Satoki Nagata: People And Their Life In Chicago

Satoki Nagata was born and raised in Japan, and after graduating university with a degree in Neuroscience, moved to the U.S. and started using a camera to photograph Chicago and its citizens. Although he never received formal education in photography, he has studied documentary and fine art photography with photojournalist Damaso Reyes since 2009. Since moving here, Nagata has been documenting ordinary people and their lives in the city of Chicago. Eric Kim, a contributor to the Leica blog, interviews him.

Q: Dear Satoki, great pleasure to have you. To start off, tell us a little more about your personal history. Where did you grow up, how did you first discover your interest in photography, and how has your background shaped the type of photographs that you take?

A: Thank you for having me, Eric. I born and raised in Japan and after I got a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, I came to the U.S. as a scientist. I have enjoyed visual art since I was a child, but I did not pursue it during school. I occasionally drew, painted and took pictures. When I finished graduate school and started my first real job, I could afford to buy my first serious camera, a Canon D30, and enjoyed using it for 8 years! At that point, I took pictures of anything I wanted.

It was early 2009 when I realized photography is an art form that I wanted to do seriously. First I thought the D30 was too old, so I bought a Canon DSLR and used it for three months. I did not like using a DSLR on the streets, so I bought a M8, and then a M9. I was interested in making images of the cityscape that included people in a symbolic way. Later, I combined this with more intimate photographs of people as a documentary series. About the same time, I started learning photography as an art form from photojournalist Damaso Reyes.

Q: You have worked on a variety of projects, which include projects that are more documentary based (Chicago’s Cabrini-Green District) and others that are more candid in public, embracing more of the street photography approach (Lights in Chicago). How do you find both of these ways of working to influence each other, and how do you find these projects to be different?

A: I started by taking candid street photographs but soon after I realized that I am really interested in photographing the individual person. I chose to take photos closer and more connected to the subject. I engaged with the people on the streets and my style gradually evolved. When I got closer and developed intimate relationships with people, the images were different in comparison to those previously taken from a distance. This oriented my photography towards a more documentary style.

My photography is about “people and their life in the city of Chicago, the third biggest city in the United States of America.” From this description, the distinction between documentary and street photography for me is based on the distance involved in my approach.

Q: Who are some photographers, as well as artists outside of photography, who have influenced your personal vision and how you perceive the world?

A: The photojournalist Damaso Reyes is my mentor for photography, and I learned a lot from him in regards to the philosophical aspect as well as technical aspect of photography. The most important thing when learning photography is how to develop the distinct vision and that I learned from him.

I enjoy seeing other photographers’ work, but I do not think any particular photographer directly influenced my work or inspired me. Although, each time I see a strong vision or point of view of the photographer in his or her work, I learn something from that experience. I like most types of photography, not only street and documentary photography.

Q: You were born in Japan and studied your Ph.D. in Neuroscience. What prompted you to make the move to Chicago to photograph? And how would you say that your Japanese culture has influenced how you see Americans in America?

A: I simply found a job in Chicago as a scientist so I moved after getting a Ph.D. Then, I realized photography is what I really wanted to do instead of science. I learned Japanese Zen Buddhism and that basic notion is “Our existence is composed of various relationships.” This notion has inspired me to use photography to create relationships with the world in order to find myself. I think this point of view comes from Japanese culture.

Q: Do you consider yourself more of an artist or a journalist in your photography and why?

A: My photography is traditionally photojournalistic in approach. I want to make images that not only tell stories but also raise questions and encourage compassion. In my photographs, I am trying to find the symbolism that fills our world and compose my images with multiple layers. The result is a combination of documentary and fine art photography.

Q: When you are thinking of a project to work on, how do you stumble upon good ideas? Do they come out of the blue, from books you read, people you talk with, or something else?

A: For documentary work, I was curious about the people I saw on the streets and wanted to know more about them. Curiosity is not enough to start the project; I researched the background, thought of possible themes and then started the project. I am also interested in how to use equipment and try new techniques with an open mind. For “Lights in Chicago,” I just wondered about what would happen in the image if I use a flash on the streets. I know of Bruce Gilden’s work, and I tried to use flash in a different way than him.

Q: When you decide to take a photograph of a subject, how do you approach them? How much of your photos would you say are taken with permission versus candid?

A: For subject matter, I always consider what I want to communicate with the image that I am going to make. How I approach my subject depends on what I want to say through the image. When I make a photograph, I try to find a unique perspective, adjust elements, and frame it in the best possible way. So if I need to get permission to make image, I do so. Probably about 80% of my photographs were taken with some kind of permission from simple eye contact to verbal permission.

We often hear that if a person is noticed with a camera, the photographer cannot make a candid image. As you know, that is not necessarily true. People notice me, and maybe make conversation with me sometimes during the first approach, but their attention does not remain focused on me. Most people ignore me after ten to sixty seconds, even if I am standing within 3 feet of them with my camera. But, I also think that sometimes candid is essential to make particular images. For example, all of images in “Lights in Chicago” were taken without permission. It is impossible to make these images with permission or setup. I attempted this (and do not clearly understand the reason why), but I can see the image becomes dull and boring when I control everything. I think this is the challenging and fun part of photography.

Q: What do you feel is one of your strengths in your photography, and what is your weakest point?

A: I think I have a strong vision or point of view which makes my images different. The weakest point is I am not as experienced or proficient as I’d like to be. I’m also not as good at using a lens wider than 35mm.

Q: You shoot with a variety of Leica cameras, both film and digital. How is your way of working influenced either when shooting film and digitally?

A: I do not use a film camera now; instead, I mainly use digital Leica M8 and M9. I like to use two bodies with different focal length lens so it is not necessary to change the lens during a shooting session. I use M8 with 75mm, and M9 with 50mm or 35mm. I really enjoy working using a digital flow because it is fast and the adjustment is accurate on the computer. I use seven shades of the monochrome ink system and am satisfied with the output.

Q: When you are working on a project, when do you decide to finish a project? Do you do it more by your gut feeling, or do you set a certain timetable or something else?

A: I like to do long-term documentary project as long as possible. The only time when I finish the project is when I have found a more interesting project. But, when I need a break while working on a long-term project I take time to do other short-term projects.

Q: During your editing and sequencing for a book, how do you go about doing it? For example, can you share how you edited and sequenced your project in Chicago?

A: As you know, editing is one of the important processes in photography. We tend to concentrate on a single image, but it is important to tell a story with set of images and this process takes time. For projects, I make several different sets: best ten, twenty, forty, and eighty. Then, I write captions and arrange them within a set. The set is shown to several people who give feedback, and then I make adjustments and the final set selection, and complete a final set.

Q: What has been one of the most defining moments of your photography career so far in terms of an experience that you had which made you think about photography in a novel and meaningful way.

A: That moment is when my sister passed away. She was living in Japan and I was in Chicago, I flew back to Japan. I took photos a few hours after I received the phone call from my mother, and continued taking photos during my travels to Japan, while attending the funeral ceremony and then after that. That was the hardest, saddest moment in my life. I was so upset and I could not do anything except make images. Later, I found that this experience deeply changed my photography.

Q: How important has the Internet been in sharing your images with a global community. Also do you see the Internet as a means to an end, or would prefer to use it as a platform to do more galleries, shows, or books?

A: It is certain that the internet has changed photography along with the digital camera. It is much easier than before to share images with other viewers and see other people’s work. But I think it still has limitations. One of the important things when we do photography is that we must have a very intensive, critical discussion about each other’s work. This type of discussion is still only possible when we meet in person and have trusting relationships.

I believe that actual print –from gallery presentation to book form – is the most important output of photography In the digital age, I think the actual print is still, even more important than before. Digital printing requires a certain level of knowledge and skills. Book form is also very important, especially for documentary work.

Q: If there is one photographer (in history dead or alive) that you could shoot with for an entire day, who would it be and why?

A: Diane Arbus. I like her work because I always feel herself in her subjects. She has a strong inner visual voice and I can see it through her works. I would like to see her as a photographer in action, and, hopefully, I would have the opportunity to know deep inside her and make her portraits.

Q: Can you share 3 of some of your most meaningful photographs and share the story behind them?

A: “From Lights in Chicago” 1 Michigan Avenue, Chicago 2011. When I made this image, I found that using flash on the street has potential. The slow shutter with flash makes interesting layers that I had never seen before. This image has no reflection involved. The transparent effect here is the results of flash with slow shutter speed.

“From Cabrini-Green” 17 Shadow of Teen, Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, Chicago 2011. Visually, this image is simple and abstract with multiple layers. The brick in this very close shot is symbolic for public housing. The subject is a young teen when he was ordered to leave by a security guard without reason. In a symbolic way, it shows how these people are commonly treated by society.

“From Chicago Streets” 6 Pearson Street, Chicago 2011. There are multiple parallel lines and curves in this image. I went to this place many times and finally made a satisfying image.


Q: What advice would you give to aspiring street, documentary, or just plain photographers who want to find more of a personal voice in their photography?

A: Find the method for how to develop your own visual voice. Never try to imitate other people’s photography. Push your limits. Be critical to your own photographs. Do not be afraid of making bad images. Do experiments. Be patient. Always ask yourself why are you going to make this image, and ask yourself what do you want to communicate to the viewer.

Eventually, you will find how to show your inner visual voice in your photograph. Like every person has his or her own personality, every photographer has a unique visual voice. All one must do is find it from inside, and, then show the world your voice in your own way.

Q: Who is one contemporary photographer that may not be as well known, that you recommend us to check out their work?

A: I would recommend my mentor, Damaso Reyes. He is a young American photojournalist working in Europe. He works photographing on the streets, too. I would recommend his blog and we can learn how to edit his work.

Q: Anything else you would like to mention? What are some upcoming projects, books, galleries, etc that you have planned for yourself down the road?

A: I will continue work on Cabrini-Green: Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, and keep taking photographs with flash on Chicago Streets in winter season. I will also go back to the Tohoku area that was devastated by an earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. I want to document the incident at a personal level for a few years. I went there in April of this year and made first photo essay, and I want to return at least once a year.

For now I am mainly doing shows in local Chicago galleries a few times a year and the information will be posted on my website.

Thank you for your time, Satoki.

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Satoki Nagata and view more of his images, visit his website.