Booooooom x Capture Photography Festival: Hiro Tanaka Interview

As part of the 2021 Capture Photography Festival, 5 diptychs by photographer Hiro Tanaka will be installed on the facade of the Olympic Village Station in Vancouver, and be displayed from April 2 to September 30, 2021. We were honoured to help curate the installation, which is presented in partnership with Canada Line Public Art Program – InTransit BC. Below is an interview with Tanaka about his work.

Jeff Hamada: In your bio you mentioned that you ended up travelling to the United States after accidentally winning a free trip, tell me more about that!

Hiro Tanaka: When I was working around in shopping mall in Tokyo, I saw people lined up for gara gara chusen (a raffle) in a hall, it was like if you spend 3000 yen, you get to draw. I was staring at people spinning the barrel and listening to the sound of balls crushing each other inside the barrel for a while.

When I looked down, I saw a receipt somebody left behind, laying down on the floor. So I picked it up and brought it to the raffle counter, spun the barrel but for sure I didn’t win. A person handed me a pocket tissue (this is very Japanese) and told me “Thank you! Come again!” with big smile on the lady’s face.

A few days later, when I was in the neighborhood I got inspired and went back to the mall. I started picking up receipts on the floor, handing those to a person at the raffle counter, drawing the raffle a few times. I didn’t win anything but I was like gara gara chusen is real fun! I got hooked after these few attempts. So I started going back to the mall and picking up receipts off the floor a few times a week when I was in the neighborhood. After several attempts I started winning little prizes (mostly food) and that made me even more excited!

One day, I was doing my routine, picking up receipts, spinning the barrel, watching balls dropping one after another, and I was thinking, ok here comes another pocket tissue… But all of a sudden, I saw a golden ball came out of the barrel, when it hit the tray, a person at the ruffle counter shook the bell and yelled “Congratulations!!! You won a first prize!!!” The scene became slow motion, and I was like first prize??? All I wanted was a little prize like food snacks and was just enjoying spinning a barrel.

Luckily, I won a free trip to America and went there for the first time.

Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

I always wanted to see punk shows in US, I was really excited. Soon after I arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I went to see a show at First Avenue & 7th Street Entry, where Prince’s movie Purple Rain was filmed.

I was struck by a punk band I saw and asked them if I could buy their record. For some reason they just gave me one. A few days later they called me and invited me to another show. After that we started hanging around, they took me to some shows, to parties, and drove me around town. At the time I couldn’t speak any English. I could barely say “how are you?” but they were really nice and kind, I admired their openness. I experienced during my trips in some cases, if you don’t speak their language, they don’t even talk to you.

Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka
Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

One day, they brought me on a little weekend tour in the Midwest, that experience left a deep impression. Big open road, eternal cornfields, a wide range of selection for snacks at track stops, hugest pizza that I’ve ever seen (before Costco landed in Japan), smoking joints, drinking beer at the parking lot, punk shows in basements, bands just playing shows anywhere. Most of those things won’t happen in Japan. I felt like I was in Disneyland.

Back then I was playing in a band and going to see shows in Tokyo. Seeing and experiencing their DIY music scene gave me a big inspiration that was much freer and had a different quality.

Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

Since that happened, I became friends with other bands and started going on tour in America and Europe. When I was getting ready for a tour, packing my stuff at a friend’s house in Minnesota, one of the band members came up to me and told me, ”you should start taking photos while on tour” and gave me a camera and flash. He also gave me a lecture about the rule of photography such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc., but I didnt have any interest in photography at that time so I didn’t understand anything he told me. He also told me to set the dial to A (auto) and just take whatever you want!

After a while I got into photography, and started look through photo books at libraries, museums and book stores. I ended up publishing 5 monographs with lots of people’s help. I’ve learned sooo many great things about life and photography through being on the road with friends.

Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka
Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

If that hadn’t happened, do you think your life might have gone a completely different way?

Yes! I think totally different way. It all happened by coincidence and I was really lucky to have met so many great people and experienced all those traveling, feels like i was just there in the right place at the right moment. I am very grateful for these amazing and crazy encounters.

Do you remember three of your favourite songs from back then?

Just for punk rock? “12XU” by Wire, “Banned in D.C.” by Bad Brains, “Ghettoised” by Heresy

Image from Dew Dew, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

Is there one memory that stands out to you from all that touring round the states and Europe with those punk bands?

So many great memories with friends on tour. We stayed in so many interesting places and slept in different situations. Inside the van, tent, kitchen, bathroom, basement, closet, hallway, attics, under a tree, shack, etc.

When I was on tour with Mike Park, Monica Park and Chris Candy, we were doing a living room tour that only played shows at people’s living rooms, BBQ in their back yards and sleep at their houses after the show.

There was one exception in Illinois, after a Chicago show we stayed at movie director John Hughes’ house! We had great time staying at his house! I love his movies, such as Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I couldn’t believe when Chris Candy, who is a good friend of John, told us “we are staying at John Hughes’ house for 2 nights after Chicago show”. After the show, we drove to Hughes house and arrived there around midnight. When we got there, a security guard was standing by his car and waiting for us at the big gate, at that moment I felt we were going into a different world.

The gate opened and we drove through the gate, followed security car for like 15 minutes then we arrived at a nice and cozy log house. When we entered the house, there was a big living room and kitchen, we spotted a whole lot of food, snacks, drinks on the table, and a big fridge was filled with fresh groceries! It was so much food that you could feed a whole village for a week.

Chris told us, “We are at John’s guest house and he got us all the food for us to eat”. We were only there for 2 nights. As soon as Mike Park (master of food) heard this, he started cooking a big meal for everybody and we all ate so much late at night.

I really enjoy sleeping on people’s couches and floors, being there to experience little parts of their life, but this time we all each had a bed and room. Falling into sleep with a full of stomach on big comfortable bed, being in beautiful log house, feeling fresh air from outside, listening to silence, it was one of the coziest sleeping situations I’ve ever had.

After the breakfast we drove for 15 minutes to John’s house. When we got there he and his wife were chilling by the swimming pool having tea. They both were really nice and friendly, showed us around the property and house, and chatted for a while, before we left for another show. We all appreciated the Hughes family’s generosity, putting us up, feeding us, showing us some good times! It still inspires me!

Image from Around 42nd and 7th, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

You sound like a very spontaneous person, embracing things as they come, do you approach photography in the same way?

Yes! Just go with the flow, I usually don’t make plans much when I go out and shoot. Just walk around, hang around and take things as they come, improvisation like Jazz. I really enjoy traveling, being in different places and situations, exploring what’s out there, expecting encounters, waiting for something to come from unknown territory, stepping into new worlds is a great thing!

Image from Around 42nd and 7th, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

Are there specific things that often catch your eye? What gets you excited to pull your camera out?

Can be anything! Anything that catches my attention, stimulates curiosity. I enjoy encounters and witnessing fleeting moments. It can be things like a limited special moment or event from negligible mundane life, things that make me wonder, like what is this? What is going on? Things that give me illusions or something that looks vague or pale. Things that resonate with one another.

Image from Bolzo, photo series by Hiro Tanaka
Image from Bolzo, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

This is a nice entry point to talk about your images that will be installed on the train station here in Vancouver as part of the 2021 Capture Photography Festival. What can you tell me about them? Where were they captured?

Those images are from a photo book called Chicharrón published by Witty Books, based in Italy, a few years ago. Those were taken in United States, South America, Europe, Asia (including my home country Japan) mostly when I was traveling. Moving one place to another, going into familiar and unfamiliar scenes. Countless encounters during life on the road. Things can be different but sometimes feel like it’s a constant repetition under a pile of time and distance. Often random things just happen to you and we have no control over avoiding it. Time and current can be twisted, distance and space can be distorted. This is my personal study about encounters, randomness and consequences through experience and memento.

Image from Chicharrón, photo series by Hiro Tanaka


Image from Chicharrón, photo series by Hiro Tanaka

Can you talk about the relationship between the images? How did you decide the pairings?

I just follow my instinct when I edit photos, making pairings and sequences. It involves elements contained within the images and process of editing, such as color, shape, depth, density, contrast, weight, atmosphere, heat, noise, echo, discrepancy, consistency, accident, magic, flow and so on. It naturally happens when I seek connections between images.

Looking at photo books and movies taught me a lot about how to perceive and play around with images. Images have their own languages and reading those is a very interesting experience. Seeing visual imagery is like dealing with the invisible.

Image from Chicharrón, photo series by Hiro Tanaka


Image from Chicharrón, photo series by Hiro Tanaka


Image from Chicharrón, photo series by Hiro Tanaka


Do you feel like you were born to be a photographer?

I’m not sure, but I really enjoy taking photos, editing and making something. I feel grateful that I had a chance to discover the charm of photography. I got hooked on photography and traveling by accident. It was like an unavoidable coincidence.

What’s next for you? Are you working on a new series?

Working on a book project about Latvia. I was planning to go to Latvia and stay there for about 4 weeks to finish the book with Milda Books (publisher based in Latvia) last year, but I couldn’t make it there because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Latvia is a very special country with amazing people, culture and its nature. Their food is very good too!!! I couldn’t stop eating their rye bread! When I went there for the first time through the ISSP residency program, I fall in love with Latvia. I was super lucky to have chances to travel around the country with my best friends, Theo Elias and Georgs Avetisjans, to discover the charm of Latvia. Hoping to go back there in 2021 to shoot more and finish the book!

I’m also going back to Tottori and shoot more photos for new series started in 2020. Tottori is a great place full of nature! As always nice people, good food and intense sand dunes. I love Tottori!

I am participating in a residency program for one month in Atami, organized by Akao Art Project and Island Japan in the Spring. Atami is an old school onsen town (spa resort), I will be shooting photos but working on a collaborative project with another realm of artist as well, should be very interesting! Exhibition in September at Gallery HarukaIto/Block House, in Tokyo.

Excited to see all of that come to fruition! And as I mentioned to you before, I’ve been wanting to visit Tottori for a long time since that’s where my dad’s family is from! Maybe I’ll see you there! Can we end this with one piece of advice?

Sharing is caring! Thank you sooo much Jeff!

Hiro Tanaka’s work will be installed on the facade of the Olympic Village Station in Vancouver as part of the 2021 Capture Photography Festival. The work will be on display from April 2 to September 30, 2021. The installation is presented in partnership with Canada Line Public Art Program – InTransit BC.


Hiro Tanaka on Instagram

Hiro Tanaka’s Website

Capture Photography Festival on Instagram

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