The impermanence of life. It’s a very catchy term, it’s curious and given its heavy philosophical nature, it’s difficult to encounter such topic in everyday life. Johan Brooks, a young English street photographer who grew up in NYC and settled in Japan 11 years ago, gives us another point of view to understand this concept.
Incredibly skilled in moving among people, in capturing those ephemeral moments that characterize his work, Johan is a self-taught photographer who has taught himself how to observe and understand the world and, above all, its inhabitants and their deep connection with the space in which they live and move. His shots are strong, fast, magnetic, ephemeral as the concepts they convey; despite this, they impress themselves strongly in an imaginary that lives inside each of us and to which all of us, who in one way or another, try to give a sense.
At this point, it is almost evident how much Johan’s work is actually a portrait of the ephemeral and transitory contemporary human condition, conveyed by the subjects themselves who create and draw it with their own actions. The immediate impact of his photographs imprints and cements nothing but the concept of time and its ephemeral characteristic. These chaotic moments are completely embedded within perfect frames in which all the elements involved convey a sense of movement in time and space inexorably transferred to the viewer.
Johan moves his steps and his eyes in the world we all live in, observing and experiencing the journey from point A to point B which, for him, is more important than the arrival itself. His profound curiosity about the transient condition of mankind results in another episode of documenting the contemporary era and its main characteristics, projecting elements of himself into the imaginary in which he’s deeply immersed and giving us viewers his vision.
As he proceeds to travel from point A to point B, we let him introduce himself to you at this point in his journey. We are very curious to see what will lead him to travel further in the future.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHAN BROOKS
Hi Johan, and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Tell me something about yourself, who are you and how did you get into photography.
There’s a natural allure to photography as an almost magical way of preserving the people, experiences and spontaneous happenings around us. That’s how it started for me — born from appreciation for those close to me and a pensive fascination with the impermanence of life. Now I consider myself a documentary and street photographer, so in some regard you could say not too much has changed.
I live in Tokyo and grew up in NYC, but I’ve spent a lot of my life living in small towns in Japan and the UK. I generally say I picked up photography around the time I came to Japan some 11 years ago, but these things can always be traced back further.
What are your main influences? Do you have photographers or masters from whom you took off in your early times?
I am self-taught, as they say, and just learned by doing. I began street photography before I knew it was an established activity and, for better or worse, never devoted time to studying it. In terms of specific individuals, I can’t say I have any key influences. The photographs that have had an impact on me are many, as are the names attached to them. Broad as this is, I’d say much of my inspiration comes from photojournalists and the street photography community in general — both here and abroad.
I understand you are part of VoidTokyo collective. How did you end up living in Japan? Can you explain to us what is VoidTokyo, how did you manage to be part of the collective and what are the goals of it?
During my time in the UK, I happened to pick up and read a historical fiction novel called “The Gift of Rain” by Tan Twan Eng. Among other things, it spoke of Japan and was likely the catalyst for my move here. That’s simplifying things a bit, of course.
I only recently joined VoidTokyo and it was likely the result of being a consistently active member of the community for several years. Two or so years ago I was invited to TokyoSPC (Tokyo Street Photography Club) — which I remain a member of —and I’ve got to give some credit to my friends there as it has no doubt affected my prominence.
I first met the founder of VoidTokyo, Tatsuo Suzuki, at one of the early exhibitions. After that, I would occasionally run into him or the other members in the wild. There are certain popular haunts in Tokyo where the world will seem smaller than it is.
VoidTokyo has a few goals, the first being to publish a zine on a regular basis showing the many aspects of Tokyo and it’s people. Over the years this will create a historical record of the changes in both. Through the zines, exhibitions and other activities, we aim to increase the audience and appreciation of street photography as a genre. We also want to highlight talented photographers in the community that have not received the attention they deserve.
As shown in your Instagram profile, you are predominantly attached to street photography. Can you tell us how did you end up on this specific style?
I think for many the outside world is a network of routes, whereas much like for a parkourist perhaps, I see it as a complex and ever evolving playground. When people leave their homes, many have their minds on reaching point B and then returning to point A, but for me — and forgive me here — it really is about the journey.
There’s a kind of excitement and satisfaction in catching something completely transient that no one else has or ever would have seen had you not photographed it. I believe life is best enjoyed by sharing it with others and in a way, street photography allows another avenue for that.
Beyond these more personal takes, I believe it serves as a medium for historical documentation in its own right. I also use it as a training sandbox for photojournalism; I don’t think it would be too farfetched to say the sharpest eyes in the human race could well belong to the street photography elite.
I can imagine how incredibly important is for you to trust your instincts in the process, since the moments you capture are incredibly ephemeral. Can you tell us more about your workflow when you are in the streets taking your shots? How do you find the perfect combination of elements that makes you press the shutter?
It’s truly on a case-by-case basis. My mode is different if I’m in the middle of frenetic Shibuya versus in some quiet neighborhood. It also depends on my mood and the lenses I’ve opted for that day. Even when I’m working on a project, I’m seldom looking for any one specific thing; I’m typically trying to see as much as possible, because you simply don’t know when or where something interesting is going to happen.
On somewhat rare occasion I will happen upon a scene or area and work it a bit, but for the most part I stay fluid, moving through the city like the people in my photos. As for finding the perfect combination of elements, I’ll let you know if and when I manage to do so! If such a thing were to come together someday, I would attribute it to a combination of right time, right place, awareness and practice.
On your website you have a lot of projects, more than one in particular caught my attention. I’ll start from “Oru”: I must say I’m really interested in how you combined the elements (clothes, subjects and obviously the origamis) to convey your ideas and needs. It’s a completely different style compared to the one you usually use for your photography, something really calm and steady. I’d love to hear from you how you worked on it, stylistically and conceptually.
“Oru” grew from my childhood fascination with origami, which I still hold an affection for to this day. That combined with my — at the time — complete immersion in martial arts formed the initial concept for the series.
Like most, I’ve seen people I care about pass away, as well as had some manner of personal hardships, and I think in retrospect I was channeling or even processing some of the emotions tied to these events. When you’re working on a project like this, shooting street or even photographing a protest, a certain centering of self can be achieved — a focus that frees you of the trivial thoughts and concerns that assail the mind.
It was an early project and is indeed very different — a complete 180 even — from what I’m doing now. I respect fine art photography for it’s creativity and vision, but I was spending significantly more time doing post-production than actual photography and it left me dissatisfied, so I moved on.
Your work is entirely developed around the human figure and its actions: portraits, personal work, documentary and street; they are all born around some human trace and source. This gets me to the point where I really ask myself what the human figure, the people means to you and to your work. Can you tell me how do you see the human figure and how do you use it in the frame? Also, what they represent to you personally? (If it can help you: How your ideas and vision on the people and the human figure has been in the past, how did it changed in time?)
With all our emotions and energy we swirl around one other, and the source of our inspiration tends to come from the things around us. There’s a lot to draw upon there and reflect back on itself.
You’re right — photographs of mine without some human element are few. My main interest is in the human condition and documenting it. When I think about all the historic photos I’ve seen that were taken in different countries and different eras, it’s the ones with human subjects that stand out. These figures create a relatable quality in each photo, providing a link between generations of people spanning decades and countless miles of earth and sea. If we’re still around one hundred years from now, I imagine people will be just as curious about us as we are about those who came before us.
On a more technical note, much of my work includes a lot of the subject’s environment and I like to explore the relationship between the two, as well as that between different subjects in the same frame.
“The Erosion Beneath” is another work that caught my attention. It’s all black and white and grainy, I can feel the roughness of the surface, the distance and the incommunicability via the visual obstructions and distortions. Also, there is a deep alienating feel in all pictures, everything seems detached from the reality. Also here the human figure is the center of attention, but this time I can’t picture them clearly even if I stare at their face or figure for a long time: they are like ghosts. Can you tell me more about this project? What pushed you outside in the so long coloured world to portray it in the absolute absence of them?
With COVID-19 being documented so well and in such abundance, I had to figure out an approach of my own. Photographs of masks and plastic screens are everywhere, but otherwise, what indicates the reality of this pandemic? How about in a country where masks were already commonplace? After reflecting on these things I decided to try to instead capture the perceived stress and fatigue of the people by using the environment to isolate, shroud and distort them. A smothering loneliness has been wrought upon the world, felt even here, where restrictions haven’t been significant. I hope The Erosion Beneath conveys some of that.
Coming to a more sociological aspect, what do you think about the contemporary times in terms of creating images? Do you feel that your work could be lost in the overflow of images we are currently experiencing or do you still think that, in some way, your work could have some sort of impact and influence on the people seeing it?
I think it’s fantastic that more people than ever before have the opportunity to pursue photography. It should never be an exclusive art form — ideally speaking, no art should. The flip-side to this is of course the staggering number of images that are being pushed out every second of every day. Quite easily, my work and that of others can be lost among it all. I view this as a challenge to both my ability to capture images of value and my ability to find an audience that would appreciate them. Both are difficult in their own ways. Secretly or not, we all want to believe that the results of our pursuits will matter, but failing that, at least some sense of purpose or joy was realized in all that time the finger was on the shutter.
Every photograph could be a self-portrait of the person who takes it. Do you agree with this statement? If yes, could you tell us how do you explore yourself through your photography process?
I think that’s approaching the subject from a quite deep and philosophical angle, and while I enjoy philosophy, when it comes to my work, I’d say beyond the obvious topic of ethics it’s not a primary consideration. It would be fair to say there are elements of myself that are reflected in my photographs, but I don’t personally view them as self-portraits. I’m here to document the world around me, and if a part of me is found within a given frame, it wasn’t consciously put there.
What do you hope you’ll develop in your future work? Feel free to tell us about future projects, ideas or feelings.
My main aspiration is to cover international humanitarian and environmental issues and crises. This is something I’m very passionate about doing and I’m actively trying to find opportunities in.
I’m also finishing my first photobook. It will be a quite eccentric affair, but hopefully something special too. I’m currently looking for a publisher, but it may very well be self-published. I will of course continue to work on my projects as well as assignments (upon request), and I hope to hold more exhibitions in the near future. Meanwhile, I will keep my eyes open as I continue from point A to B.
Thank you for your time Johan, it was a pleasure to chat with you.
Likewise, Matteo. Thank you for the thoughtful questions.