For landscape photographer GOTO AKI, being a professional photographer was not always his first choice for a career. In this 6-part series, the Canon Photo Clinic instructor shares his experiences on his journey to pro photography in the hopes of providing inspiration to aspiring photographers. (Text: GOTO AKI)
A contact sheet I shot at Koh Samet in Thailand when I was still at photography school. Even without saying it out loud, the sound of the shutter conveyed my desire to capture a photo, and the man turned towards me midway through the shoot. These were shots taken with monochrome film.
The encounter in the Sahara desert that sparked a life-changing interest in photography
What is your dream?
Ever since I was around 10 years old, I have had dreams of travelling around the world. That dream became a reality in 1993 when I was 21 years old, when I took a break from university to travel around the world.
At the time, I didn't have much of an interest in photography, and I spent most of the trip thinking about what I would work as in the future. And what I had with me on the trip was a compact film camera. As it was the pre-Internet era, I relied on word of mouth from backpackers that I met when staying in cheap dormitories. Every day was exciting, and I got to experience the world, come into contact with cultures and people that I was unfamiliar with, and admire the scenery I came across.
On my travel in the Sahara Desert, I came across a Japanese photographer 7 years older than myself. While listening to the sound of the dry DSLR shutter get swallowed by the desert, I thought about how nice it would be if I could become a photographer and just keep travelling. It was this vague sense of longing that sparked my interest in photography.
In the northern part of the Sahara while travelling around the world when I was about 21 years old.
The smiling faces of the people I had met on my journey, and the countless stunning and undiscovered landscapes I had seen on my bus rides had left a mark on my heart. Once I returned to Japan after 8 months of travelling, I purchased a manual SLR camera and a 50mm lens that had been recommended by a friend. More than wanting to become a professional or an artist, I just wanted to take photos. That was all I had in mind when I picked up the camera.
To take photos, I travelled around a world new and unfamiliar to me
After graduating from university, I wanted to work overseas so I joined a trading company. While working on projects such as a natural gas pipeline project between Thailand and Myanmar, and exporting steel products for the construction of the Petronas towers in Malaysia, each time I travelled overseas on a business trip I would take some time away from work to take portraits and street shots. Having a camera with me sparked conversations with people I didn't know, and I came to look at the landscapes that passed me by with an even deeper interest as I became more and more captivated by photography.
While I did enjoy my work, there was a voice in my heart growing louder each day, telling me to make a living out of photography. So, at 25 years of age I quit the company and ventured into the world of photography. This was in a time when lifetime employment was the norm in Japan, so it was a period when quitting the company was a very big deal.
At a weekend market held in the outskirts of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. (At that time, I still struggled with manual focusing.)
Street photographs taken while on a business trip to China's Inner Mongolia. I was surrounded by vast grasslands wherever I went. That trip left me amazed at the sheer size of China.
While admiring the works of photographers such as Elliott Erwitt, Man Ray, and Michael Kenna at home, I was captivated by the high-contrast expressions in monochrome, so I created my own dark room at home and started developing photos. Although I hadn’t given a thought as to how I was going to make a living at that point in time, my heart was simply overwhelmed by the joy of embarking on a journey into the world of photography.
Various photograph collections that taught me the richness of the high-contrast expressions in monochrome.
Meeting Robert Frank
I then enrolled myself in the specialist photography school, Tokyo College of Photography, which could also be said to be a training ground for artists. One day my former teacher, the late photographer Kiyoshi Suzuki invited me to go with him to New York to meet Robert Frank, who had been a friend of his since 1972. At the time, Robert Frank was already a legend in the world of photography, and was an artist who greatly influenced photographers from all over the world.
I carefully selected 30 street snapshots taken in Bangkok and Shanghai, and put together a portfolio. We were at the Atelier New York where Frank took his time to view my photos in silence. He reacted favourably to the kind of photos that stimulated the imagination even if they had not been captured clearly. I felt that this conveyed the message that photos are a form of visual communication that could convey feelings better than words can.
I will never forget the huge lobster meal we ate together at New York's Grand Central Station. When he asked if it was delicious, I replied, "Yes", but the truth was that I was too excited to be able to taste anything.
With Robert Frank on the rooftop at the Atelier New York. (Photo by: Kiyoshi Suzuki)
The portfolio of street snapshots that I took with me to New York.
After returning to Japan, I immersed myself in the library of the photography school. I looked at photos from all manner of genres, and put my own tastes aside, to experience the history of photography with my own eyes. I felt that I couldn't begin to say my own work was new without first having an understanding of the history of photography. I then purchased a cheap 30 metres of roll film, and put as much money as I could into photography.
Some of the films of photos I took during my days at photography school.
Even now I still treasure the ideas I picked up from back then, when I learned "not to take photos of subjects as they are, but to create works that stimulate your imagination", and to "know the past to create new works".
Other articles by GOTO AKI:
5 Reasons Why the EOS 5D Mark IV is Ideal for Landscape Photography
4 Keys to Shooting Pre-dawn Landscapes
EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM: Breath-taking Landscape Photography Even With Handheld Shooting
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