anton kusters – as light shines on thy thigh



As Light Shines on thy Thigh by Anton Kusters


Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo –

Going deeper underground… Walking the streets with Soichiro and his family. Kabukicho is the red light, food & gambling district of Shinjuku, smack in the middle of Tokyo.

We gather at his office, where he shows me the work of Watanabe Katsumi, a japanese street photographer of this particular district who, for about 40 years, barely making a living, sold his street photographs back to his subjects. Amazing stuff.

I’m surprised that somehow he must have taken the time to research this book and lend it to me to look in. We talk about photography, the schedule that lies ahead of us, and the places he and his family are going to take us to. I am impressed what is in store for us. And excited.

Some of the other family members arrive at the office. Everyone is waiting outside, time to go.

I’m definitely aware of the weird mix of feelings while walking the streets at night with them, in ‘their’ burrough. A mix of respect, fear, clueless-ness, anger and admiration from the people, the hustlers, the shopkeepers, the prostitutes, the restaurants, the tourists, the club owners,…

It’s my first night out shooting. We’re on a so-called “go-around”, where the whole family gathers in fine suits to walk the streets collectively, greeting everyone, being greeted by everyone, in effect unmistakably showing everyone that they are, simply, ‘there’.

The message is crystal clear.

Two regular japanese guys walk up to me, smiling and gesturing friendly, apparently wanting to see my pictures.

I see Soichiro in the corner of my eye taking an immediate distance and signaling me, that this is in fact undercover police… The family disperses, like nothing ever happened… Just in time I have the presence of mind to start playing dumb and speak in a way too loud voice “tourist, tourist, picture”…. and I take off in another direction.

They don’t follow me. Close call.

And thus ends the first shoot.


Anton, april 2009

Anton Kusters


About the Essay

Soichiro is the lead character of the story that i’m starting to tell, about a Yakuza family in Japan. After more than 10 months of preparation, my brother and I have been granted access to start a long-term project to document the visible and hidden life of that particular family. All names used in the account above (and previous and future accounts) are fictional.

Here on BURN, i will regularly provide visual and textual accounts of our adventures.

I hope to be able to publish a book on this story.

Previous chapters:
Meet Soichiro


111 Responses to “anton kusters – as light shines on thy thigh”

  • Oh my god, Anton, I think I held my breath the whole time I read your account of a night out on the town with “the family.” You are on an adventure of a liftime my friend, but I just want you to put your safety first. No photo is worth putting your precious self at risk. That being said, this photo is marvelous! If this is any example of what you’re capturing with your camera, you are in the midst of creating a photo essay that will knock our socks off. Like WOW!!!

    take care

  • Anton-
    looking forward to how this will transpire.
    very fascinating and intriguing already…
    good luck and be safe!

  • Sounds like a great story in the making Anton… Stay safe there.

  • HOT! HOT! HOT!

  • Great, Anton, Great!!!

    Interesting shoot and story. I’ll wait impatiently to see more and more of the Soichiro series.

    Take care.


  • A perfect teaser for the upcoming essay…a peep into a secret world…!

  • Anton

    Super! My friend :)
    Excellent mood.
    I like it!

  • Very “anton” – lovely. Some time I’d love to know how you wandered into this. Take care of yourself.

  • Anton, i am confused..undercover police approached you, asked to see the pictures and then did not follow you after your “tourist routine” satisfied them that you were a clueless visitor. Then you say, “close call”..Why was this a close call? What were you doing that would be considered even vaguely illegal except perhaps guilt by association?

    I like the spot of light on her thigh and the sparkles in her black dress, like stars sprinkled across a moonlit sky. I think this photo will work well in the essay, possibly better than as a stand-alone where there’s very little context for the viewer to divine meaning and place.


  • hello Anton,

    Thank you for the sharing, it is really very enriching to see how your work is set up, on a subject so difficult to approach… I love the idea of”journal”(logbook?), that you write, on them and on you, how you feel the subject…. especially do not STOP it !!
    Are you going to mix the color and the black & white ? Or nothing is defines at the moment…

    Take care yourself, audrey

  • Why was this a close call?

    Kat, everything with police, anywhere, lasting a short time only is A close call… Reminds me of my little constable encounter last year at the Magnum Ball…. ;-)

    Anton, I thought you were back for some reason. Stay safe, yet… adventurous, curious about Katsumi’s pictures. 40 years at it, real body of work there.

    Maybe one day we will have KATfonsec’s body of work in Costa Rica…. :-)

  • Love the photograph, Anton; and the written description! Great colour; I notice that your first post here (Soichiro) was B&W and this is in colour: It’s early days but at least with digital you have the choice.

    Stay safe,


  • sexy photo anton – like it..

    glad you have an idea of where the project is going from here on in and i know you can keep up and snap at whats important to get the results..

    looking forward to meeting you in a matter of weeks.. of course it would be great if you wanted to chip down to the dalmation coast and visit us for a couple of days in june ? :ø)

    david, beate and topcat

  • hey audrey, mike R –

    i have not chosen colour or black & white yet, i’m just going with my feelings for the moment… i actually don’t feel like choosing yet. i guess when the images start to pile up, i will realize that i’m either in the b&w mindset or in the color one. Or a mixed mode like Panos :-)

    hey kat –

    what can i say… if i were the police and i saw you were hanging out with them as a photographer, i’d sure be very interested to see your images, hopefully to catch some visual evidence of ‘not so appropriate’ behaviour on their behalf…

    davidb – !

    dalmation coast? hmm sounds tempting. i might just be able to make it then… as long as it’s not during look3!!!
    but whatever happens, 2009 is the year that we WILL meet in person and get really really plastered while philosophising about life, photography, love, money and top cat tor capa :-P

    and then some.

    running now… will check back in an hour!

  • Hey World Traveler! :))

    what a gorgeous image to open my eyes too this summer….it’s both a dark and playfully poetic image. I too love the spot-light halo of light on the thigh (as if from a flashlight) and the star-scattered firmament of the black dress…..and here, movement, especially as this shift the lights into the richness of the Lynchian colors (Ode to Green), makes vivid sense…here, it is exactly that the movement and the truncation of the body suggests something is not quite right (stripper, bordello, Yak’s girl, etc)….and like d’agata’s entire Tokyo series, the color and shapes form beautiful abstractions that become just as (if not more) emotional and pictorial aspects…is that her left hand or a boot or a witch’s black face?….it is interesting too, as this image is visually, emotionally, photographically and aesthetically at the opposite end of the 1st picture you shared….this, much more about (for me) fear, exploration, discovery, uncertainty….a cat scattering after a tin can had been thrown….

    it looks much more like an Anton pic than Soichiro portrait, and that is, i hope, will be the wonderful surprise of the work for us and for you once accomplished: that it will surprise, as all deeply felt and deeply committed work does….we go into things with questions and leave not with answers but larger hunger-filled questions…:)))

    and thanks for the reference to Watanabe Katsumi….believe it or not, i hadn’t seen his name or work until this morning…and i thought i knew Japanese photography ;))))….that’s it, we continually learn :))))

    safe safe my friend…. i cant wait to see where this leads you :)))

    hypnotic and suggestive pic :)))


    p.s. got ur email….will write you later today….hectic life…thanks so much :))

  • anton

    will be staying in a beautiful and tiny (only a couple of hundred people) fishing village 2 mins from the sea.. near zadar, croatia from 7th june until 14th july.. 5 weeks.
    will be working diffrent places – serbia and other areas – so see what dates might work if you can.. there is a cracking festival in the village 9th to 12 of july you´re welcome to.
    otherwise london end of june :o)

  • Cool…. damn i’m in envy Anton.

  • Oh Anton
    interesting,impassioned,intriguing mood and great colors…I’m waiting to see the story.
    be safe ;-)

  • Herve and Anton..

    mmm..yes the police can be an obstacle when i am shooting but i wouldn´t say my encounters with them are close calls. My encoutners with career criminals, crack heads and run of the mill pick pockets are close calls. Which was why i was really asking. Anton is associating with street bosses and he calls his encounters with the police close calls. The alliances he´s making are most interesting. I consider his journey to the dark side even more fascinating perhaps than the photographs themselves though i eagerly await those as illustrations of his adventures. It´s an interesting dynamic, no? Nice photographer from good family dips toe in sordid underworld. I have to tell you, i get a serious chill up the back of my neck when i wonder what lies ahead for him. I assume that the family members watch each other´s backs. I wonder who is watching Anton´s? Yes, Anton, beware and be careful.

    Herve–i gave you a link once to my work. Any time you want to see more i have gigas and gigas and would love to share. That you don´t see my work on Burn is not for want of submitting it. That it does not appear here is itself enough to tell me i am better off spending my time working harder on the quality of my work than displaying it. Of course there´s always the thought that it´s the right Sunday wrong Church. But i will continue to submit to Burn and maybe one of these days something will click. Till then i happily persevere. Thanks for your continued interest.

    best to both


  • Anton, just for your resourcefulness and diplomatic skill in getting access to the japanese mob you would deserve all of our admiration. And the two images we’ve seen are pretty great too! Looking forward to more, and stay safe.

  • Definitely an ‘ooh la la” shot, lovely and evocative..

    I too am a bit confused by the writing about the close isn’t clear to me what you are after “He (Soichiro) says that the things we want to document, no outsider has ever been allowed to bear witness to.” Soichiro runs things, but is not police..? What Soichiro runs is illegal, and the undercover police are watching Soichiro’s activities?

  • erica, kat –

    I’m sorry i have to remain a bit vague… Tomorrow/soon i will post an addendum with a short synopsis of the essay, so that hopefully i can shed more clarity on what the story is about. The texts that i write (like above), are a personal account of what i feel, notice or experience during shoots. i’m glad that BURN gives me the chance to do this, as yes, they are important too. Eventually the text will be in line with the images and hopefully they will lift one another up…

    By “a close call” i meant that if the police had stopped me right there and then and seized my images, i would not only lose my images, but be compromised and not be able to shoot again. it was a close call for the project… for my images… not because it was the police… my hands were clenched around my camera…

  • Anton,

    As this essay evolves, developes I would love to be able see the style, color, and feel of this first image maintained throughout. Such a beautiful photograph, sexy indeed.

    Cheers, Jeremy

  • joe –

    to keep you ‘in envy’…. i hope i can keep on doing that one! that, for me, is a respectable goal in itself :-)

    davidb –

    will check my schedule tomorrow and find out where & when i can make it! needless to say, a lot depends on what goes down in… japan.

    jeremy –

    to be honest, i have no clue yet as to how it will evolve (visually, i mean). that is the great thing about it, i mean, “back in the days” how could one approach a project? just go for it, you have one or two trusted people you go to for advice, a certain film in a certain camera, and you’re locked and loaded.

    now i have the privilege of asking potentially thousands of people their opinions, their feelings, their thoughts, or their advice…. discuss my images, question my text, experiment, make me explain myself, help me grow or even be utterly dismissive… and all this can only make my essay-to-tell so much richer and potentially make me grow much more than i ever would have been able to.

    or to answer your question shortly: yes i like the colors and the mood in this image too :-)

  • bob –

    you noticed! yes even better would be to post these two pictures side by side… now that would be a clash :-o

    you’re right – they are really at opposite ends of the spectrum (as far as you can actually be at opposite ends inthis spectrum of course). but this is really ‘me’ in the beginning of a project, going crazy with all visual languages that i can get a hold of (you sould see my drawings and videos) until, somewhere along the project, i get ‘homed in’ or something (can’t explain it any other way) and only one language remains

    but i’m kinda guessing that this one, in a contest of two, would win hands down in the “feeling-fight” in my head – if there were such a thing happening at all – hmm, who said it was a contest of only two?

    oh, i said this myself just now…

    laughing…. :-D

  • I like a mixed mode (colour and black & white) as Panos too.

    Best, audrey

  • Anton….

    ooooooooooohhh, ok, so yes, the police could have been a real obstacle to your work. I often have more problems with the police trying to keep me safe than anything else..and yes, i have been in several situations when having my camera and my photos seized was a very real possibliity. But as you know, that´s when one´s wits are the best part of one´s kit.

    Thanks for clarifying and i really love the tempt-tease you give by uploading singles and a bit of your journal..i eagerly await the next chapter of Anton´s Antics in the Underworld :))


  • Hi anton,
    It is a difficult task to express the feeling after having a deep look at the shot. It is a bit off-track/modern representation of the street shot. The background and overall colour is soothing to the eyes. The uses of light and positioning of the girl as well as the brave crop gives a new dimension. A bit shake gives a nice sense of motion. Looking forward how the project …

  • Hi Anton,
    “We gather at his office, where he shows me the work of Watanabe Katsumi” what a coup to get the trust of these guys, good on you. This is a great project and very brave, I imagine a lot of rich material is to be had whilst walking bit of a tightrope.

    Good luck with it and I look forward to seeing further additions and how the story unfolds and is finally put together.

    Best of luck and break a leg.



  • Herve…. That you don´t see my work on Burn is not for want of submitting it…..

    Just a pun, “Kat”, nothing else… ;-)

  • Anton :))

    little brother, dont worry, i like BOTH images A LOT!…as i told you, i think the Portrait should be on the front cover of the book and the 1st picture in the book/essay…..and then the LAST photo in the book should be another Portrait, but from the FRONT…showing his face…ying-yang….and those 2 pics alone would convey the totality of this story….and now you owe me a editor/advisor/photo credit ;))))))))))…

    i mean, in this pic, i see the Anton i know as he begins an adventure :)))…

    ok, gotta run…got something to finish :)))


  • Anton,

    What an intriguing image… and made even more so by your narrative text. I’m really caught in the sense of motion and possibility. I guess you will take care to look after yourself – and I find I’m really interested in how your perception of risk will translate into the visual.


  • Man, am I the odd man out this time!… where to begin? I feel like if I say even a small part of what I am feeling about this photo and this project, then I will have irrevocably burned my last bridges at Burn, and earned the scorn, disapproval, and contempt of all the ‘regulars’ at least… Proving once and for all that I am 1) NOT a photographer and NEVER will be… and 2) that I am an old-fashioned, prissy puckerbutt trying to spoil the party. Or, as my long-deceased father used to characterize a certain liberal politician, “a Boy Scout in a whorehouse.”

    I have nothing against Anton’s photo, and certainly nothing against Anton. I find it a lot less titillating than some people apparently do… maybe because I have seen thousands (I’m not exaggerating) of similar over-dressed skinny young Japanese female thighs before, in all kinds of light and from all kinds of angles ((so, where are the pictures? the readership asks… proving once again that 1) I am NOT a photographer and 2) NEVER will be)).

    For those of you fearful for Anton’s physical safety (at least while shooting), you probably haven’t lived in Japan. He is a lot safer doing what he’s doing than any of you would be trying to cross the street in New York or London. Unless of course at some future point, after having acquired a body of work that might not suit his ingratiating hosts’ tastes, he publishes it against their wishes.

    What I am in despair about is that no one apparently besides me sees any hint of potential moral compromise in hanging out with yakuza, glorifying their activities, or just giving tacit approval by association with them. I realize journalists hang out with all kinds of unsavory characters to get stories, and all you eager edgy young photogs want to ‘push the envelope’ into darker and more titillating areas, I mean, DAH hung out with gangs in NYC, so it must be OK, right?

    Perhaps it is easier to romanticize gangsters if they are in an exotic culture where you don’t speak the language or have a vested interest in local public ethics and morality. I mean, they have these great tattoos, and engage in colorful arcane rituals. Some of the individuals may be personally very nice people. They preach loyalty and bravery. Their swagger has style.

    But these people make their living by extortion, blackmail, threats, violence, bullying… evicting poor innocent people from their homes for real estate scams… trafficking in sex slaves from China, the Philippines, and Thailand… selling illegal amphetamines… and bribing cops and politicians. They are vampires. And a lot of decent Japanese people are trying, with occasional success, to get them permanently ejected from their communities.

    Now maybe some will argue that that is all the more reason that they should be ‘documented’. Or that good reportage journalism doesn’t take sides or make moral judgments. Or that, like the poor, the gangsters will ‘always be with us’, that they are part of the social fabric. Or that none of that matters so long as the photos that emerge are sexy and show ‘authorship’.

    Photography is voyeurism. Yes, flash us a little more thigh… make the atmosphere a little darker… give us ‘meat’… titillate us with just a little more threat of danger, sex, and violence than we had before… leading to… what? Well, that is certainly one kind of art. Modern, urbane, and popular. Burners eat it up.

    I’m not suggesting there are any clear-cut or easy answers to the moral implications of what we choose to photograph or admire or be entertained by. Life is complicated, society is complicated, many consequences are unforeseen and unintended. But everything we do involves moral decisions, either conscious or unconscious ones. Having been a member of Japanese society for more than 20 years, I personally would find it morally indefensible to hang out with yakuza or contribute in any way to romanticizing them. For me, some things are more important than ‘getting the shot’, and that is why, ultimately I am 1) NOT a photographer, and 2) NEVER will be.

  • Sidney, this is exactly why I’m glad you’re here. Please don’t ever leave us. We need your voice, we need your perspective. You make us think. You make us question. You take us beyond the shot into the world that it reflects. I will now need to search my own mind and heart and ask myself more questions than I could have ever imagined. Thank you for taking me out of my comfort zone.


  • SIDNEY… sidney!

    very thought through… i am glad somebody has said it.
    i know that this picture is a teaser, though i do not find any amor in it or romance
    truly i thought the picture was an accident??? a capture and a press on the shutter and a nice surprise on the upload in the computer… I don’t exactly see stars or any mood
    i just know that anton is there where he is for whatever reason he cares to give

    i hope anton does not find himself in a spot where he has to respond to you or any of us regarding these thoughts you have brought up because i don’t think he is doing this to make public his own feelings and judgments about which side of the fence his mind wants to sit on, i hope for his own sake he does not make it known at least for now

    but as a viewer and reader of BURN and not a photographer like you, i do not chastise (for lack of terms) anyone based upon intentions behind the photographs because i never know what those are, though I did get mad(?!) at James Chance for his exposure on the corruption that’s going on in the Philippines – not like it is his fault, or didn’t see at all that Nachtwey condones murder in the streets, though I had nightmares of his pictures documenting it etc etc… there are too many things i have strongly reacted to that i have chosen not to say anything about publicly.

    one thing for sure is i do not envy anton or the spot he has placed himself in. it is a great responsibility to himself, his family, and his readership and i hope he lives up to the principles he’s chosen and i strongly hope too he will be able to live with himself afterward to whatever gains … or losses this project is going to unearth for him.

    and Mustafa…
    what does ‘straight dope’ mean?

  • Sidney,

    A bit surprised at your entry. Based upon what you are stating all we would have to look at when everyone’s morality was taken into consideration would be backyard shots of bumblebees, and then someone would find issue with disturbing the privacy of the bees. I found issue with some of the essays on prostitution but I found strength from looking and seeing that world through the photos presented (way back in the early day of this blog).

    Of course, the Japanese society as a whole has issues with the part the Y play in their lives. And you may call it glorifying them by showing their tattoos and their antics. But consider this. In DAH’s piece on rap it did not make me want to join them or make me like rap. (Although Kanye West has my attention.) Or feel that any one of the characters that ended up in trouble with the law because they committed a crime should be given leniency because I knew someone who took great photos of them and became friends with a good many of the people he shot.

    What that particular DAH piece did for me as Anton’s will hopefully also do, is give me insight. I am less ignorant about rap. I’m still right in my own mind of how I feel about the music and the degradation of women and men in the lyrics. But I know more.

    With Anton’s piece (which I hope we see soon), I will know more about a subject I have only had glimpses of and heard whispers about. As a person who has just recently embraced the art of tattooing I am intrigued by what influences this particular culture will show me with their chosen art. From talking with my inker I found out that there are very strict rules about tattooing in the Y.

    From your close proximity with the subject you have very strong feelings as you have expressed. I encourage you to really look at the subject matter when the final pieces are put up for us to review, and see what knowledge you gain that will help you in assisting your community to rid themselves of a the menace that the Y present to the Japanese society. Knowledge is power and the more you know about something and understand the workings of it the less power and hold it has over you.

    Anton, be careful and I am intrigued. In the shot you chose to present for this piece I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I want to see the subject matter. Although the women no doubt are a huge part in this society I want to see the main players. Good shot though.



  • lee,

    we posted at the same time… your thoughts are well taken too!
    though unfortunately, though knowledge is power, the decision remains in you the viewer…

    (as jim powers did say… (where the *&#$ is he?)
    even though how strong the photographer’s convictions,
    the viewer eventually has the choice to do something
    or sadly… turn the page

  • Sidney,

    extremely well put, and thanks for not mincing your words. The only thing I am not sure I agree with, is your assumption that the positive comments about Anton’s photo(s) and success in gaining access to the Yakuza also necessarily implied a condoning of the activities and character of these criminal leeches, which, as you say and I am sure most of us here already realized (Anton probably included), are indefensible. Of course this is a hugely complicated issue that none of us here will probably be able to resolve – philosophers have been trying to do so for ages unsuccessfully (the classic case of art vs., or despite, morality, is Leni Riefenstal’s films in praise of the Nazis). My take would be that, were someone to undertake a project like that with an agenda of admiring or glorifying criminals, I would find that abhorrent. If, however, the intention is just to show it as it is, I am not sure that that kind of engagement implies any kind of approval of their activities. Of course I realize as you point out that even hanging out with these people, eating and drinking with them, may be morally indefensible; but on the other hand, if we did not ever want to get our hands dirty, we would live in a world of hear nothing/see nothing/know nothing.

  • Dimitri, exactly so.


  • LEE and DIMITRI,

    You both raise questions that need considering, of course. I never meant to suggest it was a simple case… only that I was surprised and troubled that no one had even raised the issue. Nor did I mean to criticize Anton particularly… it just so happens that this is an issue on which I have very strong feelings, and possibly (?) more experience and information than many Burn readers. In these kinds of situations– reporting and documenting illegal, exploitive, or repugnant activities– I think a thoughtful photographer or reporter must be asking himself/herself questions every day about the nature of their personal involvement with certain people or groups, and the answers may be very tentative and mutable. There may be a lot of grey area… Anton may bring it off, or he may find himself feeling compromised at some point… and I don’t mean to impugn his motives. (Though I do have to wonder a bit why he found this topic attractive enough to fly halfway around the world for). I only meant that that is something to seriously ponder in a project such as this. I’m not foolish or naive enough to think we can live our lives by some kind of strict moral standard or never dirty our hands… everything we do also involves compromises. I certainly often found myself in somewhat compromising situations while living and working in Japan (incidentally, Lee, I no longer live there).
    By the way, Dimitri, I certainly wouldn’t want to ever compare Anton to Leni Riefenstahl… she may never have joined the Nazi Party, but by her own admission was Hitler’s friend, and if you read her autobiography or watch her films, she clearly had a fascist mindset.


    FIRST, let me say that I received the CD! :)))))…it’s sitting next to my computer and i am very excited :))…I literally have had no time yet to look at it, as the last 2 weeks have been intense (am working on 2 things for Burn at the moment, not my own work, and so havent had the inclination to look yet, to get distracted)…but, this weekend, it’s on my to-do list :))…and i’ll write you about that as soon as i catch my breath :))…but im really excited..

    SECONDLY, because you are bother or concerned or reject both the value of the photograph and the moral-orientation of the project itself, does NOT mean you will ‘burn’ your Burn bridge…good god, anyone that rejects a person for for expressing their ideas doesn’t belong anywhere, except that even rejecting someone is a form of articulation and should be supported ;)))…i may often ‘reject’ ideas by others (rather, disagree or hope to foment discussion/argument) as a form of discourse or conversation, but dissent is valued and dissent encourages discussion, which is the most critical part of our lives…so, please dont think that anyone will reject YOU (i fear sometimes that Jim took the ‘rejection’ of his ideas/comments as a personal rejection and left accordingly, which is a great shame), even if they reject your idea as articulated above…

    LASTLY (PROMISE), i completely DISAGREE. I say this to you as both a buddhist but also as an argument of ethics. OBSERVATION is not, fundamentally, AGREEMENT OR ACCEPTANCE. To oberserve, to report and to reflect upon life and the life of others is not only important (for each of us as sentient creatures) but as photographers it is our navigational point. It is NOT up to photographers (are at least all photographers) to define or categorize or pass judgement on the actions of others. Using your logic, we would have to dismiss, for example, Nachtwey’s photograph of the men slaughtering the young man in Malaysia. He did his best to try to plead for that young man’s life, but still took the photograph as he was summarily killed. HIs moral obligation was to show to the world what had happened, but he also tried to intervene. However, there are photographers whose moral act is NOT to intervene but to report, all manner of debasement and deleterious and ‘immoral’ behavior. For each individual, this act of witness, this act of ethic, is a peculiar and singular one.

    I too grow weary of stories of drugs, gangsters, prostitutes by young photographers, becasue for many the ‘lure’ is that it represents a life that they know little about or appears glamourous (darkly so). the same can be said for many who desire to become war photographers. The truth is that we must BE CAREFUL when defining another’s ethic and morality Sidney. In his role, Anton is not responsible for the moral judgment of these gangersters or their way of life. Now, has he, will he, romanticize them? Will he tell us a story that is universal and includes the fully complex world of this ‘family.’ god, i hope so and I trust him. However, it is not an act of ethical slacking to photograph criminals and not intervene. Even if he ‘romanticized’ this world, he wouldnt be guilty of immorality, just poor judgement, photographically speaking, or superficial understanding, on a human level.

    The MOMENT you begin to condemn another, based on a morality that is defined by your own societal or spiritual or society construct, is the moment it is important that you examine whether or not the logic of your own argument holds water. So, explain to me how the photographing of, let us say, businessmen who use child labor is moral (Hine anyone??) while the photographing of Yakutza is not. The fact is sidney that Morality is defined, a priori, by INTENTION. Intention determines the act. Yes, consequential behavior is a key and important ingredient in order to define and examine the principles by which a person lives, but the consequence is not about the ethic. Socrates questioned an unjust law: immoral? Socrates took his own life: immoral? both actions were condemned as immoral ones through a construct and arrangement of the soceity. Yakuza’s extortion of businesses, the employement and control of women through drugs and sex and money, their violent behavior toward those who infringe their turf is heinous behavior and should, rightly so be condemened. Photographing the people, reporting, exploring this world is another.

    PHotography IS NOT VOYEURISTIC. HUMANS ARE VOYEURS! We observe the world with our eyes and we judge, constanstatnly, sensorially, morally, spiritually. You may find this work distasteful. You may be bothered by what appears to be a wealthy, young caucasian european entering a world that appears sexy (foreign, dark, titilating, etc) in comparison to his own world and find this superficial at best or disappointing at worst, but this does not relate to a judgment of morality. this is a judgement of debth or social/ethnic obtuseness.

    You and I have often shared this same idea, especially as it regards Asian, since Asian society (whatever that means) and culture have played an important part in our lives, since we both have lived there and have deep roots there. I would remind you too, that morality is also contextual: that what defines ‘goodness’ at least when it comes to social behavior/action is not, necessarily, as universal as those weened upon Western ideals would lead us to believe.

    There are more important things to me in my life than photography (to live well, lovingly, morally and to help others, including in my judgement of them), and this does NOT conflict with being a photographer or a writer.

    It is EASY to condemn another, especially through an algebra of ‘moral’ language….it is much much harder to find the path by which one can recognize why the richness and the complexity of our humanity must be told….because we are bound to one another….not through our condemnations but through our connections…

    i hope that makes sense…

    all the best

  • Sidney,

    thanks for sharing your point of view and your doubts: this is one of the cases (together with war, famine… etc) where a thin line is drawn and lot of questions can be addressed to the photograper whichever position he chooses. However, I find myself closer to Lee’s position. I don’t agree about the fact that hanging out with Yakuza, with the aim of getting an insight on their lives, necessarily equals to approve them. And also for what concerns the “glorifying their activities” issue, I think that it is too early (Anton just showed us a couple of shots) for judging the aim (and the faithfulness to such aim) of the whole work.

  • BOB B,

    I suspect your post was written before you could read my second post, immediately above (?)… perhaps your response might have been slightly different had you read my qualification of my earlier statements (???… or not, as the case may be!)

    You (and others?) may have felt I was condemning Anton… that was certainly not my intention. What I said was that, “I, personally, would find it morally indefensible to hang out with yakuza”… given what I know and what I’ve seen. That ‘judgment’ was only meant to apply to me. But, without pre-judging Anton, I still think it is fair to raise this kind of question in relation to this kind of project. If he were really only an ‘observer’ I would agree with most of your points. But it sounds like his situation is a little more akin to the ’embedded’ reporters and photographers of the Second Gulf War. If so, that raises all the issues that came with ’embedding.’ Maybe I am wrong, but in reading his brief note above I got the idea that the gangsters have veto power over which of his photos are released and which are not. True? I suggest that that changes the situation a bit from one of purely neutral observation.

    It seems to me that both Nachtwey and Leni Riefenstahl are extreme cases that don’t really shed light on this situation. Lee Guthrie brought up photos of prostitution, and I think she was probably talking about Katharina’s essay on a Bangkok prostitute. I remember a very impassioned and prolonged discussion about that one, so I was surprised no one had raised any similar issues with this project of Anton’s. Perhaps all possible moral and ethical conundrums had been settled already in that earlier discussion??!! (In Katharina’s case, I was one of her defenders. But why reopen that can of worms?).

    Bob, that reminds me a lot of “Guns Don’t Kill People! People Kill People!” (sorry, couldn’t resist…)

    If one is merely observing, fine… but the reality is that people DIRECT their own attention and try to DIRECT others’ attention… they choose to observe some things over others. For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, Anton has chosen to fly halfway round the world and ’embed’ himself with a group of Japanese Yakuza. That is quite an amazing feat, really it is… but don’t you think it is fair to ask, “Why?”, and also to ask, are there possibly any problems associated with that? Any compromises involved? Anything to worry about beyond one’s physical safety?
    Like I’ve said (twice, now), I don’t think there are any easy answers… nor do I suggest that Anton’s answers be the same as mine. But I like to think that somebody is at least asking the questions.

  • sidney, one last thing to consider….

    a reaction to the book “Pink Box” by Joan Sinclair…have you seen the book??…about the Japanese Sex Trade…or the book Michio Soejima’s book on Yakuza??…i saw it a couple of years ago…..

    and lastly have a read of David Kaplan’s book on Yakutza……offers some interesting insights into the history of Yakuza, it’s relationship (through the history of japanese society) with non-gang life (business life, political leaders, samurai, sex trade, drug trade, nationalism, etc)…the truth is, the condemnation of these gangs is easy for us, but it has a very very different historical context and relationship from withing……..there are lots of gray areas Sidney…and the only way for us, as people, or members of any society is to get as much understanding and to do our homework and to try to understand what it is that is ‘good’ and what it is (and why), behavior is bad…….

    objecting to behavior of a specific group/person is one thing, objecting to the photographing of people/groups/acts you find objectionable is very different….

    true Godfather totally glamorized Costa Nostra, but does this preclude photographers and or writers from trying to depict, understand, document the society?….

    when we condemn the actions of others on the ground of our own moral judgments (in this case the ‘acceptance’ of anton’s work, involvement with this group), we must proceed with caution…

    write u later in the weekend…


  • Sidney,

    “Or that, like the poor, the gangsters will ‘always be with us’,” nice quote Sidney!

    “Photography is voyeurism. Yes, flash us a little more thigh… make the atmosphere a little darker… give us ‘meat’… titillate us with just a little more threat of danger, sex, and violence than we had before… leading to… what? Well, that is certainly one kind of art. Modern, urbane, and popular. Burners eat it up.”

    I think (know) that it is more than this. Give the guy a break Sidney! He has only posted two photographs!

    Let’s just think for a moment about how many months have been spent in getting such access. My only concern is that both parties must agree on which photographs are available for publication.

    From the little I (we) have seen Soichiro; by showing Anton the work of Watanabe Katsumi, he shows that he is visually literate. He obviously has an agenda; and I hope that it is to document the Yakuza in the 21st Century. My hope is that Soichiro will agree publication of every photograph that does not identify people in the acts of crime and therefore subject to prosecution.

    I’m reminded of the book “Things As They Are” – not-so-much for content as for a statement. We don’t have to agree with what we photograph. If we did there would be no photographs of war, corruption, social deprivation etc. That said I am a champion of POSITIVE photography as a foil to the doom, death etc. that can pervade ‘serious photography”.

    Everyone has an agenda here.

    Anton, just remember Phillip Jones Griffiths and Vietnam Inc.

    Best wishes, stay safe, enjoy,


  • Sidney :))

    yes, I wrote my post BEFORE reading your 2nd :))…and i was typing fast (as i am now)…

    let me just say (so it is clear) that I know and understood that you were NOT condemning Anton (as a person) nor suggesting that he was immoral/amoral for hanging out with Yakuza, but Anton’s judging us (the writers) who supported the work without ‘questioning’ the ethics of choosing to hang out with these guys, and by that, tacitly condoning their behavior/lifestyle/business practices/criminal behavior….but, still, i think that is, in fact, off the mark too…

    I agree, 100%, that the QUESTION that you have asked is IMPORTANT! I wrote long about Katrina’s work (which i support fully) but also wrote there, and elsewhere, about this important consideration: our relationship to subjects and material. I even asked Nachtwey about this: at Road Trips AND IN PERSON, when i met and spoke with him one-to-one at David’s. Yes, for me, the most important (Joe, rolling his eyes, cause he’s heard me ask this question ad nauseum ;))) ), is ‘;WHY?

    A photographer should ask themselves WHY they are photographing, why they are photographing people. We use people, all of us, and it, in truth, is this job is not sacrosanct. We must come to terms with this dilemma. It is a difficult problem and an important question: how is it that we photograph others and why are we doing this? This is a complex and difficult question and cannot, nor should be, arrived at easily and perfunctorily. However, it is also, I think, unfair to suggest that hanging out with Yakuza is the same as acknowledging their behavior as just or fair or good or moral. In truth, i spend a lot of time with people I am troubled by. I teach students, with whom I would probably not wish to spend a lot of time. I once had a student whose former job was as the Czech version of KGB….and he told me horrific stories….and he was ‘proud’ of what he’d done ….and yet, there he was, in my class, 1991, learning english, telling me his exploits….also, when Richards photographs a father punching his child or a pimp beating up his prostitute, is he condoning this?…..

    I’ve written publically and privately to Anton about this…why has he chosen, as a young, smart, kind, wealthy young man from Belgium, to photograph this group, in a country he is not a part of….the same question, i asked my friend Don Weber, why did he choose to build/begin his photographic career on the Gangs and criminals of Ukraine….exploitation…curiosity….connection….

    see Sidney, we must always (in my opinion) first try to connect, to understand, to not judge, but to wrestle with….to accept and try to work toward change…change comes not from judgment but from education….maybe it’s the buddhist teaching, maybe it’s others, but i just think that the quicker we judge others, the farther we fall aside from the need for ‘moral’ behavior to begin with…which is to attempt to reduce suffering, of one another…

    make sense

    ok, gotta run home…


  • Sidney, all,

    for heaven’s sake, not for an instant was a comparison between Anton and Leni Riefenstahl implied! If you read my posting carefully, you’ll see that I am only referring to her infamous case just as a prime example of the possible conflict between aesthetic and moral value of a work of art, since her case in particular is always discussed in philosophical discussions of this very issue. It is absolutely clear that in her case an otherwise gifted artist really did sell their soul to the devil, there was no disconnect between her art and her moral values. Unlike her, I was suggesting that both Anton and those of us who expressed admiration for his project have our moral values and commitments straight, and can distinguish between appreciating something artistically and condemning it morally. Sorry for the long-winded explanation, but I was incredibly surprised that you seemed to have misunderstood my point and implied I was comparing Anton to her. I was suggesting exactly the opposite.

  • I must speak up here. There seems to be an assumption being made that Sidney is judging Anton and his choices. I also heard, at least in Bob’s comments, a bit of a chiding tone that implied that Sidney did not know the history of the Yakuza, was not trying hard enough to understand Anton’s point of vew, and should be less judgemental.

    The truth is I’d bet that no one here knows more about the history and actions and consequences of those actions of the Yakuza than Sidney. Have any of the rest of us lived in Japan for twenty years of our adult lives?

    And as far as I see it, Sidney is simply asking questions and sharing his own feelings and attitudes about such a project, specifically about the subject of Anton’s essay.

    His questions are important ones that we’ve grappled with before but will never settle. They are questions each of us needs to ask and answer ourselves; no one has “the answer” because there is no single answer. But when we open the floor for such discussions we all gain from hearing one another’s views. That is if we can keep an open mind and not hop on the questioner.

    To me, this kind of discussion is what Burn is all about…


  • Kathleen,

    re: the police, I think you are being very naive. Theoretically the police should be the antithesis of criminals, but all to often they are worse than them. I think any time you are stopped by a cop it is a close call. All too often these days the police abuse, grossly abuse, their power. Who is better in Anton;s case? I’d say the cops are more dangerous for him than the mob because he has a relationship with the mobsters he is associating with, the cops are strangers, all to often on a power trip for whatever reason. I dont trust cops, and they have earned my mistrust.

    As far as Sidney, it is attacks on the photog’s character and ethics that fly around much too often around here and which have turned my participation here from active to almost nonexistant. People here dont know how far is too far with some of their critiques.

Leave a Reply

You must login to post a comment.