Meeting Anton Kusters – Mono No Aware & more

In 2011 I interviewed Anton Kusters about his shocking photo-documentary series following the yakuza over two years in Tokyo. Since then Anton’s ground breaking insight into that Kabukicho based branch of the yakuza has brought him worldwide recognition with exhibitions of the images across the world and sold out editions of his book, Oda Yakuza Tokyo.

We caught up as he has now just completed another project, Mono No Aware, again inspired by Japan but with a very different focus. We discuss the success of the yakuza project, the awareness of the passing of time which Mono No Aware explores and talk in general about the enticing nature of creating work about Japan;

Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Since we last spoke Oda Yakuza Tokyo has become a huge success so congratulations! However, that must have made it quite intimidating to follow up with a new, different project?

Like making a first record and then coming back with another, it was hard to compete with the success of the Yakuza project. You just have to do whatever you think will work. There is a relief in actually having an audience as one of the worries when you are working on projects always is if anybody is actually listening!

Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Your last work was very objective, you were invisible as a character in the project and were purely documenting this underworld in Japan. Was there a deliberate decision to react and depart from that with this project which feels very personal and intimate and gives the audience a glimpse into your life which was entirely absent from the last project?

Yakuza was a very intense experience which engulfed my whole life. I turned around and began photographing what was happening in my real life because I was spending all this time in a situation which was not at all normal and so I wanted to make something very real. I got more in touch with death and violence through the Yakuza project and so was considering my own life.

Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Some of the images from Mono No Aware were taken whilst I was actually working on the Yakuza project. Some other big things happened in my life at that time one of which is that I was visiting my brother during that time shooting and his second child was born and so I was there for that and an image is included in the project from that moment.

I met my girlfriend who I am with now during the first year that I was working on Yakuza and she has two children so I was gradually becoming a parental figure during this time. Slowly there was this under the skin process of becoming a father of sorts and becoming aware of the strength that you have to do all these amazing things, but also the bizarre fragility of life that means you could just be hit on your bicycle one day and that’s it. It is a very strange thing to be aware of and to just stay calm and continue.

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Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

Another aspect is that when I was documenting the Yakuza, my contact had to teach me how to be polite in a ‘Japanese’ way. It was new for me to feel this and it made me sensitive to there being additional things that I should be aware of in life. It had perhaps changed me into a more sensitive person.

There was a moment when I realised that I was taking these images sort of as a psychological defense. The first image I took being aware like this was when I was back in Belgium just for a few days and I took a dark blue early morning picture of a lake which looked like a painting (the first image in the Mono No Aware series). Maybe I had already become sensitive to these passing moments that I wanted to keep.

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Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

I have always carried around objects with me in my pocket that remind me of different moments in my life. Over time you don’t really remember the fullness of that moment but you remember that feeling that you had. Like the first time I kept an object was a little aeroplane and it was to recall the first time that I stood up to my father. After many years I can’t recall exactly what happened but I know it is to remind me of being strong… I still have this little plane now.

The opening of the Mono No Aware book includes a dedication which reads, ‘Mother look I’m almost’, could you explain what this means?

Yes, well this is quite personal I suppose. There is a sense with almost everybody that whatever you are doing you always want to make your mother proud. I always have this desire and wonder what my mother will think and I think everyone does even if their mother has passed away or if they are on the other side of the world. I guess with this, my second project, I am saying like a child ‘Look what I’ve done Mother’ and the ‘almost’ shows how I feel I am getting to where I want to be, but not quite there yet.

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Anton Kusters, Mono No Aware

The design of the Mono No Aware book with its three separate pull-out sections like an EP sleeve is a very interesting concept. Is this design deliberate to make the images resonate as the reader is forced to acknowledge them all as these defined, passing moments?

The layout of the book, yes, was designed to force people not to flip through the book too quickly. I didn’t want it to be limited by the flow of a bound book. It shows that I am capturing these moments and slows down the reader. You are thinking when you present your work of what the story is that you want to tell, obviously they are free to consume it as they like but you can guide.

Both of your projects have been very focused on Japan. Could you describe your connection to Japan and what makes it such a fruitful place for you creatively?

My brother lives in Tokyo and so I have often gone to visit him and his family. Japan and Asian cultures in general have a way of looking at life which interests me. I am motivated by seeing the differences between Japanese culture and my own and trying to understand them.

There seems to be a culture in Japan that understands and respects the fragility of human existence and accepts that ‘the big one’ might come so to speak (this refers to the impending and continuous fear in Japan of a large and destructive earthquake).  It feels to me that they are more of a pragmatic than a religious nation, taking different elements from many different religions and incorporating them, sort of like a plurality within their culture which is very fluid.

On the other side is the social pressure, the ‘working poor’ that you see in Tokyo with the dichotomy between parts of the country and these ghost generations in the rural areas. Yet at the same time there is a great sense of connectedness that I think is potentially missing from where I come from in Europe. It seems we have so much more in the way of individualism and in a way it would be good to see a marriage, something half way between our two cultures. In Japan people overcome their personal wishes for the collective and for the community, sometimes they entirely sacrifice themselves for this collective which is obviously going too far. In some instances where it gets to the point that people seem to have no power as an individual at all. This is juxtaposed with Western or European culture which seems too individualised to me sometimes.

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My next project from Japan will be around the ageing population which is a hard concept for me to visualise. I am going to spend time photographing the elder generation in Kyushu. It is the generation that live there who are a very selfless and tough generation, who rebuilt the country after the war. Now they are 80-90 years old and are still working. It will be interesting to try and represent this phenomenon and the dichotomy between the young people moving to work in Tokyo and the older generation left behind.

Something that interests me within Mono No Aware, is this desire that you seem to have to preserve memories through these images. Photographs can sometimes take the place of the memory of a moment. Rather than recalling being somewhere, over time you just recall that photograph, the memory is replaced with an image. What do you think about this interplay in the deceptive nature of using photography to recall moments in your life?

Actually memory is a third thing that I am quite obsessed with and there will be a later project I will work on about this. In Dutch there are two words or terms for memory in Dutch – one which refers to the physical aspect of committing something to memory and one which refers to sense of remembering, of being able to recall that moment. Without recalling there can be no true memory. Sometimes over time our recall of an event may alter and something that we remember as being terrible, yet somebody else that was there may remember as being a positive time… So, contrary to the belief that we must try to remember exactly and correctly what happened, I believe we must acknowledge yet respect our own misinterpretations of our past. We must trust the honesty in the delivery of the message.

I noticed that both your projects so far were debuted on Burn Magazine, what is your relationship with the magazine and its editor, Magnum photographer David Harvey?

I actually started Burn magazine with David. Now I’m just behind the scenes as I needed more time to work on my own projects and many people have joined since it was created. When I was at university studying I wanted to move forward and decided to leave the Academy of Fine Arts before going into my final year and spend all my money on this workshop in Charlottesville, Virginia, which David was running. It was by chance that I chose his workshop and it was crazy and hard and we became great friends – two months after we met, we started Burn Magazine and we remain great friends to this day. I don’t know maybe because we’re both Geminis and both tall and bald, but yeah we are very close!

David was my photographic mentor throughout the Yakuza project and was a great guide who I could lean on when I felt I wasn’t getting great images any more or was having problems. It was important for me, with my first two books, to publish them via Burn and have that platform support.

What’s next for Anton Kusters?

One project I am working on right now is a Holocaust photo series where over three years I will visit every Holocaust concentration camp and photograph the sky. This is part of a project I am gradually working with Screen Projects to produce, develop and promote http://www.screenprojects.org. This alongside continuing to explore memory and recalling in a deep way.

http://antonkusters.com/