Light Sensitive: Why did you choose the name ‘Shinjuku Mad’ for your website? What does it mean to you? Is there any relationship to the 1970 film?
Jakub Pajek: Yes there is. Shinjuku Mad is the title of a 1970 film by Koji Wakamatsu. After coming to Tokyo, I created a photo blog where I would share my daily life in Japan with family and friends back home. At the time I was not really thinking seriously about the blog, and I just whimsically named it after that movie. As time passed, my idea for the blog evolved, but the title stayed the same. If you know the movie, you might agree that the title is not that far off. Nevertheless, I do not put much significance in the blog name itself, titles of individual posts convey more meaning. (shinjukumad.com)
LS: It’s my understanding that you don’t have any formal training in photography, yes? Are you familiar with the work of well known photographers such as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, or Lee Friedlander, whose work in the United States is widely known within the documentary and street photography community?
JP: That is correct. All I know is what I have learned on my own throughout the years. As far as I can recall, at the time when I began taking photos regularly (just after my arrival in Japan in 2008), I could name maybe one photographer: Nobuyoshi Araki. I saw his photos for the first time in a gallery in Warsaw. The photo book was Tokyo Lucky Hole, and as I was browsing through the pages, I remember thinking “Who is this guy? He looks like he is having so much fun in his life! I would like to have as much fun as well!”. Later on I learned about other photographers as well, also the ones you mentioned above, but I can not say that I have studied their works in depth.
Can you talk about your relationship to Japanese culture and the fact that so much of your work is shot in Tokyo? When did you first visit Japan? What was that like?
I am based in Tokyo, Japan. I came to Japan from Poland in 2008, initially for one year with a student exchange program. This was my first visit, but because of my prior interest in Japan, I knew I would not be going back home anytime soon. I found a job and have been living in Tokyo ever since. Before moving here, I had been learning Japanese and had read quite a few books about the culture, so I guess I did not experience the culture shock as much as other participants of the program. The beginnings where crazy though. For the first couple of months, I would spend 5 to 6 hours daily in crowded trains commuting to Japanese language school. On weekends I would go sightseeing during the day, party at night. Back then I was not that fluent in Japanese yet, and everything seemed a little more mysterious and inaccessible. Even today Tokyo feels like an enormous, everchanging, concrete labyrinth. You think you know one district, only to find out that many of the buildings, restaurants, bars have changed during the past few months since your last visit there. I did not have a camera, so I started shooting with my mobile phone. In Japan smartphones were still quite a novelty back then, and I used a typical Japanese flip phone, which played back an excessively loud, artificial shutter sound every time I took a photo*. It might look embarrassing now, but everything was fresh and exciting, and I did not consider myself a photographer, so I did not care much what others might think. In the beginning I did not care about the quality of my photos either, I just enjoyed photographing things around me. Later on, I became more aware of the possibilities as well as photography as an art form, so all the posts from the initial period from late 2008 to late 2009 are gone from the blog now. I still find a couple of images from back then interesting, and might re-upload them some time in the future.
* Immutable shutter sound is a feature of every mobile and smartphone available on the Japanese market, introduced in order to reduce the possibility for candid or illicit photography, including, but not limited to, the infamous upskirt photos. As far as I am aware, this matter is not regulated by law, instead it is a feature voluntarily implemented by every carrier provider, in order to eliminate possible compensation claims from victims of such abuse.
Why are you so interested in Tokyo and Japanese culture? What do you think your photographs say about this culture? What do you want to say?
Japanese culture in general and Tokyo in particular is highly developed, multifaceted and extremely inspiring. It is also very seductive and sometimes deceiving. You can find almost anything in Tokyo: the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, vending machines selling alcohol or used underwear*, but this does not mean that Tokyo is Paris or New York, nor that everyone living here are alcoholics or perverts. It is just a place in the world where, if you look hard enough, you will find whatever pleases you. What I hope my works also convey, is that Japan is full of contrast. On one hand there is the well known to the outside world “east meets west” type of contrast: tradition versus technology or modernism. This subject has always caught my attention. On the other hand, and this is the side that I am more interested in recently, there is a subtle type of contrast: nature and the city, solitude and the crowd, spirituality and materialism, individuality and society, public position as opposed to private thoughts, manners and their lack, etc. I realise that, to a person having no interest or knowledge about Japan, some of the nuances and details might be hard to spot or decrypt, or are simply too boring to even attempt, so regardless of the meaning behind my photos, I would recommend everyone to approach them having this quote from Chris Marker’s beautiful movie Sans Soleil in mind: “I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter. At dawn we’ll be in Tokyo.” If I were to create my first photo blog today, maybe that is how I would name it, “Sans Soleil”.
* Which everyone who can read Japanese knows is not really used, only manufactured to appear to have been used. Times of Burusera shops where one can buy authentic used items for fetish purposes are gone, since the business shifted to the Internet.
A lot of your photographs are very sexual and a little kinky – bondage, masks, etc. What about this topic interests you? Who are the women in your sex photographs – friends, dates, strangers?
Tokyo is sexy. Women here are fashion aware and like to dress feminine, which I find appealing. I can feel a certain type of sexual tension floating around the city, which is also motivating and stimulates me to act. The majority of people I meet in informal situations do not feel uptight talking about their preferences or fetishes, they feel comfortable acting them out, and others are generally not being too judgemental about it either. That being said, my biggest interest about this topic are the women themselves. Initially my models are mostly strangers, who share my enthusiasm for creating something together just for pure pleasure of it. Some stay strangers, others become friends.
You’ve made other photographs that seem to comment on how women are viewed in Japanese mass media – explicit photographs in newspapers, pornography on view in public, etc. What about this topic interests you? How do these pictures represents your personal views?
Indeed, it is not uncommon to see adult magazines on open display in convenience stores around Japan, or explicit photographs and stories in tabloid newspapers, not to mention some manga comics. As far as I am concerned, what one reads or watches is his own business. I do find some occasional situations, where a sexy image sticks out from somebody’s newspaper in a crowded train amusing, and never miss a chance to snap a photo. Personally, this causes a certain pleasant feeling of nostalgia, since I remember seeing adult magazines on display in kiosks in Poland when I was a kid as well. Other than that, there are really not that many places, where you can see explicit content in public. One more that comes to my mind at the moment are the movie poster cabinets in front of adult theaters, but there are few of them left nowadays. You really have to try hard in order to find one. It is not a secret that Japan is a patriarchal society, nethertheless gender equality issues are slowly but steadily improving, and a lot of effort is put into reducing female harassment in workplace and in public; something that Japan has had problems with in the past. Did you know that, under the “Anti Nuisance Ordinance” law, you can get arrested for not only photographing, but even pointing a camera at a woman, if she feels uncomfortable or anxious about it? Finally, when mentioning pornography on view in public, I think you might also be referring to a number of photographs posted under the title “Augmented Reality”. This is a working title of an ongoing series of digital collages portraying cityscapes and everyday situations with stills from adult videos incorporated in TVs or outdoor screens appearing somewhere in the frame. The idea arose while I was wondering about Japan being one of the least sexually active nations, and having one of world’s largest pornography industry at the same time. While still not sure, whether to treat it as a contradiction, or as a logical chain of events, the resulting work is and outcome of trying to connect those two images.
It seems that you only began photographing seriously in the last couple of years. What were you doing before that?
I was studying at university in my hometown back in Poland. I was learning a lot, reading, watching lots of movies, going to gigs. Right after receiving my M.Sc. degree, I moved to Japan, took up photography and created ShinjukuMad.com
Your website states that ‘pleasure is my business’, what does this mean to you?
I consider myself to be in a fortunate situation, where my source of income is unrelated to what I do artistically. This gives me creative freedom, and takes away the burden of striving for recognition and wooing anybody. Whenever I have time, I am out with my camera walking around Tokyo somewhere; that is my only business. I am sure you can think of another meaning looking at some of my photographs as well.
Do you feel that your work is in any way autobiographical?
It is as much of an autobiography as it is autocreation*. I take photos of places I visit, people I encounter, situations I witness or initiate. Yet at the same time, many of the aforementioned might not have happened, had I not had the intention of photographing them in the first place. “Shinjuku Mad” is definitely my most personal work up to date, it is also my playground in the Internet, my digital laboratory where sometimes other ideas are born. On my website I try to present a more consistent set of images with a commentary on specific subjects that interest me. Finally “Fauna and Flora”, which I hope will evolve with time, is strictly for analog photography, and is a take on nature from a perspective of someone living in world’s largest metropolitan area.
* or self-formation? I am not sure which English word describes my point best.
What are your ambitions?
“Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration”.*
I hope I can reach this level of fluency one day.
* Suzuki, Daisetz T. (2010, p. 31). Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton University Press. The quote is by Georges Duthuit, the author of Chinese Mysticism and Modern Painting.
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interview: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: email@example.com