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Photography buff thrives in the capital of cameras

Vintage camera hunter from U.K. finds himself in the right place at the right time as demand returns for the analog in photography

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Bellamy Hunt’s name is part of his business: Japan Camera Hunter, a one-man enterprise supporting film photo buffs around Asia and the world. His work mainly involves hunting down vintage cameras, whether an elusive early model Nikon or a classic Leica.

Although Hunt appreciates the pun in his company’s name (“My Japanese clients love seeing the katakana repeated, hunter from Hunt”), he doesn’t really see himself as a hunter.

“I sometimes call myself an enabler because I like to share my passion with others. I like to have people using something that I found for them or made for them or sold to them, knowing that these things have made them happy and that I have enabled them to reach their artistic goals.”

Hunt’s business has grown quickly in the last 2½ years, and he hopes to soon create a physical space where he can bring together like-minded photographers in Tokyo.

“I’m gearing up to open a gallery/shop/meeting space/speak-easy, an all-in-one everything place for photographers in the next couple of years. A place where you can sit down and read up on photography with a cup of coffee, cameras for sale in the corner,” he said. “A space where you can share photography tips with someone or hold an exhibition. The idea is to make a place for photographers visiting Japan or photographers based in Japan, foreign or Japanese. Everyone can be there and be a part of the community.”

Hunt may savor the chase, yet he equally strives to support this wider community. According to Hunt, the community is growing larger, because more and more photographers are choosing nondigital cameras.

“Demand is getting stronger at the moment, as people are rebelling against technology becoming overly complex or overly demanding. People want to step back and savor the process, and shooting with film thus becomes more of an artistic creative medium,” he said.

Hunt supports film photographers with his extensive website, creating and publishing shopping maps that detail Tokyo’s many out-of-the-way camera stores and offering advice to Western photographers traveling East.

He also provides shopping maps of Hong Kong, and even designs and sells plastic film cases modeled after those discontinued by Fuji Film.

“I really wanted people to know that film wasn’t dead. It was just about trying to promote film photography, to show people that we are not giving up,” he said.

Hunt admits he has customers who request a specific camera but have no intention of actually taking photographs with it.

“I do have clients who want to collect a piece of antique beauty from another era, not photographers who want to use them. But some of the cameras I’ve sold in the past are worth so much money, you’d be scared to use them. Someone sold a Leica in Germany last year for a couple million dollars. I have never found something that expensive, but I have found a handful of the rarest cameras in the world, worth very silly amounts of money.”

Despite having had a “camera in my hand since I was 14 years old,” Hunt never intended to work in the photography industry. His early training did, however, provide him an excellent model for creating an artistic community.

Hunt trained as a silversmith in his native England, attending the School of Jewellery at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design.

“The university is in the middle of the jewelry district in Birmingham, and it is part of their system and wider community that you take a part-time job in the industry while you are in school, accepting commissions while you are studying. After I graduated, I worked in the building next door to the university.”

After two years of work, Hunt decided to take a break and travel. “I didn’t enjoy working for other people. I wanted to work for myself. It’s been a defining thing throughout my whole life. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing and I don’t like being told what to do. So after a while I got pretty disillusioned by the whole thing, and I found myself taking photographs more often of other people’s work, than creating my own designs.”

Hunt traveled to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong before coming to Japan. While in Australia on a working holiday visa, he worked in an art gallery and also accepted photography commissions, “mostly personal work, for example, photographs of a company’s executives.”

A friend then recommended he go to Japan, and Hunt added it to his world tour, coming to Tokyo in 2004 at the age of 27.

Tokyo immediately appealed to Hunt.

“Spending time in Japan, I realized a lot of the things I am really passionate about surrounding cameras is all here. It’s like a mecca for photography. I arrived at the right time and place in my life, but I also felt some sort of calling.”

Hunt stayed, teaching English for a few years before he was introduced to the advertising world by a former student, who recommended he try to sell some of his photographs. These connections eventually led to a pivotal turn in his life, with an introduction in 2009 to Gin-Ichi, a prestigious company that supplies cameras, photography equipment and studio supplies to professional customers.

Working for Gin-Ichi not only provided an insider’s view into the thriving, competitive world of photography in Asia, it also gave Hunt the chance to return to his first love — film photography.

When he first came to Japan, to save money Hunt briefly traded in his film camera for a digital model.

“When I started at Gin-Ichi, I was allowed to purchase at discount my dream camera, a camera I had desired since I was 18 years old — a Nikon F3 Titanium. I had missed film so much; it was back to taking photos in the most purest form.”

Hunt continues: “I am immensely proud to have worked for Gin-Ichi. I took a risk, accepting a job as a part-time employee, hoping that if I could prove myself, they might consider taking me on full time. Gin-Ichi is a traditional Japanese company headed up now by the second generation, successfully modernizing it while I was there, incorporating the latest technologies. Yet they still kept these very traditional core values that were wonderful to learn from. Respect and patience and a sense of responsibility. That’s the biggest thing I took from the company, the importance of being responsible, to the customer, to your coworkers, and to everyone around you. And that idea really suited me a lot.”

Hunt was made a full-time, permanent employee after only eight months on staff. “I had great coworkers and great mentors, not only to teach me the industry, but also to teach me the way of doing business in Japan.”

His hours were extensive, and Hunt was also attending language school every night to improve the Japanese he was using for work. The pace proved exhausting, and two years in, Hunt was advised by his doctor to take at least a month off to recover.

“Gin-Ichi was very supportive, and told me to take as much time as I needed. I went back to the U.K., and came to the realization that I really wanted to work for myself,” he said.

Returning to Japan, Hunt sat down with his bosses and told them his idea: to take one small part of his work with Gin-Ichi (finding specific cameras for customers) and start his own business. “I was very nervous, but they were understanding, and gave me their blessing. I’m still a customer of theirs, and I still go there regularly and know all the employees well, but since everything I do now is for myself, the pressure is not as intense.”

Hunt also has more time for his own photography, and his passion for photography is fully integrated into his life: “For me, photography is a really personal thing. I’m not trying to sell it, but if people want to see it, that makes me happy. I like gritty and dark, sort of the interesting comparisons of humanity. I take a lot of photographs on the streets throughout Asia where I travel for my work. I love that feeling, being part of a team or a wider community, yet working on my own with creativity.”

For more information, see japancamerahunter.com.

  • Dave Powell

    Awesome! Well done Bellamy.

  • Eugene Cornelius

    Good on ya Bellamy!