Bellamy Hunt: The Darkness that Drives Me

Tokyo-based street photographer Bellamy Hunt is also quite the vintage camera buff. He was born in Oxford in the UK and went on to study art and photography. Having also lived in London, Sydney and Amsterdam, once Bellamy had the opportunity to travel to Japan he has never looked back. Though he started shooting with a Minolta XG-7, he now shoots almost exclusively with Leica because of its speed, ease of use and unobtrusiveness. Eric Kim had the chance to interview the man himself, the “Japan Camera Hunter.”

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background and what gave you your initial interest in photography?

A: Well, it’s funny, but initially I was not particularly interested in photography. I had a Kodak 110 when I was a kid, but I just didn’t care all that much. It wasn’t until I was about 11 or 12 years old that I noticed my father’s SLR sitting around unused that I became more interested. It was not for photography reasons though; I enjoyed taking it apart and seeing how it worked. I liked the glass and the way it changed light. I guess that is where my camera geek came from. I became interested in the markings on the camera and the lens, indicating the aperture, etc. I wanted to know what they did and how they changed things, so I started taking pictures. At first it was kind of random. I was a country boy, so I took a lot of pictures of the old churches and gravestones near my family home. I had a bicycle and would ride around trying to find new things to photograph. I was particularly fascinated by decay.

As I got older and started my art school education I became a lot more methodical about how I used the camera. I would take notes of how I had shot particular scenes, set up makeshift lighting rigs and a mini still-life studio in my bedroom. Quite a few of my friends were in bands, which gave me the chance to shoot them too. That was a lot of fun and taught me a lot about how to be in the right place. I hoped that they would get famous and I would be their documentary photographer.

Q: You have a plethora of film cameras yet you shoot Leica exclusively. Can you describe the advantages of shooting with a Leica camera as a tool in your work?

A: For me when I am shooting I need my camera to be reliable, quiet and fast, which is why my Leica suits me so well. I shoot a lot of street photography and I like to be able to melt into the crowd . My Leica helps me do that. I love film cameras, but I have no issue with digital. If I could shoot an M9 now I would have absolutely no hesitation in doing so; that is a camera I would love to shoot with.

But at the end of the day I am a lens guy. I really love good glass and I have not found any better than the Leica glass. I love the fact that I can put a 1950s Elmar or Summicron on my camera without a hitch and it will perform perfectly. I honestly believe that shooting with a Leica has changed the way that I shoot; it has helped me define my style.

Q: Fujifilm recently announced that they are discontinuing a large inventory of film. What are your feelings and thoughts about this news?

A: Having worked in the industry it did not really come as a great surprise to me at all. Film sales have been declining for a long time, especially on a professional level, but I don’t take this as the end of film. Sales of disposable cameras have been steady for a long time and as long as we have those we will have some form of canister film available. I love the tactile nature of film and I honestly think that I will be able to shoot it for most of my career in some form or another. Part of me is sad, but I am also optimistic that film is going to continue in the future.

Q: As an avid film shooter, where do you see the future of analog heading?

A: I think that analog is going to change in the coming years. There is a bit of a revival going on at the moment. I think that we are going to have the major manufacturers on the scene for a while, but I think that the smaller film making companies are going to take a more central role in the future. There are enough customers out there to keep this industry alive for a fair while yet.

Q: Who are some photographers that you draw inspiration from?

A: There are a lot of photographers that make me want to take up a camera. Josef Koudelka is a real inspiration for me. He has a way of capturing the very essence of being human. Robert Frank as well; he really managed to show us a whole generation and all of the emotion that goes with it. To me, that is what separated a great photographer from a good one. I mean, I could happily list more, but we don’t have the space. In terms of Japanese photographers, Keisuke Nagoshi has been a photographer whose work I have been going back to a lot lately. Shinya Arimoto has been a positive influence for me. He is a charming guy and a great photographer. A while ago I was introduced to street photographer Michio Yamauchi and I love his “Close up Tokyo” series. I hate to be all cliché, but I do like the work of Daido Moriyama too. He has an eye for the city which leaves me wishing I could do what he does.

Q: Who are some other contemporary street photographers in Japan that you would recommend others check out?

A: There are a couple of my friends here that I really draw a lot from, both have been on the Leica blog in the past. John Sypal has really pushed me to develop my own style. He has been a great friend and mentor. Though I am sure John would prefer not to be classed as a street photographer. Charlie Kirk has helped me to become more driven and focused about what I really want to do. Charlie has an amazing ability polarize people and this has been influential for me. Charlie is very much a street photographer, in its purest sense.

Q: Can you describe the street photography scene in Tokyo?

A: The street photography scene is very busy here. Tokyo is a huge city and there are so many places to shoot. Having lived in London, Sydney and Amsterdam I can honestly say that Tokyo absolutely dwarfs them. You could shoot a different area every day and never find them all. There are a ton of galleries and new shows every week and there are a lot of interesting photographers who manage to break the traditional Japanese mold to bring us something fresh. Tokyo is an exciting city to shoot. There is such a throng of people that you can never be without something to shoot. You just have to get up and go. The Japanese people are pretty relaxed about street photography in general. They allow you to shoot almost as if they are expecting it.

Q: You are currently working on a project titled “The Darkness that Drives Me.” What are you trying to achieve through the project and how does it reflect your own personality?

A: The darkness project is something that I have had running through my head for some time now. I have what might be described as a fairly dark view on life and I wanted to show this through my images. It is not darkness in a literal sense, more a melancholy and sometimes humorous view of the things that draw me to take up my camera. Tokyo has defined who I am over the last few years and that is an inescapable part of my character. Living as a foreigner in Tokyo can sometimes be trying, but this city has given me love, heartbreak and the chance to live a life less ordinary. I think these are things I try to convey in my images.

Without my camera I often keep my head down and just get on with where I am going. I listen to music a lot and feel like I need it to drown out the noise of Tokyo, but when I’m looking through the viewfinder of my camera, I feel like I can look at the world. I don’t need my music. In fact, I find it distracting. When I am with my camera I want to hear and feel the city and its inhabitants. That helps me form a mood, which gets me ready to shoot. Doing the darkness project has helped me to pull myself up and have more confidence in my work, which has always been a problem for me. I think that every piece of work that you do should give away a piece of you, be it your soul, your heart or your mind, and I feel like this project has done that for me.

Q: How do you shoot when you are on the streets? Do you prefer to stay unnoticed or do you like to be an active participant in a scene?

A: That really depends on the situation. I prefer to be inconspicuous, but sometimes you cannot help but become involved with what is going on. I really feel like it is not my place to influence a scene that is unfolding in front of me; I am merely a vessel to capture it.  I am conflicted by this reality as well. I feel that it is a Schrödinger’s cat kind of situation — merely by being there I have already irreversibly influenced a situation. This confliction is an internal monologue for me and it gives me the chance to stop and look at a situation and take it in. I am not an in your face kind of shooter, although I have no issue with that style, it is just not mine. I am actually quite an introspective person and I think that this becomes apparent when I am shooting. I prefer to let other people make the action. I just like to watch, see what unfolds and then grab my shots.

Q: Why do you shoot? What stories do you try to tell through your images and photographic insight?

A: I shoot because it really makes me feel like I am free and calm when I am doing so. That is the best explanation I can give. When I am not shooting I have a million things going on in my head and I get consumed by my thoughts, but when I am shooting all of that seems to drift away. Not every time, but in those rare magical moments when you feel like you are in the zone, I am completely calm and happy. It is almost like a kind of meditation for me. I don’t try to tell a story, as such, because that is too subjective and anyone can read what I do any way they feel like. What I try to do is to convey an emotion or a thought through my work so that people can see that piece of me.

Q: What are some mistakes that aspiring street photographers make and what kind of advice would you suggest to them?

A: I don’t really think that there are mistakes to be made, per se, apart from silly ones like not taking the lens cap off your rangefinder. There are things that we can learn from experience though. A really big one is placement. When you are just starting out you often find yourself in the wrong place and as you get more experience you learn how to be in the right spot. You always have to watch what is going on and try to predict what will happen next. You can never be perfect; there is no such thing as perfection, but you can try to get there.

Q: You find and sell vintage cameras for a living. Why did you decide to do this as a career path and do you find yourself having enough time to shoot?

A: Cameras have always been a passion of mine, but when I started working for a very old and respected camera company in Tokyo I was given the chance to really learn a lot more about cameras and photography. I was lucky enough to work with people who are amazingly passionate about what they do and they taught me a lot. Unfortunately I had to leave the job because of illness, but I realized that I didn’t want to stop being around cameras and photography. Also, I had a knack for being able to find the cameras that people want so I decided to start my own business finding classic cameras for people. One of the benefits of the job is that I get to spend a lot of time walking around Tokyo going to the camera suppliers, which gives me the chance to spend a lot of time shooting. It is also important, of course, that I test the cameras that I am supplying.

Q: What are some future projects that you plan on working on?

A: In all honesty, I don’t feel like the darkness project has run its course yet. There is much more to explore with this project and I think it is going to evolve and become something different over time. I would like to do a portrait project, which is something that I have been working on for a long time, but I am still having trouble figuring out what I want from that one. I would like to show people my side of Japan, the side that maybe some foreigners don’t really get to see. There is so much more to this country than just the tired old images of robots and maid cafes. I also have a few ideas for NGO projects that I would like to be involved in, but they are on the backburner at the moment, as I have only been working for myself for about six months and I have to establish a strong base for my work before I can go off gallivanting around the world.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Bellamy’s images on Flickr and keep up with him on Twitter @Jpncamerahunter and his website, www.japancamerahunter.com.