Interview: Society of Intrigue – Oleg Tolstoy

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to Oleg Tolstoy, a portrait, commercial, and street Photographer currently in London. 

Being a photographer is more than taking photographs. It’s about observing human behavior and interactions. How we change from place to place, culture to culture. How something obvious to one group can be intriguing to another. Through his lenses, Oleg Tolstoy found himself observing and capturing some of the intricacies within Tokyo, Japan.

In this interview, Oleg Tolstoy speaks about his work, travels, and curiosity for social interaction. Presented are his series Shibuya Unmasked and Who’s Driving Tokyo (companion series to Who’s Driving You).

What were some of your early experiences with photography? Did you know in those moments that photography would be your career?

Since I was very young, I always knew I would do something artistic as a career later in my life. As a child I was encouraged to explore art, and found myself immersed in it from a very young age; as my mother, brother and uncle are all artists. I started out with painting, then sculpture, then street stencils. I’ve had a camera for as long as I can remember. When I was 14 I really wanted to create work that was clean cut and slick and found that photography was the best way for me to achieve this. My older brother is also a photographer so I realised that I could ask him any question I wanted and learn more about the medium, so it seemed an obvious and natural path for me to walk down in life.

Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer?

I went to the London College of Communication to study a BA degree in Photography. I learnt the art of creating a series, and a narrative within images. Creating an atmosphere, not just an image; this way of working has very much stuck with me and has helped me form my style of photography.

You have a varying portfolio of celebrity portraitures, commercial work, and social documentary. Do you approach all of these assignments the same way or do you prepare for them differently?

It’s important to plan a portrait to some degree: to find the location, the backdrop and work with the person you are photographing. With my social documentary work, I find a location where these three elements are already formed in one place, and provide an interesting cultural narrative.

Do you plan most of your projects or do they grow into one as you take more images? If planned, what is your process like?

I plan all of my projects out in advance. Something usually sparks a concept. I might have seen something on the internet, or on my travels and then I go to photograph it. I have to plan these trips out in advance, as I need at least 10 days to a month to capture a photo series.

I find accommodation very close to where my shoot location is as the location is often in one area, on one road. I need somewhere close so I can upload images and change cameras and rest.

Your series Who’s Driving Tokyo and Who’s Driving You focuses on the subject of taxi drivers, what was it like to capture the same subject matter in two distinctly different cities?

It felt very comfortable, as it was a subject I had a lot of experience in photographing. I didn’t need to go through trial and error. From a shooting perspective it didn’t really make a difference, it was much the same. Busy street, loads of cabs – that’s what I needed. However, it was the cultural differences and nuances between London and Tokyo that fascinated me. The taxi drivers in Tokyo were very well presented, wearing suits and white gloves, they had a real charm to them.

Cab drivers in London are much less formal and more laid back in their presence. I like observing the cultural differences in day-to-day activities, what some people may think is mundane, I see the opposite. I see a subject with a story to tell and I want to capture it.

Living in London, what was it like to travel to Tokyo? What was it like to observe the people and culture? How did this experience affect your photography?

I went to Tokyo about 10 years ago so I knew I would be stepping into a completely different world. I did notice that a lot more people speak English now there. Tokyo is my favourite city in the world after London. I love the energy and the cultural undercurrent that just runs everywhere throughout the city. A lot of people don’t like busy places, I actually feel more comfortable in busy places rather than quiet places. I find my peace in a busy metropolis like Tokyo. The bright lights, the smells and the sounds all invigorate me.

How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? 

I put all of myself into my work. The way I work, it gets very addictive, there is always one more shot to get, there is really no end to when I can stop taking photographs and the project is complete as there is always another image to capture. Hence why I can spend 8 hours non-stop on a street corner every day for 2 weeks at a time.

For your social documentary work, what was the most tense moment you have experienced? What did you do in this situation?

I experienced a very tense moment once in Piccadilly Circus in London when shooting Who’s Driving You. A drunk man ran up to me and tried to take my camera. I wasn’t expecting it as I was in the middle of capturing images. I couldn’t figure out if he was trying to use the camera to take a photo himself or if he was actually trying to steal my camera. I decided to run away from him… Apart from that, there haven’t really been any.

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?

I recently got back from China where I was shooting on a beach there! I’ve also been working on a project in Jamaica and in Hong Kong. They will be coming out later this year… I travel a lot for my photography, and am always planning a new trip.

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Ha, it’s hard to know where to start with this question. It’s a good question. The thing is, photography is just a medium, there are so many areas with it.

I would advise any up and coming photographers to let themselves experiment, really try out a lot of different styles and techniques until you find something that works best for you. Photography can be a very personal thing, and many photographers can feel lost until they find their style.

It can also be hard working alone so much as a photographer. The best decision I ever made was to move into a studio with 30 other creatives where I do my editing and administration work. I find that being around others often inspires me and it’s good to be working around others and to have that human interaction on a day-to-day basis. 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Never give up, if you believe you are going to make it, you will. Although the catch is, once other people think you have made it, you might not think you have.  Generally, there is no end. There is no great achievement that will make you think you have done it, and made it. It’s all part of a cycle. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life.


Photos Courtesy of Oleg Tolstoy




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