Just how far would I go for an Eric Kim street photography workshop? How about half-way around the globe to Tokyo, Japan? Not only did I span the entire Pacific Ocean, I traveled through time, crossing the International Date Line into tomorrow. But, hey—it’s an Eric Kim workshop, right? And I figure it’s only right that someone from Los Angeles should go to Japan since my classmate Beverly had come all the way to L.A. from Tokyo for my first workshop with Eric in Hollywood.
I wasn’t the only alumnus of Eric’s previous seminars to make the journey. Stalwart streettog Rinzi Ruiz was my traveling companion and photo buddy for much of the trip. Joel Sheiner and Chris Camargo, also from the LA Streettog group, joined up with us in Tokyo. The visit to Japan had added personal significance for me since, although I am Japanese-American, I had never before visited the land of my ancestors. Raised on McDonald’s, red meat, and rock-’n'-roll, I actually fretted a bit about suffering some culinary culture shock, since I don’t even like fish, much less sea urchins and squid. I needn’t have worried: In the crammed, garish avenues of Tokyo, the sushi places sit side-by-side with Denny’s and Krispy Kreme, and you can find a Burger King on practically every street corner.
Rinzi and I didn’t want to deprive ourselves of cultural enrichment by relying exclusively on American fast food, however, so for our first night’s dinner in Japan, we set out to find some authentic local cuisine. One small problem: we couldn’t read any of the menus. We walked from one place to another until we ended up at Sukiya, the first restaurant we found that had pictures and prices on the menu that allowed us at least a fair guess as to what we were ordering.
Tokyo in the evening is a spectacle of light and vibrant color, as if decked out for Christmas every night of the year. Even the road construction crews and traffic cones glow like characters from Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade. Given the city’s unique admixture of the old with the new, the traditional with the commercial, I knew that Tokyo would provide photo opportunities unlike any I’d encountered before.
Small wonder, then, that the metropolis has become a Mecca for expatriate photographers from around the world, including our three distinguished guest instructors for the workshop. Alfie Goodrich hails from the U.K. and previously worked in the music business, where he had the opportunity to take pictures of rock superstar Peter Gabriel among other celebrities. He has since married a Japanese woman and now lives in the country and pursues photography full-time. Bellamy Hunt also married a native and settled in Japan. The self-dubbed “Japan Camera Hunter” acts as a broker for buyers interested in obtaining Japan’s most legendary cameras. And then there is Charlie Kirk, a wise-cracking, in-your-face, working-class Brit who, if he hadn’t become a street photographer, could just as easily have fit in as a member of the Sex Pistols. Despite his streetwise exterior, he’s a big softie when it comes to his “two cute dogs,” the adorable pups that inspired his Internet “handle.”
We got to know our soon-to-be teachers at the orientation session that opened the workshop on Friday night. Never one to waste time, Eric immediately assigned each of the students to one of the instructors and sent our groups out to shoot the city in all its electric nocturnal glory. This gave me the opportunity to witness Charlie Kirk in action. Charlie is famous (some might say “notorious”) for his brash, unapologetic use of flash in his street photography. People who are skittish about having their picture taken really jump when Charlie sticks a flash in their faces, a reaction he captures in many of his photos. Yet he can be quite suave and charming as he accosts potential subjects and sweet-talks them in Japanese—particularly if they happen to be attractive women. He even used his language skills to recruit some on-the-sidewalk models for my street portraits. I appreciated the assist, for I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of Japanese pretty much ends with “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”
On Saturday, each group of students switched to a different instructor so we could observe another photographer’s techniques and style. This time, I went with Eric Kim himself, whose use of the flash is a little different than Charlie’s. His goal seems to be to illuminate his subjects without confronting them or otherwise altering their natural attitude and expression—candid snapshots taken before the people can react to the photographer. However, Eric is no less aggressive than Charlie when it comes to getting a shot he wants, and he pushed us all to be daring in our hunt for good photo ops.
As our reward after a long day of shooting, we treated ourselves to a meal at Gonpachi, best known as the restaurant that served as inspiration for the set of the dinner massacre scene in Kill Bill. Fortunately, Uma Thurman did not burst into the room with a samurai sword to decapitate us all.
On Sunday, we faced the challenge of sifting through all the photos we’d snapped, editing the ones we liked, and picking the two best to be shown on a projector screen for critique. The group evaluation took so long that we used up our time at the Gotanda Cultural Center, the venue that hosted the workshop. We finished up at the Leica store in the Tokyo district of Ginza, where we toasted the seminar’s conclusion with a celebratory cocktail party. The instructors then selected runners-up and winners in such categories as “Most Improved,” “Best Portrait,” “Best Multi-Person Shot,” and “Best Overall Shot.” I also got opportunity to obtain the coveted 35mm Summilux lens, one of the world’s hardest-to-find Leica lenses.
The festivities went on late into the night, with dauntless partiers Eric and Charlie among the night-owls in attendance. On Monday, with the workshop wrapped up, Rinzi, myself and a few others accepted the invitation of local photographer and workshop attendee Takeshi to get a guided tour of the city. Along the way, we met up with Alfie Goodrich, who joined us for a tasty farewell dinner at the best ramen place in Tokyo…and possibly anywhere else. Being able to relate to well-known professional photographers like Alfie, Charlie, Eric, and Bellamy not only as teachers and colleagues but also as friends has been among the biggest benefits of my workshop experiences, and that’s why I’ll continue to roam the world seeking education and growth in my craft. To Tokyo…and beyond!