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British photographer documents lives outside the lines

Nomadic Adrian 'Uchujin' Storey opens up new worlds by focusing on lesser-told tales

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Uchujin, aka Adrian Storey, a British photographer and filmmaker based in Tokyo, drolly explains his rather unusual business moniker: “I’d rather be an alien than an outsider.” Although usually translated simply as “alien,” “uchujin” has a universe of meaning in his storytelling world.

Storey’s work in photography and video frequently chronicles people outside the norm. A recent documentary introduces the only ethnic Japanese Muslim imam (teacher) in Tokyo. “Other outsiders that interest me are the body modification people (tattoo, piercing and suspension, etc.), the gay and lesbian community and graffiti artists,” he says.

His 2010 photo essay, “The Kibera Boxing Team,” chronicles the dreams of aspiring athletes in Kibera, the Nairobi slum whose claim to fame is that it is the largest one in all of Africa. Despite the area’s misfortunes, it is also home to a boxing club, and a few of Kibera’s members have even won places on Kenya’s Olympic team.

Storey spent two weeks with the club, watching as athletes took turns with a few pairs of boxing gloves in their ramshackle “gym.” He said he was inspired to record their struggles. “They told me of their dreams of a way out of the slum through boxing and their pride that they were doing something so positive when it would be so easy for them to fall into crime or alcohol or drug abuse.”

Two recent projects have brought Storey fully into the world of filmmaking: working as director of photography for Cultural Video Foundation’s “Twende Berlin,” a documentary about reclaiming public spaces for art, and his success as a semifinalist in the Focus Forward Filmmakers contest with his video introducing Safecast, a global network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements.

Storey took the name Uchujin when he became serious about photography — even before he came to Japan. “When I was living in Thailand, there is also a pronunciation issue with r’s and l’s like in most of Asia, so many people could not pronounce my name well. Adrian becomes flattened into alien. And I quite liked the nickname ‘alien,’ because in China you get an alien’s permit and in Japan, the alien registration card, and I much preferred alien to ‘foreigner’ especially in a country like India, where you really feel like an alien, like you’ve stumbled upon another planet.”

One day, a Japanese woman practicing calligraphy in a hostel intrigued him, and he asked her to write alien in kanji. “Those three kanji together were so beautiful,” Storey remembers, and he took the name for his fledgling photography business.

Storey admits he has always felt like an outsider. Growing up in England, he says he was “the weird kid” even when he was a child. “I was always the kid that everyone else thought was strange.”

His father worked from home as a freelance artist, and Storey grew up surrounded by sketches and creativity. He didn’t quite fit into university life: “After two years into a degree in physics, university just wasn’t working out. I had been playing as an amateur musician, so I started working in a recording studio, initially as like the tea boy but in five years I had become a recording engineer. I kept up my music, and had a few bands, one of which had a few CDs come out in England off small labels.”

When a friend invited him on a vacation to India, Storey was intrigued, as he had only traveled briefly in Europe before. “I saved up all the money and bought my tickets, and two months before we were supposed to leave, my friend admitted he had blown all his money and couldn’t go with me. I was committed to the trip so I decided to go alone.”

In 1999, at the age of 27 and with the new millennium just around the corner, he found himself in a new universe, spinning quickly by a series of serendipitous coincidences. “I met a man who later became a good friend on the roof of a hotel in Delhi only my second day there. He needed a recording studio engineer for some work he was doing covering live sound for the Dalai Lama, so I just fell into a job on my second day in India. That led me to staying in Asia and getting involved with Tibetan Buddhism.”

After a decade of traveling throughout Asia, Storey made a home in Tokyo in 2006 with his wife, a Japanese girl whom he met in Thailand.

Although many aspects of his creative life have come together in Tokyo, Japan is still like another planet for him. “I must admit I find it quite uncomfortable to live here. I do look a bit strange. I’ve got long hair and quite a lot of piercings, and if it’s summertime, I’ve got visible tattoos. I am 6’3″ (190 cm tall) so I do stand out.

“I know some of my experiences here stem from my personal appearance, but I’ve got foreign friends who do not look like me, who wear suits and blend in, but who still get some of the problems that I get. It’s not all about my physical appearance,” he says. “I find it quite strange the way foreigners are treated here, having lived in Thailand and India and spent a lot of time in Asia. And of course, in those places a foreigner is very obviously not Indian or not Thai, but in those places there isn’t the kind of fear or alienation I find here.”

Storey says it was not difficult in Thailand and India to become a part of society, despite his outsider’s appearance. After working for the Dalai Lama for three months, he decided to stay in Asia longer. “I kind of knew what Buddhism was before, but I wasn’t very interested in religion or spirituality particularly. But if you sit and listen to the Dalai Lama for eight hours a day for 14 days, it kind of infects you.” Storey lived in a monastery for several months, traveled simply and widely, and made it a point to interact with the locals and learn local dialects.

While traveling, Storey naturally brought along a camera. His father had given him a camera when he was a child, and he often took family photographs, but it was not until another chance encounter that he started to take photography seriously. One day, a year into his travels in Asia, he casually shared his photos with a French fashion photographer, who encouraged him to shoot professionally.

“I didn’t really believe him, but the next day his girlfriend stopped me and said, ‘He never says that to anyone. If he says you’re good, you’re good.’ So I decided to take my photography much more seriously, pitching things to travel magazines in England, and slowly building up a business freelancing.”

Looking toward the future, Storey knows he and his wife will live somewhere else someday. “The world is a huge place and I have not seen enough of it,” he says, but for now they plan to stay in Tokyo. “I want to just keep doing what I am doing, producing my best work, for people to see my work and specifically choose my style. There’s a million photographers out there and 1,000 filmmakers. You consistently put out your best work and hope the cream floats to the top somehow and people notice you.”

Of course, one way Storey does not want to be noticed is as the outsider in Japan. “Gaijin means outsider to me, and in a country where being part of the group is the most important thing, to use a word for me that means you are not a part of our group — it feels unpleasant to me.” He pauses briefly. “I have lived in a lot of places and I have foreign friends from all over the world. I’ve had girlfriends and friends of every race and nationality and internally I don’t feel comfortable with the way Japanese society makes me feel about Japanese people.”

Perhaps uchujin fits the best. The word forms from three separate kanji: firmament, space and human being. Firmament and space combine to mean the universe, so the kanji together could evoke “a person of the universe,” not simply “a being from another planet.” Seems to fit Storey rather well.

For more information on Storey’s work see www.uchujin.co.uk.

  • Peter Parkorr

    Sounds like you’ve taken a really great path Adrian and from the description of your projects to date, I can already tell I’ll be a big fan. Exactly the kind of stuff I am working towards at the moment too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000900782273 JC Clinefelter

    Adrian is one of the finest, together, talented and generous humans on our little rock. It’s great to see him get recognition for his hard (and meaningful) work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/madmikeburke Mike Burke

    The chap in the article seems to infer that he is being excluded by Japanese society because he is a gaijin, which is in my view a profoundly silly thing to say. Not only does he conflate the etymology of gaijin with the actual practical usage of the term he completely fails to understand that in Japan social groups are most commonly formed around school or workplaces and then essentially shut. This is done for the purposes of continued social harmony between the members of the group; for this reason it’s difficult, though not impossible, to invite new members in, whether they are Japanese or foreign – if you look into the academic research on Japanese culture this is actually very well understood. So while the general feeling that everybody makes you feel like an you’re an outsider it isn’t specifically because you’re a foreigner.

    This cultural trait does not equate to racism and attempting to infer it as does undervalues the real suffering that can come from genuine cases of racism, which do sometimes happen here. Moreover, it also infers that Japanese people tend to somehow possess some innate trait which inclines them towards alienating foreigners on the basis of race or nationality, this is not simply inaccurate but the statement itself is racist. If you really want to look at gaijin in the ancient context of the word, as outsider, then you would have to conclude that everybody, including Japanese people, are gaijin to the vast majority of social circles that exist in the country.

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      Good points.

      • http://www.facebook.com/madmikeburke Mike Burke

        Thanks, I find it mildly irritating when people experience the sense of ‘outsiderness’ we all feel in Japan and immediately jump to the outrageous conclusion that Japanese people are somehow inherently racist… Especially when they don’t even bother to explore alternative explanations to the phenomena. It’s stupid and offensive.

  • Iain Stanley

    great website. was interested in your portraits pics. lo and behold, there is a pic of Sean Lotman in there. I just met Sean at a fruit juice cafe in Pushkar, Rajasthan. Interesting guy, and we shared a chat, a juice and a travel stories of India and Japan. small world…….