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”

  • all –

    phew, i’ve just tried to discuss further a few of the topics brought up here, but it just takes me too long to write this up. and i have no time!!!

    can i just say that i agree with all that has been said above, love the discussion, and that i’ll continue shooting the heck out of this project to be able to post a new image as soon as possible?

    forgive me…. i’ve been writing up for over an hour now, and it’s so imperfect that it will spark so much more discussion… so i choose to agree and Walk the Walk instead

    if you guys are ok with it of course :-)))


  • Kathleen

    I just love the way you write, if you can’t find the right word you just invent one, German style.

    Yes this has been a great discussion. I learn a lot here, often about myself.

    No matter what kind of work we choose to do, be it commercial, landscape, erotica, street, all the way to the spectrum of documentary, we need to examine our motivations, our intent, and ask ourselves what it is we are hoping to achieve (and why). The moral issues are obviously more important in some genres than otheres, but still always present. I believe David Alan had a much more elegant way of stating all this though I can’t remmember it at the moment (‘cant seem to remmember much these days}.

    It’s not enough to just go out with a camera and start blasting away looking for “good” photographs. Making photographs begins way before lifting the camera to your eye.

    Anyway, gotta go make some photograhs

    Gordon L.

  • Just went through all the posts in this discussion.

    I find myself debating such issues in my head all the time, and even though these debates are an integral part of my mental process helping me understand what my motives are, why I’m interested in a certain subject, how I feel about it and dictate—to a point—my approach to it, I usually find myself in a closed loop. It’s hard to tell the winner when you fight yourself…

    That’s why I’m always in awe of people who can break that loop and go out and actually try to do projects like the one Anton is doing.

    So, thank you all for a really nice, insightful and thought-provoking late night read.

    As for intentions, it’s hard enough trying to keep myself honest about them let alone figuring out someone else’s…

  • Thodoris –

    you hit the nail right on the head there my friend… thanks for reading through all the comments :-)


  • Gordon:

    ” it’s not enough to just go out with a camera and start blasting away looking for “good” photographs”

    It’s not? Ut-oh…

    Funny you mention German, i actually thought about that a day or two German it is to put words together. Thanks for even reading what i write, let alone enjoying it :)..thanks she said~


    phew..glad you weren’t mad!


  • Love the idea of this story, it is something every photographer in Japan would love to do but most cannot get such access. It is hard to express how much admiration I have for Anton and his brother for doing this, it is just about the most difficult thing you could do in Japan. yet this is a great story for the reason is it is all just so damn visual from tattooos to the glittering thighs of Kabukicho. Morals: you know what you believe and you will always believe but let`s not forget just as photographs of subjects we cannot know ourselves at intimately inform and mould our opinions of that subject the process of taking them must also do the same to the photographer. Perhaps Anton`s compass will shift, as it should when he learns things that he didn`t expect about the family and this life. I agree with Sidney that the Yakuza are over all not very nice people, but they are people nonetheless and they do have some humanity and they have their own morals and culture and if that exists alongside the grit and gore of criminality then it must be shown. Let`s not fool ourselves, japan is one of the most media savvy populaces on the planet of course the family have an agenda, they want legitmacy as David said: they have pride in their successes of their “business” and what we might find objectionable they find mudane. Even a veto of images will not hide all that and we know more than we think almost at a subconscious level, perhaps we cannot see the worst but we know it exists and if we see the “good” it will just make the unpleasant aspects more harshly lit, more ununderstandable thus raising questions about how this could happen that are the ones we need to ask. Damon

  • Hey Kathleen

    I know I did not state my thoughts in a very elegant way “it’s not enough”.

    Way back in 1969 as a photo student I remmeber going out with three other students on sundays looking for photographs. We’d literally drive around all day, crammed into my Austin mini, without seeing anything to photograph.

    We had no clear intent, no idea what the hell we wanted to say or why. We of course were all consumed with the mechanics of making the photographs. Mouths full of words and nothing to say. No agenda.

    I don’t personally do street photography like yourself, but I’m sure that you have a pretty clear idea of why you are there, what you want to say, and have thought about the issues of being respectful of peoples privacy, personal space dignity etc etc etc. Actually I’d love to hear how you street shooters feel about all those issues.

    The points I was so clumbsily trying to make was first, that the more clear our intent and focus are, the better likely are our photographs, and second, that moral issues are present no matter what we choose to photograph.

    Makin’ any sense here Kat?

    Gordon L

  • panos Skoulidas ( protagoras )

    totally agree..
    You make sense 100%..
    excellent point..
    We have to “make” the photo in our head/soul first..

    I also get KATHLEEN’s point..
    Since she is doing “street”
    photography it make sense for her to go out
    Seeking for photos..
    Because she already “decided” about her subject..
    Same coin different sides..
    (20 years ago I used to do the same thing..
    Walking around hoping something extraordinary will happen..
    and never happened because the extraordinary was happening
    under my nose but I couldn’t really see it..
    Sometimes I see photogs armed with 20 lenses and the latest autofocus
    hoping they will “get ” the unexpected..
    They don’t sense, no tactic, they don’t get involved neither anticipate..
    No connection..
    Just trigger happy..
    Morning y’all from Orange County..
    Shooting more families today..

  • panos Skoulidas ( protagoras )

    keep it up…
    One of my favorite movies is
    Snoop is one my friends ..
    Did Francis Copolla glamorized the MAFIA??
    As David said..
    as long as you’re not getting “used” by the
    subject for their promotion then you’re fine..
    It’s a fine line and that makes your work more interesting..
    Keep it up..
    You chose a controversial subject..
    Good for you and us..
    Thank you…
    ( and honestly, living in LA for so many years I found way
    More Honesty between the gangsters than the church going hypocrites..
    Remember.. Even Jesus loved and embraced the Whores instead of the rich
    Leica owner hypocrites…
    Jesus loved WHORES..???
    hmmm.. My kinda guy.. !!!!?)

  • Gordon

    ohmygoodness, i was kidding you :);):)..Gordon you are so lovably earnest and polite. i kiss you!!! I do know what you mean though. Yesterday i was crawling home in traffic. i saw this photo and that photo and oh crap another photo and no camera. i finally made it home and grabbed two cameras and backtracked the same route and this time, nada..the light had changed and i just saw nothing. I made some half-hearted attempts at a few half-assed subjects but it wasn´t the same. That´s what happens when i go out in a car, kitted out for a safari and look for photos. heh.

    Yes, the street is a whole ´nother story because i´m out heat-seeking life or something like it and of course anything can happen at any time and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn´t. As far as privacy issues, etc. well, that´s a sticky wicket, no? I finally concluded (ok, rationalized) that we are filmed mercilessly and unsympathetically everywhere we turn, our faces and transactions archived who knows where and who knows for how long without anyone asking our permission so, well, so this is what i´m going to do.

    As to why. hmm..I am documenting a time, a way of life, socialization, cultural and societal influences, etc. etc. all of it. I have always been fascinated by faces and have always loved seeing photos of people on the street, especially earlier in this century. I study them, scrutinize them for clues, hints, something/anything meaningful that sheds light on what came before. What if that photographer hadn´t been there at that moment, inspired by that scene? Well, i would have been deprived of the opportunity to learn something new. When i was a kid i wanted to be an archaeologist. To me, my photos are artifacts proving that we were here today, in this place, living like this, dressing like that, walking, talking..our hearts beat right here on this street on this day at this moment. Maybe someday it will give the same clues to a future generation that i have been fortunate to receive. As far as respecting the dignity of my subjects, well i´d like to reassure you and say i would never capture my subjects yawning or puking or kissing or looking dejected but i am democratically intrigued by the good, the bad and the ugly. I love babies in their parents´arms, skateboarders and cowboys and convicts and immigrants and rich snobs and ladies who lunch and fat taxi drivers gawking at the girls and drunks crooning an impromptu acapella on the corner, belting down guaro out of a coke bottle. Sometimes i ask permission, sometimes i don´t. Sometimes i shoot from the hip, sometimes i don´t. My one no-no is someone passed out on the street. They deserve their privacy. There but for the sake of God go i and i feel proitective of their vulnerability.

    I really do not know if what i do is right or wrong. i do not know what i would do if i could never publish because of the potential for lawsuits. I have no agenda to be famous or rich or notorious. I just have no choice but to shoot what moves me the most and that is the landscape of the human face as it manifests itself to the rest of the world on the street.

    I hope i answered your question but i probably just left you with even more questions, concerns, moral dilemmas. oh well..thanks for your friendship Gordon, it is always nice hearing from you, always a special part of my day.


  • Kat

    Sorry for not thanking you earlier for your response. It helps a whole lot and gives me a better idea about who you are.
    I find it fascinating that you choose to go out “heat-seeking” and inter-acting with strangers on the street. This idea is completely foreign to me. My personal photographs are only of people who are part of my life in one way or another. I guess going out the way you do makes your subjects part of your life too.

    What we all share is the compulsion to make images, and to use our cameras as an extension of our eyes, and memory to help us make sense of the world. Mirrors and windows and all that.

    Give your favourite camera a little hug from me.

    Gordon L.

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