Interview: Ever-Changing New – Ash Shinya Kawaoto

In this interview, Hon Hoang interviewed Ash Shinya Kawaoto, a street Photographer from Yokohama, Japan. Thank you to Ash Shinya Kawaoto for the permission and use of his photographs.

The original interview was featured in Enflight.Design on October, 2017. It is now being featured on Asia Photo Review.


Everything changes, it is the nature of all things to be fluid. To change and be changed, these constants are known best by those that live within a metropolis. Photographer Ash Shinya Kawaoto knows this truth to be evident as he explores the evolving skylines of Tokyo, Japan and the people that live within it’s streets in his series Scrap and Build.

In the series, he explores the idea of what is lost with the pursuit of modernity. How history and tradition falls to rubble as the ever-changing new takes center stage.

What were some of your early experiences with photography?

I have been taking photos for the past four or five years. I mainly took portraits at the beginning. I started street photography about a year and a half ago. I like capturing people’s expressions; that hasn’t changed since I started taking portraits.

How do you find balance between running your web development company and your photography?

I believe that I need to spend a lot of time in order to be able to take good street photos. The offices of my web development company are in Tokyo. This is why I can slip out during my breaks to take photographs. As it is a fairly flexible job time-wise, I have the work-life balance of taking photos when the sun is out and starting to work when the sun goes down.

What does the phrase “honesty in photography” mean to you?

I believe that, regardless of whether a photograph is the real truth or not, it has the strength to make people think that it is the truth and it is something that really happened.

What draws you to the subjects in your photographs?

The most important thing in my photos is the expressions of the subjects. I believe that people’s expressions represent their lives.

How do you blend in so your subjects don’t react to you and your camera?

I mostly take photos of my subjects at close range. This is so that I can take even more accurate photos of their expressions. I think it is OK if my subjects react to my camera when I do this. There are cases in which I can get a more tense atmosphere if the subject realizes I am taking a photo.

The subjects in most of my photos are aware of me even if they are not looking directly at the camera.

What is your process like when you take photographs? Do you have a goal in mind or do you wander until something catches your eye?

I believe that the light is most important when I am taking photos. Light, like time, is constantly changing. I look for places that have good light for the subject and then I take the photo. I also believe that it is important to walk around town a lot. When I find a subject with an attractive expression, I try to get as close as I can to them to take the photo.

What was your inspiration for Scrap and Build?

I went to London to take photography this spring and it was a starting point to create Scrap and Build. I felt that London was a completely different city to the Tokyo where I take photos on a daily basis.

London still has many historical buildings which are still in use. In comparison, almost all the buildings in Tokyo have short histories and there is a repeating cycle of knocking them down when they are no longer needed and replacing them with new ones. For this reason, the landscape of Tokyo continues to change at an extremely high speed. I think that the speed of change in a city affects the lives of the people who live there.

How do your subjects compliment what you’re trying to say in this series?

My subject is capturing the changes of the city of Tokyo. The city will host the Olympics in 2020. New buildings are going up all across Tokyo at the moment and it is changing at an extremely high speed. I associate this with the image of a huge, continually growing living creature.

How much of the tension and emotions of a situation affect your photography?

I don’t think that there is enough tension from my subjects to affect my street photography. People have completely different expressions when they are at home and when they are out and about in town. I think these are similar to the differences in expressions of pets and wild animals. The street is the place where people connect with society and with other people. They do not have unguarded expressions in this situation. I feel a great attraction to people’s tense expressions.

What was the most tense moment you have experienced? What did you do in this situation?

My most tense moment was when a homeless person got angry at me for photographing them and chased me. My street photography subjects sometimes get angry with me. When that happens, I tell them that I am a photographer and explain politely why I took the photo.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

First of all, begin by deciding one city where you want to take photographs. It is then important to take a lot of photos of that city. Then, you need to always be prepared to point your camera at subjects that interest you as soon as they appear. The diverse things that happen in the street disappear in a moment. That is why it is important to always walk with your camera at the ready. I personally recommend taking photos with manual focus. This is because I believe that manual focus makes it easier to take photos instantaneously.

Photo Series Scrap and Build, courtesy of Ash Shinya Kawaoto