Meet Soichiro.

He has agreed to us getting to know each other. Through the barriers of different languages and cultures, we will be approaching each other with the broadest possible open mind. To learn, to tell our stories. To gain trust and to share views.

Soichiro and his family control Kabukicho, in the heart of Shinjuku, Tokyo. Not much happens in the streets without his approval.

After more than 10 months of preparation and ground work by my brother and our dear friend Taka-san, finally, for the first time, we all meet over dinner. At first, Soichiro lays down the rules. Tells us what we want to achieve is near impossible. He says that the things we want to document, no outsider has ever been allowed to bear witness to. We eat, drink, smoke, and exchange gifts.

He invites us to his office. we talk some more. I show previous work, I show prints of Oaxaca and I show prints of “Sugar”. He tells me I photograph with a Japanese eye. He laughs when we ask if it’s true that all family members have tattoos, and if it’s painful to get one.

Then he shows his.

Each tattoo is so personal, he says, full of meaning to the bearer and his family.  Only Sensei Horikyo tattoos for his family.

No rush. He understands and wants us to take time to get to know his family, time to develop our view. He believes in our way of working, and is confident we will bring this to a good end. He thinks in years, not days or weeks or months.

He does a lot of legwork in his family. Even though he is a boss, he still speaks to his bosses who in turn speak with their bosses. Within two days, we are invited to witness a closed meeting. Four members apologizing to the family for being in jail. My brother and I are nervous as hell going in.

No pictures allowed yet, but now we know. Soichiro walked the walk and committed. Our project has begun for the next couple of years. My brother and I… and Soichiro. Becoming friends, telling the story… I hope everything will work out.

Anton Kusters, january 2009


Editors Note:

This is a single picture that is soon to be part of an ongoing essay…An essay that could take several years..I am publishing this now to kick off our new section categorized as  “Work in Progress”. We are starting quite literally with just one picture. So this is a right before your eyes true beginning. You will be able to follow Anton’s thinking process, photographic process etc. , as he moves through the underworld of Japan.  I will take on four other photographers soon for this section as the work presents itself. You will be able to help Anton and others think about their shooting and their editing. You could be one of the photographers for whom this process would be most valuable.

-David Alan Harvey


74 thoughts on “anton kusters – soichiro”

  1. Brilliant!!!!! So excited to see this “work in progress” section starting…I was just commenting about this in the Dialogue section… This is also a fascinating interesting story to see develop over time…. Not the easiest subject to photograph but we know that our friend Anton is a DOER so he will get this done I am sure…. The fact that after your first meeting you are able to take a picture of him naked suggests that you have the trust of the man…. most important I am sure if you are to be allowed in this world!!!!

    Have fun in Japan!


  2. Oh yes! This place is moving at the speed of light!

    Congratulations to Anton and his brother. Welcome Soichiro-san; thank you for sharing your world with us.

    Best wishes,


  3. ANTON,

    As you get this project started, maybe it would be worth sharing with us what are your motivations for having selected this topic. What did attract you? What are you hoping to show us? Do you have a good feel for where you want to take this project or will you see as you go?


  4. hey stupid

    this first is b&w because when i took the picture i took it with a b&w mind while listening to his story… no other reason. because it’s a raw file i do have a color version of course, but it would feel like not right because my mindset was on b&w at the time of making the image.

    do you think it would be ok to switch from b&w to color or vice versa if you look at the end result and the “other” version seems to be better than you had in mind while taking the picture? my color version has indeed a very mysterious depth to it, but i kinda feel weird using it because of the above reason.

    what do you think?

  5. Anton,

    Very cool that we can participate in your project together.
    Since you’ve already done a lot of research previous to taking the first shot I for one would love to know more about that process.

    My contribution to your research is to share the work of Chris Rainier:

    Not that you want to copy anyone but it’s good to see what others have done. Only a few images are shown here but I’ve seen and enjoyed his slideshow. He’s traveled around the world photographing ancient marks.

  6. i know you aren’t asking me.. but i don’t see what the problem is with switching from black and white to color.. i mean it’s digital it can exist in either or. the only way you would have a problem is if you shot this in black and white film (obviously). go with whatever you feel gets your point across better. i’m pretty sure that situations are going to be scarce where people are going to be judging your work on whether or not you were ‘thinking’ in black and white when you shot the project (or frame) and went with color instead.. in fact i don’t even think this needs to be mentioned by you.. nor do i feel it’s any of anybodies business.

    anyway look forward to future developments of the project.

  7. Anton
    Photo is just a little, very little part of what you and your brother are into. You are becoming a part of a closed culture that is not accessible to most. I have no doubt the essay will show us exactly that.

    Please don’t answer Eric’s questions – don’t spoil the story. Let it speak for itself when the time is right.

    My Admiration. Get that adrenaline going.

  8. hey ben…

    tokyo style leaves the arms blank… as also the chest. if you ever have the chance to see someone with tattooed arms or chest in Shinjuku, that person would NOT be a member of their family (or any othe one for that matter). there are very few exceptions to this rule.

    but then of course in Osaka they do exactly the opposite :-)

  9. cathy,

    thanks for the link, but don’t get me wrong, this is not going to be a tattoo project. it’s just that tattoos are an important part in his life…
    cool link though… am checking it out as we speak

  10. After more than 10 months of preparation and ground work….

    sounds like a pretty good recipe already…

    if i could just suggest a few teeny weeeeeny things Anton….don’t just bear witness, somehow, someway get yourself implicated, shoot from the inside out, drive fast and take chances, be vulnerable, be part of the story, fall into a story that you didn’t even go there for, maybe make the backdrop of this story purely incidental to the story you bring home. don’t be afraid to share your enthusiasm, your mission, your ideas, your wishes with everyone you meet, help them to quickly understand you’re not there to take pictures, you’re not there to take anything, you’re purely there to reveal something that someone else wouldn’t understand if you weren’t there to collect it with your lens

    i suspect you will be amazed by how many rabbit holes you’ll be dragged into by people that want nothing other than to let the world see things they think would not be seen if you didn’t help it to happen, strangers have a funny way of knowing the things that a lens has never seen.

    Best Wishes or In Deep Envy… both equally valid,


  11. Anton, when you were telling me about this in New York I was of course thinking, holy shit, and may have said that out loud too, but, but … IF you can pull it off … so,

    Holy shit! :)))

    stay safe, work hard my friend,

  12. … and show me, show me, show me, you already got me with the first frame, just absolutely fascinating … :))))


  13. Very powerful.

    I like how his identity is not shown through a focus on his face but on his tattoo – it also makes everything that much more mysterious.

    You’ve got something, keep on it mate…


  14. Like WOW!!!!! Anton, I knew you were in Japan for something related to photography but had not a clue what that was. Now that I see, I am in total and complete AWE. Man, have you and your bro got balls, or what! This is an incredibly exciting project and lucky us, we get to see it develop via “work in progress.” Now, I certainly hope DAH is going to feature your project for longer than just one month, the time frame he mentioned for WIP in “one month BURNing…” I want to follow this for as many years as it takes. Good on you!


  15. Forgot to say, to my eye the B&W is a good choice. Hey, this is a mysterious guy, a mysterious world you’re entering, and color just might change the mood. I’d go with your gut on this and every other choice you make…


  16. I understand. I’m guessing tattoos will be visible in several of your shots though. :))

    Your style is in no way similar to Chris, even if your project was about tattoos…
    I was in a rush to drive to the airport when I posted the first link. This one is actually better (for anyone else reading this thread.) Two Ancient Marks portfolios.

    Since you are the first “work in progress” I am wondering if there is anything in particular you would like from the community as we watch?

  17. joe, that is a great description and way or approaching this… yes i do not have a plan at all, i have literally no idea what awaits me… but it is exciting for sure, and it is the way i like it i think: shoot the moment, feel the flow, follow the rabbit and experience the unknown. god knows what i will get myself into, but it will be good, for sure.

  18. patricia

    yes funny isn’t it, i just defeated the “one month” thing within ten minutes of david mentioning it :))))

    thanks for your words too…


  19. hey tom

    yes i remember mentioning this to you… but at the time i had to stay “vague”… actually i still do now… no real names yet, no faces yet… but this will change very soon

    i have an agreement with them that every image has to be approved by them and by myself, before i can use it “in public”… something david taught me, and i think a good rule in any project situation: the “two thumbs up”

    and this image was the first “two thumbs up” one betwen us, so it deserved to be featured as the introduction image…

    cheers mate

  20. i think srinivas summed it up best…”wow”!

    it’s inspiring to hear that your patient efforts in regards to access paid off for you. i’m also trying to start a personal project that is access based and i’ve only been at it 3 1/2 months…

    if this photograph is any indication of what lies ahead, your patience was well worth it. good luck and looking forward to seeing this story through your lens…

  21. Hi Anton,

    Nice picture…I a fan of all things Japanese, so I’m looking forward to seeing more. B&W or colour? Go with your gut, I like it in B&W myself. I think it’d b e easy to be “dazzled” by the colours in the tattoo rather than actually looking at it as a piece of art that tells a story. But thats just me.


  22. Hey Little Brother :))))))

    The Razor

    I want to return to the moment
    father and I brought the canister of mother’s ashes
    to the temple in some odd shopping bag.
    We then dropped off the remains
    to leave for a couple slices down the block
    but the reverend pulled a robe
    over her jeans and blouse,
    picked up prayer beads
    and suggested which was not a question
    we say a sutra. Which one was it?
    I only recall I didn’t have a tissue;
    that the incense which I so dislike
    felt sweet wafting into my sweater
    and hair; that my whole body
    shook without pause
    though I did not make a sound
    and tears and mucus covered my face and
    sleeves because father did not know
    I needed the handkerchief
    mother had pressed a week earlier.
    At times the loss felt like an organ
    one could excise with a razor.

    –Kimiko Hahn

    just got home and about to cook dinner…so this must be quick….that’s a terrific opening tatoo’d upon the back of my tired and running eyes…….

    what i love as a photograph and as an opening into the Work is just that: a doorway into a world, a back-door, through which most of us have never, but in novels or films or stories from friends, have dared to enter. Watching “Life of a Tattooed Man” or anything by Suzuki or Imamura or Oshima or Ichikawa, or Kurosawa or Teshigahara or Miike or Kitano or Fukasako, we carve ourselves up beneath what it is, in brilliant bloom of color or shadow-ink of monochrome, to what is still kept at bay…what remains for each of us, forever, at bay…..

    I imagine this as the first photograph of the book………….

    and the last photograph of the book:….. Soichiro-san face-to-us, staring front on, his brilliant tatoo-less stomach and face meeting us head on…..

    for that, it must take years….and i trust you shall follow all those gorgeous rabbit holes that joe so beautifully told you to follow…..

    a bold beginning…..

    waiting and if u need anything, u know where to reach me ;))))


  23. Uau!! I have a strange fascination for the Yakusa (and tatoos altohugh I don’t have none…) but I have always thougth that it was an over done story, just like some people were saying about my story about HIV, and now I see this and it’s so strong!!! thanks Anton, because this means we can pursue OUR STORIES.
    Great photo, want to see more when possible. Loved the intro text, it works great for me. take care and best, miguel

  24. Anton,

    Very exciting…this first image intrigues me, makes me curious, and want to see and learn more about this secret world. The ground work you have laid out will pay off as intuition guides you… patience, open ears and heart, most importantly stay human. Work hard on this one, this topic is amazing…

    suerte amigo andy

  25. hey Anton, just from that shot, I can tell it is going to be a superb essay (I am jealous, actually). Congratulations on how far you have been going, so much according to your wishes before traveling there. And also, qute happy to see you are letting the “subject” speak in the most simple manner, without too much “creativity”. Actually, the right interpretation, the right eye (and one always know in P. when something is right, too sense-driven a craft), denotes much talent in photography, therefore creativity too. The B$W here is function of your total openness to the subject, the story, and also of your stepping back to listen (again, in P. getting closer, paradoxically), with the eye.

  26. Thats what I LOVE about documentary work..
    The surprises..
    the unknown…
    the unexpected..
    but its something you FEEL…
    you have to tell the story..
    who knows whats ahead Anton…
    But if you knew,
    wouldn’t it be a ‘subjectivementary’ (made up word, hope you understand)
    rather than a documentary?!?

  27. It works in black and white – better, I think, than it would in color. This is different than Sugar and you Oaxaca pictures – maybe the difference is why I like the differentiation of B&W. It does have depth and B&W draws one’s attention to the detail of the design. I look forward to more of these. How did you meet him?

  28. ANTON

    so much respect for you .. and your approach to this subject has to be right.
    as i emailed yesterday – peel this onion slowly my friend and you will see more texture in the layers, i´m sure.

    with the time you took over sugar it´s clear to me that you are far from a hit-and-run photographer.. perhaps that style of story telling is too easy? it takes real courage to soak into any óther´culture and one in which violence and tough business is fundamental cannot be easy to tackle.. take it easy and look when you have the chance… a couple of years in a lifetime is nothing to spend growing into a subject.

    as for the phot – it´s a superb start.. getting a mafia member naked is no small task i am sure and with the confidence you must have instilled in him i really hope his naked attitude for this first photo acts as a metaphor for the rest of the contact he allows you.

    as joe says – find how deep the rabbit hole goes..
    looking forward to seeing much more from you mate – on this and other themes..



  29. … and as an addition i think your openess and kind intentions do you a credit.

    photography is about many things.. lighting, aesthetic, mechanics and more.. and i think that in teaching the most neglected of lessons is in ATTITUDE..
    it is amazing how many doors and windows blow open when we are courteous, respectful and patient with subjects, editors, colleagues and more..

    absolute confidence in your ability to keep your word and quietly achieve what you need to achieve..


  30. Bonjour Anton,

    I like this photography, for me, it is different from sugar, not by the choice of the black and the white but it is more frontal and more disturbing, I am very impatient to see the suite, take your time and especially take no risk…

    all the best, audrey

  31. Gustavo Aragon Garcia


    Good look i will see the results in a few months, years who knows any way go deep and tell us the story from inside.

  32. Anton:

    as a way to fire up dialogue between you and others, you might want to write about (time permitting) your decision to do a project on Yakusa…i’m familiar with your Tokyo work and some of the back story, but it may also help others digest, so that it isnt just about the pictures…

    i plan to talk a bit about the origin of bones, the context, and development, all that…it might be of interest to others if you shared the impetus and the reason you’ve chosne this story…

    as oppossed to the story on the river pilots (yes, i remember ;)) )…


  33. anthon–

    i’m very excited to hear of your new project! but please be careful.
    i barely survived a stint with the Greek mafia in T.O. many years ago.
    please be circumspect. you are in for one hell of a ride.

    all my best!


  34. david–

    maybe i’m sending my emails to you in the last couple of months to the wrong place??
    would love to talk, dear. so proud of you and burn. :))
    ok, i’m off to classes, talk soon, really.

    big hug!


  35. bob… i will be taking you up on that offer :-)
    on of the first things i did after joining road trips now exactly one year ago, was copy your list of talented movie directors… i will be looking that list up again and going through all the japanese ones, learning learning learning as much as i can…

  36. david b yes you are right, i feel that ‘attitude’ is a very very important factor. i mean on the list of things to learn on photography for me, even though “classical” tech stuff should be right up on top of the list for me, as i am a barely adequate photographer, i always seem to give more importance to attitude and diving in deeply… always thinking that experiencing the moment is more important than photographing it…

    i will be leaning on you too, looking for well grounded advice, my friend


  37. Ooo, that’s a tough one and only someone like you who knows the image inside out and has seen it both in color and b&w can decide! All I can stupidly do is say what I already did: the b&w makes me want to see it in deep, mysterious color. Up to you to go either way with it!!! Oh, and it’s a good one!!

  38. panos skoulidas

    totally agree..
    Get involved, get in trouble..
    ANTON , you can DO it..
    when we met in C/Ville I saw
    that spark in your eyes..
    Great start ..
    Good luck and watch out..
    It could get really dangerous
    over there.. Language and culture
    harriers could kill you..
    Peace and hugs

  39. Anton.

    A couple more questions…

    How do you plan to proceed with this time-wise? Will you be based in Tokyo or are you going back and forth on a regular basis?

    Who decides when you will meet with Soichiro? Do you call to arrange a meeting or is it up to Soichiro to contact you?

  40. hey cathy

    i will be going back and forth as much as i can… that is also where i realise the main weakness of my project lies. Even though i have a place to stay (my brother), i have to carefully budget for my flights, which are hideously expensive. because i also have a business to run at home, i cannot go to japan for more than a couple of weeks at a time.

    i am trying hard to find ways to make the $$ to make as many trips as possible… but i’m working overtime as it is already so i don’t really know what to do here. i suppose i should pitch my story to magazines or publishers?

    as to meeting each other, that pretty much comes from both sides, my brother, our fixer and Soichiro call regularly and discusses what’s happening over the next couple of weeks, and make arrangements. based on that info we decide when best to fly out. in any case, our fixer is always directly involved, as first contact always goes through him.

  41. Anton, I hate to gush but I really am in awe of what you and your brother are doing here. It’s kind of mind-blowing actually. Sure would be PERFECT if you were to be awarded the $10,000 from the EPF. I’m going to hold that thought…


  42. really really nice stuff. weather this is color or black and white i really want to see were you take us on this. i think this is going to be powerful stuff!

  43. hey mike!

    all is well… i’m planning my next trip there, which should be in the first half of march… i don’t know what awaits me, but i sure am excited!

  44. hey patricia/david…

    i hope to be able to return once more before the EPF deadline and make a few great images, and yes i hope to be able to submit. that in itself will be a victory for me already.. i’m planning and saving as we speak!


  45. next trip is set… leaving april 8th and staying for longer this time… a few days ago my brother and i recieved the final approval to actually start shooting……………………….. omg…………… we never thought this would ever happen, but we we allowed to state our case up to the highest level and we got approved… look at me standing naked with nothing to offer but my photographs

    so here starts the roller coaster ride, i have jumped in, a million film and memory cards are loaded, and a million more spare batteries in my pockets, off to a place where i don’t speak the language and they don’t speak mine, where my eyes will open wide in wonder, and i will go down every rabbit hole i can experience

    i feel like alice in wonderland

    but then a male version :-)

    i don’t know when i’ll re-surface, but i promise to get back to BURN to tell…

  46. Anton, first, thank you for all you have done for Burn. You and your brother obviously have the trust of your subjects: I can’t offer advice but can send goodwill.


  47. Anton …
    Sounds absolutely … WHOAAA!!!
    A one in a lifetime experience – something to tell your grandchildren for sure (or to tell us meanwhile) … Only sad, you do not get the language… yet. If it is a long time project you better get started to learn it! :)))

    By the way, I do not see the work-in-progress section anymore. The only way I could get here was through the link you left in “latest comments”. Obviously it has been moved someplace. But where?

    Cheers & Hugs,

  48. Anton, it’s going to be amazing and historic. Truly. Work it ’til you drop because you have been granted a rare privilege. Sending mucho good energy your way :))

  49. Kathleen Fonseca

    I have to tell you Anton, that if i have to choose fantasy art of the photoshop type or fantasy art of the tattoo type, i’ll take the tattoo any day of the week. I have been aching for a little reality, wondering if it’s been completely forsaken in favor of composite layering. This photo is just a wonder-joy to see, so good for the eyeballs..ooooooh, what i love, the thick-fleshed roundness of his body makes me want to sink my teeth into his shoulder, hear the roar of pain in return, the tattoos, the way they curve along his curves exalt the male form, the deep cleft of darkness below his buttocks a trick show of modesty, the way his arms are poised partially extended as if he is always prepared to use those hands, to wield those fists, make a bit of rough-handed love or count vast amounts of ill-gotten gains, his bowed head, deferring his brain and thought processes to the camera caress of his body art..the hint of gold chain at his neck, the white links at his wrist, his male peacock and its many colors. I also like that you took this in black and white..a strange choice to capture the subtle toning of tattoos whose coloring is always a source of pride to the tattoo artist and the subject him/herself. You tease us with the unknown..i like that a lot.

    ah yes, i am glad for the link in “thigh” to this photo. i wish you much luck and success in your project though i wonder really who is zooming who? And i say that in the most jovial way. But please don’t ask me to explain. It’s just something natural occurring when cultures are mixed and shared and certain traditional fictions are passed around the table to see who swallows what. Yes, it will be a very interesting journey for you and for us. More!


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  51. Hi Anton,

    Good luck on your journey..i have been going back to Burma to photograph and as you have experienced, it always incredible to be in an environment where you don’t speak the language or too familiar with the culture and are allow to photograph..

    can’t wait to see more..



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