- Arc’teryx Veilance: How long have you lived in New York?
- Atsushi Nishijima: I moved to New York 17 years ago to study. At the time I didn’t fully know what I wanted to do but I had a roommate who was taking photography classes. She was the first person to get me interested in photography and since then, that interest has become my profession and New York has become my home.
- What first attracted you to the city?
- I’ve always been drawn to cities; there are always so many different types of people. I’ve been to Tokyo, Rome, Berlin, Osaka, Lisbon. But New York is different to other cities. It’s a tough environment and a challenging place to live but that’s why I love it. It’s a great place to be a photographer.
- Can you tell us about the type of photography you do?
- The main work I do is campaign and behind-the-scenes photography on big movies and I do a lot of editorial and personal work. Recently I’ve been working on a personal project called ‘Loiter’. It comes from walking around and exploring the city and allows me to show people the work I like to make. My first commercial work was in 2006 and since 2011, I’ve been working on movies, where my role on set is to capture special moments of actors during and between takes. With any photography — commercial or personal — if I can capture a feeling and show my style in the work, that’s what I’m trying to do.
- You mention that New York is different to other cities in lots of ways. Is the same true for capturing imagery here?
- New York isn’t like other cities, it’s a tough environment. One day it’s sunshine, the next is hail and snow. When I see people getting through the rough weather — running, walking, biking — I always think, ‘that’s New Yorkers for you’. And there’s not much in between: it’s either bright or very dark, very hot or very cold. It feels like there’s only two seasons. Up until May it’s cold and then it’s really hot until October.
- Your personal work is often focused on cities and the people that inhabit them. What are you looking to capture when you’re shooting?
- A lot of my personal work is shot on the street, but I’m not interested in being put in a category — like a street photographer, a fashion photographer or a movie photographer — I’m just a photographer.
I am interested in capturing quick honest moments; I think the most beautiful pictures are sometimes the most honest and ‘normal’. And there are a lot of those moments instances when you’re out in the city.
In my street images people aren’t famous but they are characters, that’s why I can remember the faces of the people I’ve shot from years before. They’re not celebrities, but they are ‘famous’ to me. And there are so many different types of people in the city. You learn a lot from photographing and observing them. People are unique and different and funny and interesting.
I am interested in capturing quick honest moments; I think the most beautiful pictures are sometimes the most honest and ‘normal’.
- Can you tell us about your process when you’re shooting in the city?
- My process always starts with getting out. Just being out on the streets. You could take a left or a right. And you’ll see different things. When I’m photographing on the street I’m not trying to think too much. Just see the flow of the city. I’ll leave home in the morning and go to the coffee shop to get a drink, then photograph for a few hours. If I see something to photograph, I photograph.
I usually shoot with a 28mm wide-angle lens so I need be very close to the subject. Always 5- or 10-feet away from them. First of all, I look at the subject and of course they notice me, so I’ll look at something else. Usually they look at something else too, so I’ll look back and photograph.
I’ll pick up another coffee and head out again and shoot until 5pm or 6pm. Sometimes I have a good day and get great pictures but the next day I could get none. The day after that I’ll get good pictures again. It’s a cycle, that’s life.
- How did the Loiter series start?
- Loiter is a personal project that I do in my free time. If I see something I like, I’ll photograph, not putting too much further thought to it. That’s loitering.
It started when a client asked to include some of my street snap shots for a job I was doing for them. Their office is in the Garment District in New York, so I walked around the neighbourhood and when I saw something interesting I snapped. After the job was done we made the first Loiter book from the images that hadn’t been used.
I like the simplicity of it, I walk around and explore, if I like something I’ll capture it. Sometimes there is a magic moment. The process of making each book starts with the image edit. I’ll look through the images and make a first selection and then a second. Then I’ll hand over to the designer I work closely with. He selects the images he likes from the edit and does a first layout. From there, it’s a process of refining until we get to an agreed design and flow. And then, we print!
- What’s the relationship you’re trying to create with the people you shoot?
- When I’m on the street, it’s not really about trying to develop a relationship with the subject, but there has to be a connection of some sort. Just for the moment. It’s interesting to imagine a story from a photograph because I don’t know exactly what happened or who the person is. Where are they are going to? I don’t know but I’m always interested in the idea.
When I get close to them, it’s kind of like I’m not breathing for that moment. I feel like everything is suspended for a minute, do one shot and then leave again. I don’t know how I look but I feel like I’m gliding in as I approach them. Then I shoot and glide away. There’s usually not much time to overthink a shot because the moment happens very quickly.
- And how does that differ from your movie work?
- My job on movie sets is to photograph scenes, but the real challenge of the work isn’t capturing scenes. They’re already set, hair and make-up is done and everything’s ready to go. The harder part of the work is building trust and acceptance with the actors and really becoming a part of the team. That goes for everything — a good team makes something good.
What I’m really interested in on set is how actors are between takes. They become someone in-between their own character and the character they’re playing. I remember one director asking me to just take photos of things that I’d want to put in a book or on my site. For me those images between takes are the ones I love. You see the transition of a person trying to be another person.
My favourite photograph from a movie set is one of an actress who was between takes. She was thinking and biting her nails. The idea of it’s not that beautiful — a woman biting her nails — but it was a beautiful image. I slowly got closer to her until I was just a few feet away and then I shot. She knew I was there. I like that connection with the subject — for a moment she totally accepted me into a personal and natural space.
- It sounds like an intimate situation that you need to create.
- It is and you get to see a lot of things that most people don’t. I remember once seeing an actor who was about to do a prison scene. He was asking the camera guy to punch him to get fired up. So the camera guy started punching him, and he was saying, ‘Harder! Harder!’. So he hit harder. And then the actor’s saying ‘hit me in the face!’, so the cameraman does. It all stops, and the lead role steps back and just says, ‘Thanks’. He wanted to show real anger and that was his way of doing it.
And I like photographing crew on movie sets too. Some of these guys have been working on movies for 20 or 30 years and they’re characters themselves. They’re not actors, but they are unique characters. It’s interesting to capture them too.
- Where do you find inspiration for any of the work you create?
- There are lots of places that I find inspiration for my personal and my commercial work. I’m inspired by other photographers and different styles, but inspiration is a funny thing. I could say, ‘I like this or this photographer’, but at the end of everything my imagery isn’t inspired by other photographers, it’s inspired by the subject in front of me. And that can be anyone.
When I’m on the street, it’s not really about trying to develop a relationship with the subject, but there has to be a connection of some sort. Just for the moment.