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Capturing the life and lives of Tokyo, one day at a time

by Magdalena Osumi

“I’m French but I don’t drink coffee,” declares Paris-born photographer Cedric Riveau, as he sips top-grade tea at a French tea salon in Ginza.

Expressing surprise that he didn’t opt for a tiny shot of espresso, like other Frenchmen I’ve known, I’m gently taken to task for lazy stereotyping — which turns out to be one of Riveau’s pet peeves.

“I hate generalities and all the cliches,” he says. “And the cliches are precisely what I break down through my work.”

For Riveau, 42, who has been photographing people since his teenage years, capturing them with his mirrorless digital camera has recently become something of a habit, he explains.

Ever since Riveau came to Tokyo in May 2001, he has been intensely fascinated by the world around him and its people.

His first portraits of Tokyoites were only shared on Instagram or Twitter, where he regaled his compatriots with tales of his experiences here.

Encouraged by the positive feedback, he continued capturing the people he passed on the streets, in every corner of the city.

There was something missing, though. Through a single photograph, he was not able to convey the essence of the people he had met in the way he hoped to, he says. “I wanted to show the Tokyo seen through my eyes and Tokyoites in their true colors.”

With that in mind, he set out on Jan. 1, 2012, to assemble a collection of 366 photos captured daily throughout the year (a leap year), complemented by brief stories depicting the life of each and every person he met.

Riveau compiled these vivid portraits on a website and into a book he plans to publish under the title “Portrait of the Day.”

“Every day we presumably walk past about 2,000 or 3,000 people we don’t know anything about,” he says. “But everyone has his or her story to tell.”

The people-portraits comprise a photograph and a story based on information provided in response to five questions, about the subject’s name, age, occupation, where they came from (that day, as well as originally) and what brought them to the place they met.

On every single day from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, Riveau interviewed people, rain or shine, and regardless of typhoons or the stickiest heat. That year, he quizzed about 2,000 people and took nearly 1,600 images of passersby who stopped for a chat.

It all started with a conversation with a chef at a Japanese-style eatery after the devastating quake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

“It took me about seven months to realize how to portray people,” he says, adding that surprisingly, if there is someone willing to lend others their ear, people do open up.

“Every time I take a look back on the pictures, I see the people smiling at me,” he says. “I want to pay them back somehow through my work.”

Refilling his teacup, he insists that his interviewees didn’t have much in common except the urban space they share.

Riveau was raised in a family of artists and spent much of his youth in the creative mecca of Montmartre, atop a hill in Paris’ 18th arrondissement.

His passion for photography was awakened at around the age of 10, when he received his first toy camera. The single-lens reflex camera his father gave him when he turned 16 gave him a means to express himself and his vision of the world, he says.

Riveau’s then-girlfriend was his first model. “People have always been what fascinate me the most,” he says. “There is beauty in nature, but there is no story behind it.”

Riveau graduated from the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris with a degree in linguistics and literature and a postgraduate qualification in human resources.

After working in France for Michelin through his 20s, he traveled the roughly 10,000 km to Japan, he says, to shut the door on the past, open up to new experiences and look for a new way of life.

First of all, though, he ended up working with Michelin in Japan for another couple of years, before finally deciding to make the break and devote himself to his passion, photography.

Riveau says, however, that in Tokyo he doesn’t miss France, pointing out the imported French tiling of the floor at the tea salon where we met.

“In Tokyo you can find anything you wish for,” he says. “I find myself absorbed by the craziness of the landscape, which lacks unity.”

The Tokyo night landscape was the inspiration for an exhibition he held in 2012, together with Philippe Marinig, a fellow Frenchman, photographer and Japan resident.

The capital’s stark contrasts, the eclectic mix of modern and traditional architectural styles, the urban chaos and the constant ebb and flow of people at the “scramble crossing” in Shibuya are among the factors Riveau reels off when asked what inspires him. “This is my image of a whirl, and this is what I find fun and fascinating about this city.”

Asked about the differences between the French and the Japanese, Riveau is at a loss to answer, again stressing that the diversity of people is the only thing he noticed through communication with those he met throughout the project.

“I have noticed, however, a change in the mind-set of many Japanese since the 2011 earthquake,” he says. “In my impression, people started to value their lives more than they used to, and they enjoy it more.”

Riveau also works for the Institut Francais du Japon in Tokyo, where he teaches French and helps organize cultural events. The Institut Francais, or French Institute, is the Paris government’s official center of language and culture.

He says the project has certainly helped him make new acquaintances.

“I still try to find time to talk to people in the streets,” he says.

Riveau’s project has proven popular among Japanese people interested in French culture — many of whom, however, told him he would have had a much harder time completing the project if he’d been Japanese.

“Here in Tokyo, we foreigners are allowed to be different — we have the right to be ourselves,” he says. “But I want to break down the stereotypes, all the cliches that hinder us from noticing that every person we walk past does differ, regardless of his or her background.”

Cedric Riveau’s “366 Portraits” can be viewed at (www.366portraits.net). On Saturdays, Telling Lives profiles interesting individuals with links to Japan. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.