Eye of the Beholder by Anton Kusters

I’ve worked all day to prepare everything. Made galleries on my portable; made prints at Yodobashi Camera. Wrapped everything up nicely to present to him. When we meet at his office around 11pm, Soichiro, my brother, and I go through the whole collection of images i have made up till that point. I’m nervous as hell.

Slowly we go through every gallery, every image… Once in a while he flags one because he wants to ask a question or he wants me to make a print of it. To be presented to the subject on the photo… as a gift. This moment, the first showing of the images, the big first moment, “Are they going to like it? Will they approve?”, actually goes by without a glitch.

I also tell him i’m slowly starting to see the way i want to tell the story, so i show him my first sequenced spread layout on screen. only 20 images. I talk about my views, what i have seen, what i have learned, and that i am setting the mood in this “first chapter”. He agrees and thinks i should continue in the same way.

I’m in the front seat, riding with Soichiro in his car on his way to Shinjuku. “One cuts off one’s finger to make a point”, Soichiro explains while driving. “Usually to show the sincerity of an apology after doing something wrong.”

“You cut off a single digit of your own finger in a ceremonial way, while facing your boss, and then you present the severed finger on a folded napkin to him. It reinforces the power of your apology. It shows that you’re serious about what you’re saying.”

Somehow, i don’t feel like questioning that.

Post Scriptum:

A month ago, the annual go-around was banned by law; this is effectively the last picture of this happening in the streets of Kabukicho.



About the Work

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 magazine, and on my own site, i will regularly provide visual and textual accounts of our adventures.

Previous chapters:

Meet Soichiro

As Light Shines on thy Thigh


Related links

Anton Kusters


65 thoughts on “anton kusters – eye of the beholder”

  1. Thank you, Anton, for sharing these photos with us today. One of the most memorable moments of my time in C’ville was when you showed me the “A” and “B” edits of your Yazuka family project. Seeing them in book form was amazing. This work is developing a life of its own, a life that sits at the intersection between “outside” and “inside.” As with the images you post here, you are being given the unusual opportunity to take photos from the inside while still remaining very much the outsider. Soichiro obviously trusts you to show his family in a respectful way. This is not to say that you respect what they do or what they represent but that you do respect them as fellow human beings. What a unique position that puts you in! You can be your own person and follow your own intuition as a photographer while allowing your subjects the chance to be collaborators in the process as it unfolds. This is a very significant work you are doing and I sincerely hope it has shot to the top of your list of priorities. This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Grasp it and soar. We are with you all the way.


  2. Anton. within ten minutes of meeting you I knew you were genuine. Im sure these people you are making a story with sensed that also. Otherwise you probably wouldnt be there. Interesting journey for sure you are embarking on here and this is a really good start. Look forward to the next installment.

  3. Anton…Thankyou for this teaser set. Wish I could of been at Look3 to see the rest. If the first three are anything to go by, this is going to be a great piece of work. Ganbatte!

  4. The go aroun pix is definitely the one I find the strongest, but of course, the whole idea is to see the book, or the final edit. Anton, I remember when all this was just an idea. And in between, you put all this work for BURN. IMO, you have outdone just about anyone, when it comes to access, and some access it was.

    It would be interesting to hear, maybe privately, if you “respect” them, as Patricia says. We should never lose sight that despite all the code of honor thingo, they are criminals and murderers, who do not abide by the values most of us put above everything else. Like the life of an human being, as wretched he or she may be. I hope in your essay, there will be traces of the conflict within, that which any human being who is not soul-dead must wrestle with, and that I hope Soichiro is still capable of.

  5. marcin luczkowski


    great stuff. Keep going but keep yourself safe. I’ll be waiting for more.

  6. it’s like
    of a
    a mystery,
    I am oh so intrigued..
    your text is very engaging,
    the finger wrapped in a napkin
    is an image in itself…
    can’t wait for more puzzle pieces…
    what a story that is emerging..
    I’m excited with you…

  7. as single images, i like the first one the most…wonderful soft light and overall blueish tonality…very soothing for the eye and i keep on looking at the image (wonder what is that big black thing on the top left of the frame blocking the window light…somebody’s hand may be…that’s just a little bit distracting)

    the other two images are very descriptive and good too…

    one can feel that it is shaping up to a big thing…

    carry on Anton and best wishes for you…


  8. just beautiful. i really like this set – wonderful light, textures and colours, especially on those first two. excited to see the whole project when it’s ready. good luck and take care

  9. the eye in top photo–the haunting blue–the tie “alive”–reptilian–the hands also

    no matter the story they tell, your images captivate with their strange beauty

  10. Anton;

    I love the images you’ve taken and truly admire the access you’ve gained.

    However…. I’m left with an uneasy feeling about the project. Do you think that maybe your project will glamorise and legitimise the sheer existence of the organised crime they undertake?

    Please don’t think I’m being pedantic or trying to take a pot-shot at you because that is not the purpose. It’s just that I’m always interested in the ethics that go into shooting projects.

    Say for instance I decided to do a project on some of the gangs here in NZ (Black Power, Mongrel Mob, Tribesmen, Headhunters etc), I have thought about it but always come back to the feeling that I’d be legitimising their activities. They are all heavily into methamphetamine production (and a great deal of other serious crime) and will use whatever violence needed to achieve their ends.

    If I portrayed them as the thugs they are, I would not get the access. Yet the crime is the main reason for their existence and not to portray would be unethical (to me). If I portray them the way they want the world to see them, then I would be glamorising their role.

    I don’t know a great deal about the Yakuza, but thought a great deal of their “business” was protection rackets, prostitution and human trafficking. Would you have to show the results of the phone call the man may make to initiate the protection/human trafficking etc?

    Again, please don’t take this as criticism, because it’s not; I’m just curious as to how you approach this (my perceived) conundrum. Maybe I’m just thinking too much!! :-)

    Thanks Anton.

  11. Anton,

    I can’t wait to see this in full. Bloody well done for realising an ambition!

    What of your views, opinions has changed since you started this project?


  12. The challenge is to maintain a dispassionate perspective in projects like this, not getting so close to the subjects that you lose sight of what they really are. It will be interesting to see this project as it progresses.

  13. WOW Anton,

    I remember you told me you had to start with such a story in Japan… the begin is very very amazing… I reaaly like the pictures style also… very tough…

    keep us posted.. I wanna see more..


  14. all –

    thanks for the responses… they do strengthen me in my belief that i might be on to something worth pursuing long term…

    Herve –

    no doubt the question you ask is a very valid one. of course, personally i abhor violence, that’s a given. I hope the morals and ethics inside me, which are a part of my upbringing and my education and my studies, will be strong enough to keep me focused, in perspective, and to not lead me astray.

    With “respect”, of course, i’m talking about respectful human interaction in any given cultural context, not about judging actions in a positive way. “respect” is the base upon which i would interact with any other human being.

    In Japanese culture, the entire social interaction is full of these intricacies, that make up this “respect”… this is no different, nor is it confined to, the Yakuza. (And i guess even for any other culture the same can be said, albeit that those intricacies are of course in a different form, and probably less rigid; but they are there.)

    I hope that i will be able to see if either they too, struggle, or do not struggle at all, to cross the line of what is acceptable to a society and what not.

    The fact that they cross the line is obvious. But do they, in their hearts and minds, have a hard time doing so? That would be most interesting to find out.

  15. hey ross –

    sorry i only see your comment now… very very good question, here is an answer…

    I have explicit permission to shoot anything and everything they do… i had this up front… including the violence, illegal activities and such… of course i do not possess an all-seeing eye, and one could suspect that they are simply “behaving well” when i am around them, but,

    i have talked in great length to Soichiro about this, and he knows i will stand up and make a fuss, if i feel that they are merely “sugarcoating” it all. I’m a realistic guy, and he knows i’m intelligent enough to determine if that would be happening. And we both know that violence and illegal activities are a part of their organization. We’re no fools here.

    …and on the other side, i’m ALSO intelligent enough to know that i mostprobably will not ever be able to literally get to the bottom of it all.

    So, in contrary to what you said about “not getting access if you would portray them the way they are”, i actually was up front about this right from the beginning. i told him i DO want to portray them the way they are, with their strengths AND their weaknesses, their black AND their white, their day AND their night.

    They know this, and they permit me not only to slowly find out who they are, but also to portray them in that same way. Because they fear the same thing i do, but for different reasons: a shallow story.

    I am sure that, when the time comes, many viewers will have a difficult time with seeing images of violence and such… but i am equally sure that many more viewers will have an even more difficult time seeing images of “good” things being done… this is a very very laden subject, and i am very aware of that

    I guess it is the eventual mix of the “black” side and the “white” side that will determine the power of the story?

    Because no-one actually has had access to witness this over an extended period of time, i feel i am at least in a good position to find out how they really are, hopefully without getting pulled it at the same time.

    I am quite sure that “legitimizing their activities” will not even cross your mind when i finish the story in 2 years… i simply would not be able to live with that burden on my shoulder. Remember the two thumbs up approach cuts both ways… if i do not agree, there will also be no images…

    i often have to think of David AH’s book in this respect…. David, did you personally have to deal with ethical issues while doing Living Proof?


  16. Anton;

    Thanks for the reply, I really look forward to the finished piece.I’m also pleased for you that you are getting such unfettered access, and you will be able to show it like it is. And like I said; I wasn’t having a dig, just interested. :-)


  17. First stupid thought that came to me was Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Got me hooked, can’t wait for more!

  18. I think I am as interested in your writings as I am in the photos..and these will be a poignant part in the finished piece if you choose to include them, but I can see the merits of showing the work without your understandings of the unfolding, as well.

    You mention that you both fear a shallow story, for different reasons. What would you say their reasons are?

    About the question if the work will glamorize or legitimize their activities – though artful I presume your primary intent Anton is that this work is documentary in nature. This raises a broader question for me whether documentary / social documentary / projects that use not just authorship and a point of view but opinions and feelings are always subject to being a bit loaded. In a way isn’t all photography that is ‘for a cause’ or to open the world’s eyes doing this, if it isn’t confining itself to strict reporting in a news / pj fashion?

  19. hey erica –

    wow you’re really making me think here…. nice question..

    just to be perfectly clear: i do NOT presume to be “pj” or “documentary” in this project… i’m just a guy who is curious as to what the yakuza are all about, and through luck and hard work i have been given an opportunity to do so… and i am doing so in my own personal way, it being the ONLY way i know how to do. I will not propose these images as “the unquestionable truth about x”…

    I know my eyes are undoubtedly colored in a certain way, and i am perfectly aware that they only see “my version” of the truth… and strictly speaking, that is the only authority i can hold… my own authorship in this matter.

    Given the kind of person i am, my family, my friends, my upbringing, the way i think about life, the color of my shoes, and many many more factors, i hope i can pull off a true interpretation of what i am experiencing while doing this. And the only one i can answer to, in this regard, is myself…

    To me, this is, honestly, the absolute biggest struggle of them all: i have to feel that i am accomplishing what i am trying to do. I have to answer to myself.

    In that sense, imants is probably more bang on than anyone else. These images are not only true to the specific reality while i’m actually taking the photograph (due to the nature of photography itself), they are as much true to my person, and the feelings that i want to convey.

    i just realized… maybe i’m more a painter (who happens to have a camera because he actually cannot paint), than a photographer

    ps. in regards to the “shallow” part: don’t we all fear to be portrayed as a one-dimensional “character” instead of the chance of being portrayed bit more in depth? i certainly have felt very uneasy when being interviewed in the past, and have that cut to ten seconds or one paragraph…

    i hope this answers your question erica… starting out writing this comment i never though i would go so deep… sorry :-)

  20. Hi Anton,

    Great work and great courage. The fact that you have this kind access to this world will give you something unique already from the start. It must be hard to remember to stay safe while still taking photographic and personal risks at the same time, scary and exciting all at once. Beautiful work. I agree that I enjoy and think your writing should also be an important part of the book/project. cant wait to see more.

  21. Anton, I have a practical question.
    How are you overcoming the language barrier? do you or your brother speak good Japanese, or is Soichiro fluent in English? I’m wondering because sometimes linguistic and cultural nuances can be real barriers to full understanding imho

  22. In Japanese culture, the entire social interaction is full of these intricacies, that make up this “respect”… this is no different, nor is it confined to, the Yakuza.
    I hope that i will be able to see if either they too, struggle, or do not struggle at all, to cross the line of what is acceptable to a society and what not.

    In regards to respect, Anton, the word of course should not be used in a simplistic way, as respecting a yakusa like you respect your parents or someone you hold in “high respect”.

    I do think that some of the asian intricacies in relationship should not have us forget how a lot of it is based on top down, ie. of a hierarchical nature, where veryone behaves according to its place in it. Once you lose this place, no amount of morality or respect replaces the formal trappings you had on top of that hierarchy. Hence, the importance of a very strong, facade, and the famous ” keeping face” in asian societies. The facade, the role given often matters more than the deeds of an individual.

    another thing you wrote is:

    to see if either they too, struggle, or do not struggle at all, to cross the line of what is acceptable to a society and what not.

    That is the interesting point. How a criminal can still be acceptable, because of filling his role, not social, not by deed, but by occupying the place in the hierarchy society gives him. Though here, under your essay, I meant struggling within oneself.

    So many examples in literature, but in our own lives too. I remember one example: Pacino is the Godfather #3, crying out “I had my mother’s son killed”.

    And if we claim we are our brother’s keeper….

  23. Don’t know if we can double post here..but I wanted to be able to respond to you Anton..

    When the word documentary was first used in the 20s, it was in reference to film and meant a “creative treatment of actuality.” In still photography Riis and Hine used photography as a tool of social reform around the turn of the century, and their treatment was only later called documentary using “conscious acts of persuasion” and a “fervent desire to let images tell a story.”

    And, for example, “documentary” photographer Nina Berman (consequences of Iraq war..) said
    “I don’t believe in the notion of the objective photographer, that somehow a photo is balanced and you’re dispassionate. I don’t think that would have value. That’s like a security camera. That doesn’t mean I have an agenda. But I do have areas of interest.”

    Where as social documentary work is usually thought to speak for the forgotten or those who need a voice, and strict photojournalism is bound by a code of ethics, I think of documentary work as somewhere in between, closer to the original sense of a “creative treatment of actuality.” Even the Leica Documentary Award is in honor of a photographer who continues “to bear witness to the world” but in “an array of styles, themes and techniques, ranging from the conceptual to the traditional, the political to the personal.”

    When I say that I presume your work (Anton) is documentary, I mean that I presume you are working to show your version of an actuality, with your personal views and filters in place. I really don’t understand how people even attempt work without them (though I understand why, for the sake of factual reporting..) But labels are sticky things..and I didn’t mean to stick one on you. Still, I think it would be helpful if there were words to help to point to the intentions of what i see as these in between photographers as a group.

  24. Looking good Anton.

    Since two of the three photos here are of “sharp dressed” men I guess it’s not inappropriate to ask what they like to wear. Are these guys clothes horses? Do they favor European designers? Might be interesting to shoot them out clothes shopping.

  25. erica!

    i couldn’t have put it any better than you did – really! thanks

    oh and yes there is no one comment rule for this post…


  26. herve –

    ditto… thank you for your clear wording…

    (i hope you’re ok that i moved your comment to this thread)

  27. cathy –

    there are a few reasons why they like to dress sharply, and i will be definitely writing about that one next time. don’t want to tell all in one go ;-)

  28. It occurs to me that only a supremely confident organization, an organization secure in its contacts on both sides of the law, would allow you to get this close to them, Anton. I can’t imagine a Cosa Nostra family in the United States even letting a journalist hang out with them, much less letting one anywhere near them with a camera while they were making money. How much influence does the yakuza have with the government, or is this one of those cases where if the yakuza keep their rackets and their internecine struggles off the streets and out of the headlines the government is prepared to look the other way?

  29. I’m not sure I understand this. You are using fictional names, but why? If these are real people, you are exposing them at the beginning of your project. Their photos are on the Internet. Someone that knows them will see them. Won’t they cut off access once they find out you are posting their images on the Internet during the project? And if they don’t care, then why the fictional names?

  30. akaky –

    it’s a complex situation which i am still doing more research on. i’m tired now (way past bedtime in europe), but yes, they are very much intertwined with society and have influence with the government. again something which i will describe in more detail later…

    jim –

    So many questions… i will try to answer briefly if you don’t mind:

    Yes i use fictional names. i have my reasons for that.
    No, consequences from publishing these images will not reflect on my access, trust, or my personal safety.
    No, allowing me to publish recognizable pictures does not mean that they “do not care”.
    And finally: yes, they know i am publishing their pictures.

  31. jim

    anton is working to a ‘double thumbs’ up method.. as mentioned before..
    early days and i guess access has been the challenge, although i am certain he’ll expand. :o)

    stoopid one.

    i F**king LOVE that you dig what anton is doing.

    AND whoever asked about the colour pallet.. great GREAT question which bought about a superb response which bought about a shifted perspective for me..
    mood boards? gotcha.. knowing your work, anton, it makes perfect sense.


    it’s been great getting the vibe of your work in progress through conversation.. and i think.. you are making it look so very easy my friend.. such a talent to illustrate through the less obvious means like the tie n eye.. veerrry subtle and idiosyncratic.. not in the least what one would expect to see.

    knowing how many trips you have so far undertaken.. how long in the planning and how great the financial and personal debt incurred by this project already..

    i really love that you are accepting the idea of finding only a small handful of images on each trip over to japan.. from the outset you have decided that this is going to take a few years and i have nothing but respect for that lack of hit-and-run approach.

    of course – looking forward to more and obviously looking forward to entertaining you in bergen..

    if only i could find a safe way into the balkans mafia.. but, as we chatted on wednesday about.. it’s just too fresh.. to young a scene and too dangerous..

    keep on my friend.


  32. Anton– a wonderful project. It scares me to death to think that you are hanging with this crowd. These guys are so brazen to agree for you to share their world. Wow! Be careful I have seen Robert DiNero movies and he’s a mean mother so I can only imagine that the Nissan version is a real serious crowd.

    The images are really, real. For this photographer, it gives me the heebee jeebies just to imagine myself there.

    Buen Suerte…viajes seguros

  33. Johan Jaansen

    To be honest, I think that the notion of danger in this project has been blown a little out of proportion. I just couldn’t imagine that this project would infringe on the personal safety of the photographer – Anton. Yes, the Yakuza sounds dangerous to outsiders, but from the tidbits that I have read about them, I find it hard to believe that they would harm an outsider/westerner who is in a position of influence like Anton is/will be. This would certainly give their organisation a bad reputation, i.e bad for business. I think violence would be restricted to other groups of mafia.

    The last thing they would want would be to brought under the spotlight from the media for any action like this. After travelling and drinking in South American cities at night, I can vouch that yes I definetely felt as though I was in precarious situations. Not trying some pathetic frat boy show of markmanship here, but just trying to put things into perspective. Also Japan has one of the strongest reputations for safety. Anyway, I hope that Anton doesn’t play on this notion of danger to himself with his finished artist statement, because I for one won’t buy that concept.

    With respect to the photographs, I am really enjoying the muted colors. Numbers 1&3 are spectacular shots. I especially like the first with the boss in the car. Anton has really managed to capture a special gesture or facial expression. This is really a classy photo. I would much prefer photographs of the members in everyday settings, alongside law abiding citizens as this would be interesting to see this overall juxtaposition. Given the cultural differences (intrusion) it maybe difficult to procure shots of them with family. A 24-7 short essay, a day in the life would certainly have an interesting theme.

    #2 I skipped almost immediately. Probably a necessary filler as it essential to the overall narrative, especially given the introduction provided here, but it screams of a cliche. In another sense, I was half expecting a similar photograph, like a full body shot of a Yakuza member displaying his body art.

    #3 An inventive camera angle gives the viewer unprecedented access. This shot has a formidable boding about it, with the members on their way to a group meeting. Great timing allowed the positioning of so many faces in so many corners. I can count three faces in the back right corner.

    Actually one of my favorite projects was Gilden’s portrayal of the yakuza. That series was in some ways better than his New York work, because a) he did it in such a short period of time b) there wasn’t the overuse of shock value that he employed with his American shots. I particularly liked the photo of the guy getting his haircut and the dye looked like blood. It will be an interesting sidenote to see how this project develops/compares to Gildens, in addition to the obvious difference of the choice of medium: black and white vs color.

    In conclusion, I believe that the ultimate success of this project will lie in the mundane. Simple gestures, capturing the subjects offguard in a reflective state, as this will give the viewer access to the inner psyche of the group. Of course this would be incredibly difficult and will require intuition and sixth sense from Anton, but #1 has already demonstrated that he has those skills in his camera bag. If the project incorporates too many shots like #2, then I could see myself tuning out very quickly. These kind of shots have already been very closely aligned with the Yakuza and it would be a welcome surprise if they played a minor part in the overall ‘production’. But that is just me…


  34. I love this project and think it’s one of the more interesting to follow at the moment.
    The only thing I doesn’t like is the technique. I know you have your style tech wise, but when getting access to something like this I want to see as much as possible. Blur, black shadows etc doesn’t do it for me in this particular project. I don’t know if you have your reasons for this though..


  35. johan –

    yes you are right that i would never put myself or my family (or anyone else for that matter) in danger for the sake of the project. i will not hesitate: the very instant that this is jeopardized i will pull out.

    that said, the danger is very real. The danger isn’t any less because the interaction is very respectful and organized, or because it isn’t visible all the time. I am working with people who have been in prison for more than 20 years for capital crimes, people who have an entirely different moral code. people who are continually trained in various forms of combat, armed and unarmed. People who do not hesitate for one second. No, please don’t get me wrong, this is not a game at all. the fact that i am a westerner, only buys me a very very limited amount of credit here. I have no position of power or influence whatsoever.

    It’s a completely different form, shape or situation compared to south america… i don’t think it’s going to get us anywhere to try compare the two, if that were even possible.

    And finally: yes you analyzed it very well here: the access to the group or individual inner psyche is exactly what i hope will make this a strong story. the reflective states, the off guard moments…. those are the ones i am set on capturing, having my sixth sense (if i have one at all) turned on as full as i can…

    thanks for the in depth analysis johan…

  36. panos skoulidas

    ….ice brings me the “chills”…
    i can sense your fear… im afraid too…
    so far all of your photos “scare” the poop out of me…
    I like that… i really do…
    thank u for doing this….
    that was “hot”…
    but now its “huge”…
    greetings from LA…. 111 degrees today in san bernardino, ca….

  37. Love this series very very much
    cant wait for the next installment..
    I so wanna be in your shoes documenting this
    want so badly!!!
    and of course awesome pictures!!!
    Super cool!
    Keep going Anton!

  38. eduardo sepulveda


    Het is me een groot genoegen je werk te zien, vooral ‘I see a ghost’.
    Het is cool jou licht op je nieuwe verhalen te zien.
    Knuffels uit Chili!!


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  40. Hi Anton!
    Just a short note here: Today I watched a film about Swiss photographer Alberto Venzago. Venzago is one of my favourite photographers, but I didn’t know he did a story about the Yakuza in b&w which he published as a book in 1990.
    The other day I came across the book “The Firm” by Jocelyyn Bain Hogg, which reminded me of your project.
    Did you get influenced or inspired by these two photographers?
    Anton, your projects is challenging and certainly worth all this effort. Good luck! Looking forward to see more!

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  42. jenny lynn walker

    What an opening statement! I love the softness in your images. And I’ll bet everyone, all your subjects included, will love them too! All of that and more is very impressive! That’s a fascinating look in the eye in that first image and wondering if you took more in the car – one more focused on that facial expression? I can’t wait to see more! They’re almost TOO perfect – how about a little camera shake in there! I think I’d get it in quite naturally! ; )

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