[TEDx talk, Feb 4, 2012]
it's 3.30 am.
I'm sitting in the car next so Souichirou, my contact within. I have permission to photograph, and it's my first time on the road with them. He's driving the car with his boss in the back seat, who's asleep. We're on our way to Niigata prison, where two family members are going to be released that morning. Twenty cars driving to welcome their brohers back.
It's almost a 4 hour drive from Tokyo, and along the way Souichirou is explaining to me the finer points of yubitsume, or finger shortening. "you cut off one digit of your little finger yourself," he says "to lend power to the statement you want to make. Most often that statement is an apology. Then, on a white napkin, you offer that finger piece to your boss, begging him to accept it, and your apology with it." I find myself nervously checking if he's missing any digits himself.
He continues "if you fuck up, you will have to apologize." Somehow, looking in his eye, at his hands, I have *no* intention of doubting that.
Turning around towards boss Nitto-san in the back seat, who in the meantime has woken up, I lift my camera to my eye to make an image. But he's looking at me so menacingly, that I simply do not dare. I literally start putting my camera back down. Souichirou, in the driver's seat, in the meantime, is telling me, not being able to speak English, "picture OK, picture OK", making it clear that i should not be afraid.
I lift the camera up again but I'm so nervous that I accidentally press the shutter release button before I can compose the image.
That was my first day in the field with the Yakuza, the largest organized crime syndicate in the world.For two years I photographed them. And yes, I had to learn to walk on eggshells. All the time.
To be honest, I have no idea how I pulled it off. It's the single most asked question by friends and strangers alike when they see my book or my images or hear my stories: "how the hell did you pull that off?"
how did you get in? how did you manage to independently publish a book and a magazine? did you design it yourself? how did you attract so much press attention and publications worldwide? how did you pay for all this? there must be some "key" to it, no? do you even speak Japanese?
No, I don't. And no, I didn't know how I had done it. And I got asked these questions so often, that I started to become curious myself, started to think back and see if there was a pattern of sorts. a secret. a key. I mean, I must be doing *something* right. Right?
And I sure would like to know what that is, so I can replicate that for future projects....
It took a long time to think, to finally see it. And I think I have the key now, I think I do. Well I could be wrong of course, as I am wrong about many things, but at least I can say that my theory has been proven right *once*...
So after the friendly golf tournament between two clans, mainly a cover to discuss business on various levels, the family members all go into the bath house to relax. Kaicho, for all intents and purposes the day to day Godfather, invites me in. Completely naked with a towel in one hand constantly wiping off the steam of the lens of the camera in my other hand, I enter the bath area. a dozen members are showering, bathing, relaxing. Huge tattoos, tremendous works of art, are on everyone's backs. So there I am shooting - naked, remember; have you ever done that, it's very weird to have your camera gear in your hand and be shooting but not to be wearing anything. Makes you, uhmmm, in a way, quite conscious of your own body. So there I am shooting, wiping, shooting, and one of the family members behind me starts to laugh. Joined by another. and another. After a few minutes everyone's smiling and laughing and commenting on something that I do not understand...
And then Kaicho walks up to me and says with a big smile, pointing to the really tiny tattoo of a sun on my back which i had done years before, "nice little baby tattoo"... only to burst into even more laughter.
Looking back I see that I have had an extraordinary amount of luck during this project. Too much luck actually. The kind of luck you can't prepare for. Like the bath house story I just told you... as funny as it may seem, things like this happening were so crucial to build up trust, break barriers so to speak, and ultimately, go deeper.
And the more I though about it, the more it became clear to me that the concept of "preparing for a project" had to be redefined for me. It had to be way much broader than what we would think.
If I look back on Yakuza, the key elements that made me "be prepared" so to speak, were long and far apart:
- my parents were expats, as kids we got exposed to foreign cultures right from the start
- i played golf as a teenager, and again around 30
- I went to university to study political philosophy, and witnessed the birth/explosion of the Internet
- I have a little sun tattoo on my back
- my first job was as a graphic designer at a printer
- my brother Malik moved to Tokyo, Japan about a decade ago
- my second job was as a web designer at an ad agency
- in 2001 i started my own company with friend and kindred spirit Luc, and worked hard for 7 years to create a cool independent team of professionals
- in 2008 I met Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, who became my mentor
Retroactively, I call these "key elements that make me be prepared", because each one of these elements can be linked to a crucial moment in the project. Like my little tattoo and the bath house.
Or my brother being able to lead the negotiations. Or my graphic design years translating into designing book dummies. or the mentorship of David Alan Harvey teaching me the two thumbs up approach. Or the web design company that I run with my friend Luc, that gave me room to pursue this project in the first place. So many things.
But it's of course obvious that you cannot call these elements "preparation", simply because, well, this kind of thing happens independently of any project. This is not "preparation", this is your entire life.
But what if that were the key? What if, your life were your only true asset that can adequately prepare you for your projects?
I mean... this gives a whole new meaning to "it's all about the journey, not about the destination"
In august of 2010,... --> Tell the story of the covert training camps, secret location, sleep in the room with the young recruits and talk about the immense duality that is Yakuza.
What would the images of the training camp mean to me if I had not experienced them first hand? Let's be honest: if I had to choose between experiencing the training camp, or simply having the pictures, I think the former will always win, hands down.
What I actually want to say is: after so many people asked how I could pull it off, and after looking back and thinking about it for a long time,
I found that the person you are and the support you have around you IS the preparation for any project to come, IS the preparation you need for whatever you want to do....
The surprisingly simple search to find and identify your "elements", your strengths *and* your weaknesses, and worship them as the most important thing in your life, knowing they will help you. And trust me, if you let them, they will.
All the rest is practical stuff. (note to self: the practical stuff, at all times, needs to be done relentlessly at 100% with zero margin for error)
In life, it's all about the journey. I guess we all know that, I know that, and yet at the same time I feel it's the hardest thing in the world to do, to learn to focus on the journey and just enjoy the ride.
But I keep on trying, and sometimes it works out.
thanks for listening.