Satoki Nagata: Documenting The World to Discover Yourself

A Japanese photographer who has lived in downtown Chicago since 1992, Satoki Nagata is a passionately dispassionate photojournalist, a complex identity influenced by his background in both science and the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Says Nagata in what amounts to an eloquent manifesto:

“My goal as an artist is finding and showing the various connections forming the reality in which the city and its people exist. The camera captures the moment in a fraction of a second, and I have found that images that succeed show the multi-dimensional relationships of the world through symbolic and abstract forms. By searching for the elements that represent the reality I see around me, I can capture them through the photographic medium. I am always trying to create intimate bonds with my subjects while photographing them, and I believe this is the only way to show their reality and their relationship to the world. Through these images I hope you will discover these subtle but substantial links, and feel a connection to the world I document.”

We spoke to Satoki Nagata about his life, his emergence as a photojournalist, and his compelling work documenting life in the Francis Cabrini Rowhouses in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green District. Here is his remarkable heartfelt story:

Q: You mentioned that you have “several favorite photographers” but that they didn’t directly influence or inspire you. Can you tell us their names and why you admire their work?

A: My favorite photographs are those by Diane Arbus, Nan Golden, Eugene Richards, Bruce Davidson, and Eugene Smith. Their works suggest that the person behind the camera has a distinct vision, personality, life, and most importantly, an intimacy with subjects.

Q: Your documentary of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green area is presented in black and white. Why did you choose this medium to express the human dimension of this place?

A: I like the simplicity, directness, timelessness, and creativity of black and white images. Also, I believe that black and white photography was appropriate for the vision that I had for this project  –  one that delves deeply into visual symbolism. I also found the process of editing and printing to be very satisfying. There is a process and an art behind the editing and printing of black and white digital photography. I have been using a carbon monochrome ink system and continue to be pleased with the quality of prints it produces.

Q: The overall feeling of your Cabrini-Green portfolio is somber and there is an implicit desperation  –  even an awareness of implicit violence lurking just out of sight  –  in some of the images, notably the one of hands clutching an old portrait of a handsome young man, or “grandma” gazing wistfully into the distance with a kid’s portrait and an “I will pray for you…” message taped to the wall in the foreground. Do you agree, and what do you feel these images tell us about this place and the human condition you have depicted?

A: These images reflect what I found at this place and time amongst these people. I think many people, me included, find themselves in difficult circumstances in the current state of society. I realized through this work that we have seen desperation and violence in our own lives, regardless of which community we call home. The viewer may come to different conclusions from these images, but that is what I think a good photograph accomplishes; it opens a dialogue with the viewer.

 

Q: There is a very powerful graphic element in many of your Chicago images. For instance: the shadow of a pointing finger; a woman clutching a fence; a sidewalk fissure with a coin and a hand. Do you think this has anything to do with your Japanese heritage, your scientific background of isolating essential elements, the influence of your mentor Damaso Reyes, or is it just the way you see things?

A: Yes, I learned how to find and develop my vision from Damaso Reyes, and these images are the product of that. I think my tendency to isolate particular elements comes from my background studying Zen Buddhism as well as science. Needless to say, the world and the people in it are extremely complex, and there is no way to express everything that comprises them in a single image or series of images. Addressing this complexity is one of the main challenges for me as a photographer.

The world is like a jigsaw puzzle. We can see the whole picture from a distance, and we can see each piece from a very close vantage point. My approach is to see the world as a whole from a distance and then in microscopic detail again and again. I subsequently try to find important pieces and specific elements that represent the picture as a whole. When I believe that I have found the right pieces, I make the image. Perhaps this is a similar process to science, which can be defined by finding a simple rule or explanation that applies to a complex world.

Q: Your image of a woman peeking out through venetian blinds is simple, compelling, and beautifully composed. How did you come to take this picture, and what do you think it communicates to the viewer?

A: That woman is actually a five-year-old girl that wanted to go outside to play in the backyard. I was in her home that afternoon and was spending time with her family when I took this photo. The Frances Cabrini Rowhouses in Cabrini-Green are isolated, ignored by mainstream society, and people outside of Cabrini-Green do not know what is really going on inside. I came to Cabrini-Green because I wanted to understand what was happening inside, and, more importantly, how people in the Rowhouses view the outside world, including me.

Many outsiders are afraid of Cabrini, and many people living in Cabrini-Green are frightened of the world outside. But what I learned while photographing this community was that young people are curious and want to explore the world outside of Cabrini-Green, physically and mentally. That was what I wanted to communicate with this image.

Q: There is a haunting quality of emotional intimacy in your close-up portrait of a young woman with a painted face looking directly into the camera. Her expression is enigmatic and assertive, yet calm with perhaps a tinge of anger. Do you agree, and can you tell us something more about this image or the subject?

A: I agree. The young woman was only ten years old and she had a strong personality. In Cabrini, children grow up quickly because of the circumstances. This image was meant to communicate that reality.

Q: Your wide “establishing shot” of the box-like houses with two men conversing in the foreground and Chicago skyscrapers in the background has an ordinary quality about it, but still seems essential in context. Can you comment on this?

A: As you said, this image is essential in showing the geographical location of the Cabrini-Green Frances Cabrini Rowhouses. The community lies about one mile from the Gold Coast in Chicago. I felt as though I needed one image to convey that proximity. I just waited and found a moment when an older man seemed to be teaching something to the younger man in the middle of the road. I was really pleased that I was able to capture this moment.

Q: The strong graphic image of a man’s torso visible behind decorative security bars has an amusingly surreal quality, but also suggests someone who is trapped in his circumstances. Do you see this dichotomy, and what does this image say to you?

A: I think that is an interesting take on the image. For me, I did not particularly see this as a man trapped in his circumstances. I saw it as a similar image to the one of the young girl looking out of the venetian blinds. I took this photograph in the very beginning of this project. I felt a strong curiosity about this person, and this person was also interested in me as an outsider. I thought that this image very aptly represented the theme of my project.

Q: Only two of the images in the Chicago portfolio you’ve submitted can be described as hopeful: the photo of kids peering playfully through the arm of a chair, and the one of a child standing on a mowed field under a tree holding some object aloft. However, even these images are tinged with an air of implicit boredom or desperation. Do you think there is hope or transcendence in these circumstances, and do you think your images accurately convey what life is like in Cabrini-Green?

A: I learned about the lives of people in Cabrini-Green and the difficulties they face from various aspects, and for a variety of complex reasons. I do not judge them or speak on their behalf to the outside world. I wanted to show the reality of the community through my eyes and the fact that they reside in our society. They have hopes and fears like everyone else.

I am a stranger who moved here to the United States from Japan, but everybody is a stranger in this society. In Zen Buddhism, we are forced to exist, and no single person exists by his or her own decision. Every single person faces the ultimate question of why he or she exists in the world. These images reminded me of that question. Through my images, I hope those who view them will think about the fact that we are all living in the same society and that they will contemplate the true meaning of community.

Q: Do you plan to explore any other places, locations, or situations using the same photojournalistic approach in the near future? And how do you see your photography evolving over time, say in the next three-to-five years.

A: I like working on long-term documentary projects. My most recent project is the documentation of people who experienced the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan. I visited the area this April and will continue to go back and document the people for several years. Tsunamis and earthquakes are unavoidable in Japan. I want to document these events from a personal level. I want to document how these events can impact a single person’s life.

I will also continue to make images of people in Chicago. Recently, I have been using a flash to capture images that represent people’s life in the city.

In the end, I take photographs to find the answer as to why I am interested in people and their lives. In other words, this is the method by which I understand myself.

Thank you, Satoki!

-Leica Internet Team

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