Over the last decade, Hiro Tanaka has published two photobooks – Dew Dew Its and Chicharron, which won the 2018 Cosmos Arles PDF Award. He has exhibited globally in group shows and photo festivals, and toured the world with punk and hardcore rock bands, where he is often spotted deep in a mosh-pit, camera pumping in the air.
But before all that, he was working nine-to-five as a computer technician in Tokyo, Japan, with no interest in photography. Tanaka’s whole career sprouted from a string of unexpected coincidences, beginning with a free flight to America.
“I was just really lucky – on so many levels. Without planning anything, coincidence after coincidence kept on happening and connecting to one another,” says Tanaka over email from New York, just a couple of days before he flies home to Japan after a month-long tour through America’s midwestern states.
It all started about 10 years ago, when Tanaka was dawdling in a shopping mall in Tokyo. He spotted a raffle in the events hall – a common event in Japan – in which you spun a barrel full of coloured balls, and picked out a colour to see what you’d won. It was a “Buy 3000 yen [around £20] worth of shopping and get a free draw” kind of deal, and most of the prizes were food-related.
“I love food,” says Tanaka, and just as he was imagining how delighted he would be to win, he spotted a discarded receipt at his feet. Whoever it had belonged to had spent over 3000 yen, so Tanaka took it to the counter and had a go on the wheel. “Obviously I lost,” he says, “I got a complementary packet of tissues or something and that was it.”
But, inspired, Tanaka kept going, looking out for scrap receipts every time he want to the mall from then on. Gradually he began to win prizes, and soon enough he got addicted to playing the raffle. “At one stage I must have gone back two or three times a week! Thinking back on it now, I was taking back stacks of receipts each day, but I never had a single bag of shopping,” he says. “None of the staff questioned me though.”
One day, after a chain of failed attempts, a golden ball dropped out of the barrel. Tanaka had won a free flight to America, and with that, his journey into the world of photography began. A big fan of American hardcore, punk, and indie rock music, he headed straight to First Avenue & 7th St Entry in Minneapolis, the venue in which Prince filmed Purple Rain.
“I fell in love with the band I saw there, and asked if I could buy their record,” he says. “For some reason they just gave me one, and from there we became friends, and started hanging out in Minneapolis. I couldn’t speak any English, but they were so friendly and kind to me. They took me sightseeing, and to parties.”
To Tanaka’s surprise, the band invited him to go on tour. They travelled in a van down giant highways, through cornfields so vast they dropped off the horizon; he went to underground gigs, ate pizza slices bigger than his face, and hung out with musicians who smoked enormous joints in the back of parking lots – things he would never see back in Japan.
“I definitely had a culture shock,” he says. “I’d never been to America before and I experienced so many things that were completely different to my hometown. It was like watching a film – scene after scene – I was baffled by how much was going on all the time. Musically, everything was so much freer than it is in Japan. There was more of a deeper DIY-spirit, which really struck me.”
One day, as he was packing up his belongings to tag along on another tour, his friend encouraged him to make the most of this rare opportunity, and lent him an SLR camera. He scribbled down diagrams to illustrate ISO and F-Stops, but none of it made sense to Tanaka at the time. “I just went by two rules for the whole tour: the venues were all dark, so I used a flash, and outside in the sun, I used Auto mode.”
As he kept taking pictures, Tanaka found himself enjoying it more and more. “I started going to libraries and book shops to look at photobooks, and gradually I was sucked into the world of photography.” Back home, he enrolled in a workshop with Koji Onaka – “where I learned everything I know about photography” – and kept travelling back to the states to tour with bands, this time as a photographer.
He based himself in California for a few years, and in 2013 made his first photobook of band images, Dew Dew Its, published by Asian Man Records. Tanaka moved back to Japan afterwards, but he still travels a lot – last year, he was only at home for about two or three month, spending the rest of the time either working abroad or travelling.
In April 2018, Chicharron – a dummy book of diptychs from his personal travels through the US, South America, Europe and Asia – won the Cosmos Arles PDF Award, where it attracted the attention of Italian publisher Witty Kiwi. Several months later the book was published and launched at Polycopies at Paris Photo.
“Everyone has different ideas of what makes a good photograph. For me, a good image is one that moves something inside my body and mind, like when you hear a good song and you forget about the world around you,” he says.
Tanaka looks up to the work of classical photographers such as Eugène Atget, August Sander, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Weegee, Bill Brandt, and László Moholy-Nagy, but also finds himself drawn by the work of Lewis Baltz and John Divola, as well as Japanese photographers such as Takuma Nakahira, Shoji Ueda, Shigeo Gocho, Koji Onaka, Masatoshi Naito, and Issei Suda. In particular, he was inspired by Hiroshi Hamaya’s Snow Land.
“I don’t really have a process, it’s all intuition,” says Tanaka. In Chicharron, most of the photographs come as pairs, which is Tanaka’s way of “connecting the dots” – “like the feeling of a shapeless puzzle coming together in my mind”. “When you travel and you’re in a completely different environment, you experience so many more random events than you could ever have imagined,” he says. “Every day is different, removed from the usual flow of time and speed. I’m attracted to those unusual experiences”.
Tanaka’s photography is also about relationships – not just relationships between people, but between all of the elements that make up a photograph, “the air, the atmosphere, the colours, the things you can’t see with the eye, and the things that remind you of something else”. It’s something he’s focusing on in another, ongoing project, Around 42nd and 7th, which is shot in Times Square, New York. This new body of work is more experimental, using collage to mashup images in a way that mimics the sensory overload of Times Square. Part of the project was recently exhibited in Void’s Hunger exhibition on PHMuseum.com, where he shared a section titled The Cage with Erik Kessels, Erik van der Weijde, and Alix Marie.
This spring Tanaka will be publishing his third book, but this one won’t include any photographs. Dirty Birdy Bible: Notes from the Road, is a book of American colloquialisms and slang that Tanaka picked up on, and diligently jotted down. “I think there is a tendency for Japanese people to think that you have to be able to speak English to go to America,” says Tanaka. “But people were so patient and kind to me. I feel so much gratitude for how things turned out for me.”
“If this hadn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be taking photographs now. I wouldn’t be travelling the world and touring with bands either – I’d be a completely different person.”
Chicharron by Hiro Tanaka is published by Witty Kiwi, available to purchase for €25 https://wittykiwi.com/Chicharron-Hiro-Tanaka
Dirty Birdy Bible: Notes from the Road will be available to purchase from April 2019 https://daylightbooks.org/products/dirty-birdy-bible-notes-from-the-road