The Tokyo Project 東京プロジェクト

We’re now here at the end of the second volume of The Tokyo Project, and if I had to sum up the experience in only one word, I think it would have to be change. Over the last year since I shot the photos, I made significant changes to how I approached post-processing, research and writing, and underwent many in my personal circumstances, as well.

Though over the years I’ve made incremental improvements in shooting and processing technique through repetition, I began last winter to look into other photographers’ post-processing creative workflows, trying to understand how I could get more impact from my images. Though I don’t think I’ve yet developed what you’d call a distinctive style of my own, I’m getting better acquainted with the most frequently used adjustments, particularly those that allow one to take advantage of the large amount of information in a raw camera file. It was sometimes frustrating, as it meant working on photos at a much slower pace and with more labored decision making. Ultimately, I know this is a good thing. I was never going to make any step improvements hanging out in my comfort zone.

Learning how to push photos more in post also helped me understand the type of images I’ve been taking. My subjects are spaces and neighborhoods, so I have a lot of wide angle shots with extreme dynamic range. In daytime, it’s not uncommon for me to have both an overexposed sky and shadowy streets in the same photo. At night, backlit signs and street lamps may be totally blown out while everything else is almost crushed to black. Some of these situations can be fixed. I can pull highlights down and push shadows up, reduce global contrast and use the Lightroom clarity adjustment a little more aggressively to bring out detail. It also means I should think more about the kinds of photos I take. A few wide angle shots to establish the scene are fine, but I really need to get closer to individual focal points like shopfronts and people. Not only does this often help the dynamic range issue, it makes for more engaging photographs.

While I still rely heavily on translation tools and dictionaries, I’m now able to at least run simple keyword queries and fumble through articles and blog posts about my neighborhoods in Japanese. As one might expect, the farther away from the center of Tokyo I explore, the less English information about them is findable, if any exists at all. Though still awkward, being able to expand my search to include the local language is critical for understanding the viewpoints of people living there. The payoff is, through translating the relevant bits of what I find into English and mixing it with my own observations, I feel I’m finally getting to a place where I’m doing something unique. With the availability of information in the digital age, it would be easy to think that opportunities to be a pioneer have become scarce. But my own experience of working through this research tells me that there are still many opportunities to convey human experiences of one group to an audience of a different group.

While all of these changes to my process of getting from neighborhood photowalk to finished piece were happening, I had a lot of new life experiences of my own. I survived my first Beijing winter and have new found appreciation for a big, blue sky. Air quality proved to be a much larger barrier to exploration and street photography than I anticipated. There were only a handful of times I could tolerate going out for more than a few hours. I spent several months in daily Mandarin class, and while the fire hose teaching approach made it tough to retain some of what was imparted, I did get much more comfortable using what I already knew in conversation. My wife and I started renovation of our Shanghai apartment, our final destination in China, which should be ready at the end of this year. As we prepare to move, my limbo period of getting acclimated to a new place and culture will wind down, and I’ll be looking to apply these documentation and analysis techniques in a professional setting. At the moment, NGOs researching urbanization in China and Asia seem the most likely targets, though a suggestion from a friend to apply to a PhD program at the University of Tokyo is in the back of my mind. I’ve also gone deeper on the flipside of my neighborhood studies, where I look at how the built environment and use of public transit is depicted in anime. I have been able to communicate simple ideas with Japanese viewers also interested in the topic. I wrote the draft of this post you’re reading as I was on a plane en route to a new round of photography in Tokyo and Kansai, where I was able to meet many of them of them in person for the first time. As I wrap up this coda after returning, I’m happy to report that I was able to apply many of the things I learned about my shooting while on the ground, and had many fun and fruitful conversations about urbanism, anime and the intersection of the two.

Last year, I had many matters pulling me in different directions, and often time got away from me as I put off work on these photos and essays due to exhaustion. This time around, I’m resolved to be mindful of low value adding activities in my schedule, reducing and cutting some as needed, to make sure that I can work through my own projects at a steady pace. The end of the past summer and beginning of fall has been a watershed period for gaining clarity on many of my ideas, as well as collecting heaps of new raw material. I thought I might be physically and cognitively spent after a two week street photography marathon and need to take a break, but I’m so fired up after the immersion that all I can think about is moving forward. 行こう!

This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.

Additional volumes: Volume 1, Volume 3