervously as he rifles through my portfolio, settling on some closely cropped photos from a festival in Wakayama prefecture: one of a group of young boys with their Taiko drum sticks posing for the camera, another of a painted demon, mouth agape. I describe how he had sucked up air with an otherworldly sound, harmonising with the screams of children held in place by their parents.

“Now you’ve told me, I know what these are. ” He says, “But from just looking at the photo I think, what’s the story? If you showed the crying children near the demon, I would know by looking.”

Ruthless cropping is useful for removing any ‘distracting elements’ from a shot but at the same time often removes the context. I remember a friend’s recent comment that she loved the ‘laughing demon’.

Akasaka suggests building a group of photos around a theme, and, by taking wider shots, providing context to supplement the tighter ones. His preferred lens is the wide 20mm.

“Why did you chose her?” He points to a sharply defined woman, without face-paint, followed by a blurred, bright group of demons. “It’s interesting, because she has no make-up, while all the others do. ” He muses, ” I wonder if it means something.”

He explains other aspects of the subjects: sketching out the typical otherworldly plot of a Noh play, and explaining how the young sumo in the parade are symbolic of a Japanese belief that children are imbued with the spirits of mountain gods.

A picture from an Alaskan festival Akasaka took while living in North America for 3 months. Credits Akasaka Tomoaki.

“Is it necessary to research the festival or culture before you go? ” I ask. “Not necessary,” He replies, “But you come back and learn, and then go again and learn some more. Before each time think of how you want to spend your time, what you want to look for, what inspiration you will take from it.”

“This one tells me you didn’t take your time.” He says of a shot of a long staircase inside a shrine. He points a gloved finger at the blurred, distant figures at the far end of the shot.” If you had waited until this guy came closer, it would be a much more interesting shot. And this photo of the statue overlooking the lake, I think you could have found a better angle. Take time, try lots of different angles. ” I explain how I usually travel with an irritable, non-photographer and he nods sympathetically.

“How do you chose the photos in your gallery?”

“Sometimes it’s just one photograph. Just one is enough. Sometimes I need to see the entire set.” He goes onto describe an exhibition with a photographer whose work was, “Too good. Too beautiful.” He didn’t want people to just come in and see the photos and say, “Wow that’s a great photo. ” And then forget all about them. He wanted a story that they would remember and so requested to see the entire set. He developed them all in his home lab, a set of 200 tear sheets altogether, then worked with the photographer to craft a story. “It was a great exhibition.”

Minato Chihiro‘s moody black and white photos hang in the exhibition today, the product of another collaboration that has brought them closer as friends.

“Why did you become a photographer?”

“The great earthquake happened. You know the one in Kobe? It made me think about what I was doing with my life, what I wanted to do.”

“What did you do before?”

“I was a lawyer.” He laughs.

He outlines his story, the tale of a student with a desire to live abroad, deciding to study his Masters degree in the United States. The decision required a year of intense study to become fluent in English. The study paid off and he was accepted, though it lead to a stint in tax law in Los Angeles. “I wanted to live there for the surf, but I was so busy, I hardly ever went to the beach.” The hours were long, the work boring and competitive. He thinks on his time in L.A. with considerable regret, to the point of a mistake. “I couldn’t feel the humanity there. ” He returned to Japan to continue his work in Osaka, when, in 1996, the Hanshin earthquake ripped Kobe apart and forced a reconsideration of priorities that lead to a three month trip to Mongolia.

He took with him a second hand Canon 5D, two lenses, one 50mm and the other a 300mm zoom, along with 200 rolls of film and was fortunate to be taken in by a family of nomads. Despite having no prior experience with photography, he began experimenting. “At first I didn’t know how to photograph it. ” He says, ” Mongolia is so wide.”

Credits Akasaka Tomoaki.

Returning home, he developed his film and created a slide show that he would show to everyone. The feedback was positive and he eventually took it a magazine, who hired him for his first assignment.

“Was your family supportive of you giving up law to become a photographer?”

“They know my personality. They were more shocked when I wanted to go to America.” He says grinning.

1996 was a busy year, with Akasaka deciding to go to Alaska only months after returning from Mongolia. He was to meet the famous Japanese wildlife photographer, Hoshino Michio, however Hoshino was tragically mauled to death by a bear before he had the chance. Instead, Akasaka met a colleague of Hoshino’s and together they tried to continue his work.

Thirteen years later, he took the photos from that time and collated them into a photo book called, The Myth, half of which strives to present the breadth of Alaskan and Canadian wilderness, and half the culture and spirituality of the people who live there. Or once lived there. Even in twenty years, environmental and social pressures have emptied the small village he stayed with.

The depths of Canadian forest book spread in Akasaka Tomoaki’s The Myth.

“Making the book changed the way I think about photography.” He says, ” As I’m taking the photos, I think about how they fit into a a story. But,” He warns, “I never try to force them into my story. I try to be inspired by them.”

His gallery, now three years old, has also helped to train his eye in what makes a great photograph or set of them.

“Have you been influenced by any other photographers?”

“Oh yes.” He says, then stops. “I can’t think of any names right now, but when an image inspires me, I try and replicate it. I practice and practice to perfect a skill, then try to apply it broadly in my other photographs.”

He admits. “I am never satisfied.”

“Would you say you’re a happy man?” I asked.

He smiles broadly, “Yes. I am. With photography I go outside, interact with people. Because of this, I got to see the northern lights and the rainbows in Mongolia. I’m so glad I gave up tax law.”

What I learned from meeting Akasaka:

1. Take time, try different angles

2. Look for the story in a photograph

3. Take a wider shot that provides greater context for a scene

4. Don’t be afraid to return to the same place to practice getting the perfect shot. Apply the skills learnt in the process of making one good shot broadly.

5. Learn from other photographers

6. Never be satisfied, always seek improvement

7. Photograph in RAW and learn to fix colour issues in post-production

8. Use a Polarizing filter for greater contract

I am so grateful to Akasaka Tomoaki for taking the time to speak to me and help give me some pointers on my photos. Meeting him was an honour, an education, and a lot of fun.

4 thoughts on “A happy man: successful freelancer Akasaka Tomoaki on photography and life

  1. I can’t call myself a photographer but I do appreciate great photography and love trying it out for myself. I love these tips… thank you! I especially love the tip about looking for the story in the photograph… those are the best and most moving pictures.


  2. Pingback: So Fresh and So Clean | Truth and Cake

  3. I really like that – “take time, try different angles.” Applies to so much more than photography! Wonderful post, good on ya, so glad to have found you compliments of the fab Rian over at Truth and Cake!


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