Japanese photographer Kazuo Sumida’s father was imprisoned in Siberia as a POW. His uncle was tormented for being gay and working at a local red-light cabaret, and when Kazuo was younger Kazuo struggled with feelings of being unacceptable to society. Photography became his way to tell these stories.
The work of Kazuo became a way of relating to the world. Telling stories meant to share those hidden moments of romance, or the lessons of history that go unnoticed. But most of all, his work became a way of sharing some of the greatest lessons Kazuo has learned in his career: how important it is to love and respect people who support society.
Sumida’s photography has been featured by the New Yorker and is currently exhibited at the Laurence Miller Gallery.
In this interview, Sumida talks about how his family influenced his work, why that black & photography best captures moments of truth, and the greatest lessons Kazuo has learned in his career.
You are Japanese photographer that travels around the world, finding moments to share through your photography. Could you explain how your outsider perspective informs your work?
I don’t know. That is something viewers of my work can answer. I think my goal is to be close and intimate to the subject, and I don’t view myself as an outsider. I try to capture the real and unfiltered moments, and I am willing to experiment with a variety of perspectives. I apply this goal to everywhere I have traveled– Russia, France, China and US – and the process produces unique results. So I think it is important to challenge myself with new experiences and environments.
What is your advice for other street photographers going to a foreign country?
Take the picture as if you are a dragonfly; have a wide perspective.
How has your Japanese heritage and culture influenced your work?
I am not sure if there’s a specific cultural influence. But my family history has led me to interesting places. There was a time in my life in the 80’s when I was feeling depressed and unaccepted by society. My uncle was also struggling in his life, but it was caused by society’s reaction to him being gay. My uncle’s situation was much more extreme, but I was interested in his struggles. My uncle opened the door for me to observe the underground world of late-night clubs and bars. This is one example how my family has influenced my work.
Many of the moments you capture in your series “A Story of New York Subway” seem coincidental, as if you were at the right moment at the right time. For instance, in one of my favorites, two women stare outside the subway in opposite directions. How did you capture these fleeting moments?
I like that picture as well. The old lady seems like she is looking back to her past, being nostalgic, and the other young lady seems to be full of hope for the future, and those two differences makes the picture interesting. There are no pictures which I took in a short amount of time. I was in the train for quite a long time and took many trains and waited to find the moment that I wanted to capture.
Still speaking about “A Story of New York Subway”, what story were you hoping to convey with these photographs about the character of New York?
Story: There is a culture that respects artists; it has a kind and warm heart overall. In Japan, the culture is more conservative and artists are not respected. The culture of NYC encourages Japanese artists.
You preface your series, “Memories of My Father: A Journey to Siberia”, with a brief biography of your father who spent years as a POW in Siberia. Had you ever been to Siberia before this project? Why did you think it was essential to complete this project through photography?
I had never been to Siberia before this trip. And I had a stereotype from the many horrific stories I heard from my parents. My father was a prisoner in Russia, lost his first child, and my mother barely survived by running away from the Russians within China. When my father passed away, my family discovered the journal and tape recording of his experiences in Russia. I was inspired to take pictures to see what I read from his journal and better understand his experience. I wanted to be his eye; go back again to the place that tortured him and preserve his memory. After visiting Siberia, I found that Russian people are very kind and different from the story in the journals. In fact, this year I was invited to teach photography at Vladivostok State University in Russia.
In both of these projects, you focus on the play of shadows and the motion blur of rushing pedestrians.Why do you think you are fond of these images?
I like how the blur of rushing gives a pulsating and uplifting feeling.
In your most recent project, “Notes from Underground”, you chronicle your uncle’s work in a gay cabaret at a local red-light district. You used infrared film and a filtered, unseen flash. Why did you decide on this combination of film and flash?
In order to capture the natural moment, I did not want to change the atmosphere due to flash.
Your work is committed to documenting a story whether about the memory of your father, the work of your uncle, or the unseen tranquility of a New York subway. I think this is a valuable instrument unique to photographic media. What drives you to share these stories with the world?
I want to share the story of a romance, the important lessons of history, and those attractive moments that no one notices. Sharing these stories makes me feel alive. Also, I believe black & white photography from silver gelatin print best captures the truth of the moment, but unfortunately it’s a fading skill among photographers. I would love to share my passions and skills with young photographers around the world, so they can capture their own stories and feel alive.
What are the three most important lessons you learned from your career?
1) The stupidity of stereotypes
2) The importance of loving people
3) The importance of respecting people who support society, not just celebrity and fame
To view samples of Kazuo’s work, visit: www.kazuosumida.com.
His work is available through Laurence Miller Gallery (www.laurencemillergallery.com)
His photography books are available through the International Center of Photography Bookstore (www.icp.org)