When not working as a high school English teacher, photoblogger Lee Chapman walks the streets of Tokyo in search of stories and sights that tourists, and even long-term residents, seldom see. Chapman, a U.K. native, has been running the photoblog Tokyo Times for almost 10 years. While his posts do sometimes focus on the quirky elements of the city, a large number of them capture the more poignant sides of urban living, such as day laborers in Sanya or abandoned buildings that stand as eerie reminders of a not-so-distant past. In this interview with The Japan Times, Lee Chapman talks of the forgotten homeless, taking the risk of violating privacy and the sport of trespassing.
When did you first come to Japan?
In May, it’s been 14 years since I came here. I thought it would just be for one year at first, then I took two. Then another and so on. The contracts for gaijin are often just one-year contracts, so I never actually made a conscious decision to stay for good. But then I found a Japanese wife, we bought an apartment, so I can’t imagine going back to live in the U.K. I go back home once a year for a few days where I experience what can best be described as reverse culture shock. It takes a few days before my chit-chat works — there’s no chit-chat in Japan.
I started out as an English teacher in a language school. Today I work as an English teacher in a high school just 15 minutes from my house. My job leaves me plenty of time to take pictures.
How did the blog start?
I had a lot of free time, so I thought I’d start a blog. There weren’t that many photos on the blog at first. It sort of evolved into that over time. As with so much else, I actually never took a conscious decision to turn it into a photoblog.
Do you have a specific theme in mind when you do the blog?
I want to cover the people of Tokyo, not the city itself. And by people I mean mostly the forgotten and the older people. There are plenty of blogs that cover the fashion girls of Harajuku and Shibuya. It has been done to death. The foreign press is swarming with these pictures too. I also started out in those places, but I gradually went another way. I like covering the east side of Tokyo, like Asakusa, Ueno and especially Sanya (a low income area north of Asakusa) — it’s a part of Tokyo that a lot of people don’t see.
So the aim of the blog is to cover places no one else covers. That’s the theme, in a sense. I do have pictures of fashionable girls from Harajuku, but I try to shy away from that. Old people and the homeless have more character, more stories to tell. I’m not on a mission, I’m just more interested in those sides of Tokyo.
From your captions, one sometimes get the feeling that you think Tokyo is an ugly city. Do you?
Tokyo as a whole is gray. Sure, there are pockets of beauty, but I don’t think any one area can be described as beautiful. Coming from Europe, it’s really obvious that in Japan, buildings are first of all functional and there is no one talking about preserving buildings forever. When it’s not functional any more, it gets torn down, so many neighborhoods look like they were put together coincidentally. It’s definitely not a beautiful city, but a very interesting one.
How would you describe Tokyo from a photographer’s point of view?
It’s a playground here. In Tokyo, taking pictures is generally accepted, and there are a lot of people walking around with cameras. So it is in no way like back in the U.K., where the authorities are clamping down on photography in the public sphere. There is a great variety of people here, so I don’t take pictures of the city, I take pictures of the people in the city. The backdrop doesn’t matter. Right now I prefer shooting pictures in black and white, because Tokyo can be too colorful. If I want to take a picture of an interesting old lady in Shinjuku, she will be covered in lights and colors, but that is not what I want. I want to take a picture of her and her story.
Also, I prefer to shoot in black-and-white when in Asakusa, Ueno and Sanya, because these areas feel like they are from another time.
What’s your policy on asking people’s permission before you take and publish their pictures?
I sometimes get criticized, mostly by Japanese people, that I should let people know when I’m taking their picture, but I very rarely do that. If you ask people for permission they tend to pose and then you are not capturing them how they really are. I want the people I’m photographing to be themselves. Some people will say that I’m invading privacy, and maybe I am, but I try to be as sensitive as possible. If it’s a bad picture, I won’t use it.
Homeless people are a favorite subject of yours. What are your thoughts about taking and publishing pictures of such a vulnerable group?
Again, I try to take and use pictures in a very sensitive way. In Sanya, I don’t feel comfortable taking pictures right in the face of the homeless people — I feel like I’m rubbing it in with my fancy camera and all. So I often take pictures of the homeless while they are sleeping. I’ve seen a noticeable increase in the number of homeless people in Tokyo, but people just don’t know about it. I can see in the comments on the blog that people are shocked that homeless people even exist. I’m not on a crusade and my pictures won’t change anything, except perhaps making people aware of this problem. That makes it OK in my view. But I also know that taking those pictures and publishing them, I am taking a decision on behalf of the homeless. In this day and age, a picture of them could go viral, so I have to be sure that I am making the right call.
The blog has an entire section devoted to photos of haikyo (ruins, abandoned places). What draws you to haikyo?
If it is a good spot, it can be strangely beautiful. Often the nature has taken over the manmade structure — windows have been smashed by trees, and plants are growing all over — so they can be very peaceful places. And if you’re really lucky, an abandoned building can be like a time capsule filled with personal stories. Once we found the house of a singer. He had left for whatever reason several years ago, and we were literally the next people to walk through the door. We pieced together his story from photographs and documents and took pictures of this very peaceful place. My friend found what could be his name in a phone book, but we didn’t want to contact him. It’s nice to have a little bit of mystery left.
There has been some controversy surrounding this sort of photography, due to reports of breaking and entering, vandalism, theft and so on. What are your own rules when you go for a haikyo trip?
I never smash a window or break in by force, so sometimes you need places where other people have done that already. I will only go in through open doors. Presumably I am trespassing when I do it, but I’m OK with that. Once I’m in, I won’t take anything except pictures. I have no quarrels with looking through papers and such to get the story of people who have lived there, though — that’s part of the exploration.
I share the sites I find with people I know. I have to know that people have the same principles as I do before I let them know where something is. I don’t want the haikyo-sites to be tourist attractions, as has happened at some places. Haikyo can be a very secretive hobby, where you don’t share your findings, and I guess I am as bad as the rest when it comes to that.
You’ve had your blog for quite some time — why do you keep going?
The blog is an outlet for my photography. Websites like Flickr and Twitter are set up for quick publication and quick thoughts, so they would be a lot easier to use. But I like to write something about my pictures or publish series, so the platform is perfect for me. And, importantly, the pictures on the blog are my own, as opposed to if I were to publish them on Google+ or Flickr.
Do you have an end goal for your photography?
The more I do it, the more I feel I improve. So if I could sell images and combine that with the steady income from my teaching job, that would be great. But you know, today everyone is a photographer, so it might be difficult. Also, I’m not sure how well I would do on assignments. Right now I just shoot what I like and I think I will keep on doing it just out of passion.