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Everett Kennedy Brown’s timeless photography has been featured across international media in everything from the National Geographic to the New York Times. For 25 years, his “love affair” with Japan has evolved, seeing him become a cultural spokesperson to the Japanese government, opening a farm outside Tokyo and leading photography tours in Japan. We caught up with him ahead of his talk at the Japan: Get the Picture photography event in London on 30th June to see where this journey began.
When did you become interested in photography?
When I was 11, growing up in St Louis, Missouri, I saved up my lawnmowing money to buy a second-hand German camera. My school encouraged creativity, so I practiced photography but gave it up at the age of 19 to write poetry.
“Japan for me is like a long and ever evolving love affair.”
I was trying to mythologise life, but by 22 when I left the US to travel to Asia, I decided that I wanted to live rather than write. With writing, stories need to be constructed, whereas photographs become instant stories, more in tune with the spiritual discoveries I was making in Asia. I ended up not going back to the US, eventually making Japan my home.
Japan for me is like a long and ever evolving love affair. The more I opened myself up, took emotional risks of engagement, the more Japan revealed her ever-unfolding beauty. Our affair has matured over the years, become more subtle. My challenge now is to express the crystallisation of my love of place, and culture in a way that is not cliché, but honest to the deep experiences Japan has offered me.
How have you been well received by Japanese people?
Absolutely! I decided that to properly illustrate Japan, I needed to get deeply grounded in the culture. I started with agriculture – rice planting and harvesting and then went on to making my own fermented sake with home grown rice.
“I wanted to fully understand
what it is like for a Japanese craftsman”
To fully embrace Japan, I realised the hands are important! Farming gave me that opportunity. I then focused my attention to the country’s great craftsmanship traditions. I wanted to fully understand what it is like for a Japanese craftsman. To do this I needed to get my hands dirty. That’s why I started making my own glass negatives, using a technique called collodion photography, that pretty much went out of use 150 years ago.
My first major work of using handmade glass negatives was photographing Japan’s great takumi artisan traditions. This series was well received in Japan and I became known in Japan for being dedicated to promoting authentic Japanese culture – I even received an award for my work from the Japanese Government.
Why did you want to start taking photography tours in Japan?
Part of my motivation is to share the beauty and depth of Japan with the rest of the world- putting these photographs out does just that. So many visitors to Japan are only scratching the surface. I want to help people to see, experience and photograph the deeper, more significant elements of the country.
“This is what travel is about – stepping away from our lives,
opening our senses, and getting a fresh perspective”
The camera is a tool to be more perceptive and cultivate our intuition. This is what travel is about – stepping away from our lives, opening our senses, and getting a fresh perspective. I have met so many travellers whose best times were wandering the streets of country villages, being alert to what happens next.
Photography is great in Japan because it’s such a safe country. People are eager to cooperate and there’s a strong level of trust. You can be a child again – opening your sensibilities without having to be on guard. I want to make these tours life-changing experiences.
What do you think about social media with regards to photography?
“There’s nothing wrong with taking photos of a
great plate of food or a latte,
but the best things in life come at us
from the corners of our eyes”
Cameras are a way to focus on perceptions, and a way to bring out the story of our lives. There’s nothing wrong with taking photos of a great plate of food or a latte, but the best things in life come at us from the corners of our eyes. It’s those things that catch our attention, sudden moments that take us into new realms of discovery.
I’ve been more Facebook than Instagram until recently. Facebook is very different in Japan to in the West. There’s much more interaction and dialogue – it feels like more of a community. That’s what I like about it. In Japan people are really open and business in Japan is about developing relationships. Facebook has allowed me to do that. I cherish each of the 5,000 people I am connected with, they’re not just anyone and I get a lot of meaning with sharing my discoveries.
With Instagram, I miss that kind of dialogue. But of course it has a greater reach. I’m just beginning to understand and enjoy what the Instagram community offers.
Do you have a favourite memory from your photography tours in Japan?
I love sharing my contacts to make special photographs happen. Recently I worked with an advanced amateur photographer who wanted to film behind the scenes at kabuki theatre – an experience that would be prohibitively expensive. I know members of a similar traditional theatre group, so I used my personal network to film behind the scenes. This is really what my passion is all about. Not only in my private work, but in my photography tours in Japan. I want to take the viewer behind the scenes and discover a world that opens up new possibilities for living.