The Russian photographer who went behind the scenes of the Japanese film industry

“My father is a Buddhist, my mom is Russian-Christian with Polish blood, my granddad from my father’s side is Muslim, there are gypsies in my relatives, there are Christian heroes who died during Stalin’s regime by preaching the word of Christian God. I was raised in a multi-cultural, multi-religion family, where pictures of Buddha and Christ were always close to each other. So I am not exactly a very ‘native’ Russian, though my passport says so.”

This is Tim Gallo – more at home in Japan, where he works as a photographer, than in his Russian homeland. “At 17,” he reveals, “I had a chance to enter Japan as a student, and since the moment I put my feet on Japanese ground, I knew this would be the only place where my not so common upbringing and views can fit perfectly.”

So he moved to Tokyo in 2005, first joining a language school, and then the Toho Movie School. Tim’s graduation film won a prize, but he was unable to get a visa to work freelance on movie sets, and instead pursues his parallel career in photography. Hosoe Eikoh, famous for his photographs of Mishima Yukio in the 1960s, purchased Tim’s first serious portrait work for the Kiyosato Photo Arts Museum’s permanent collection.

Still, Tim remained an outsider in his adopted home: “The advantage of being a ‘foreigner’ in the movie or photography industry is that you are a panda in a room. Everybody likes you, but nobody takes you seriously. That is, until you speak fluent Japanese. After that, you are like everybody else – but on top of everything, you have to fight with all stereotypes they have towards foreigners.

“I was the first European in a movie school – they took me as an experiment (the principal of the school told me when drunk). I was the first foreigner accepted as staff in a top commercial photo studio, and the manager told me he thought twice. Now I understand why.

“The Japanese movie and photography industry is still very old-school, meaning that it is 99% vertical relationships in everything and not many foreigners can accept or find a way through that.”

Retaining his interest in cinema – and an extensive list of industry contacts – Tim often shoots portraits of actors, or takes stills on film sets. “I go on set only when the director promises me absolute creative freedom,” Tim says. “Otherwise it’s not a job for me. There are still a few directors who want a creative photographer on set, but even a director’s nod will not free you from all the Japanese rituals and specifics of Japanese movie making. You have to overcome them by yourself. Its almost impossible to find space on a set, because everyone and everything is always moving. The only way to do that is to create a proper communication with the DP, lighting unit and sound operators, because you will be always in their way. I don’t like zoom lenses, so it is especially hard for me. There were times when I was squeezing myself between the camera tripod legs – and many times even between the operator’s legs – just to get the shot.”

Recently, Tim has been taking photographs for Sakaki Hideo’s yakuza drama Kiyamachi Daruma. “We were shooting in Kiyamachi, a town controlled by the real mob. It was scary at first, but usually ‘real’ yakuza are the most polite people you can meet. The youngsters are scary, but most of them see the yakuza-actors like gods and pay much respect to them. Most of the time there are even helpful in a way, keeping the common crowd from the set. There is an unspoken rule with them – you don’t speak to them, they don’t speak to you. Some of the actors play yakuza only, there are a lot of background actors who are real yakuza, some of the actors were yakuza prior to acting. It’s a very interesting world, I hope to pursue the theme more closely in future.”

Now that Tim has finally gained permission to work as a freelance filmmaker, he may just get his chance.

See more of Tim’s work here and learn more about Kiyamachi DARUMA here.