Isaac

About Isaac

Curious photographer, blogger and aspiring teacher. Likes sci-fi, retrogaming, 80s music, coffee, crows and crispy bacon.

Tokyo through the lens of Lee Chapman

I’m in Tokyo for work. It’s my first time here. I’ve got a busy week ahead, but have booked a Saturday to look around and do some photography. Fuelled by my passion for games, technology and geeky stuff, the Japanese capital has always topped my list of places to go. I’m excited. I don’t want to get disappointed. I want to love this place.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

With its top-ten listicles and user reviews, Google advises me to check out the famous Shibuya crossing, the Sensō-ji temple and the Skytree observation deck. I’m doing nothing of that. Instead, I have arranged to meet with Lee Chapman, a local photographer, who has offered to show me around. There is no set theme, but we have agreed to stay away from the must-see sights and rather look at some older parts of Tokyo and for ordinary people doing ordinary things. I’m not sure what to expect.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

It’s late August. The weather app promises sun, heat and humidity. I grab my camera and a bottle of water, gobble down some breakfast and head to the subway. My hotel is located in Roppongi, a central district known for its nightlife and expat community. Last night, I found some good food and an interesting exhibition here, but it could as well have been in London or New York. I want local.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Lee and I meet at the subway exit. His handshake is firm and he greets me in a noticeable British accent. He travels light, with a small backpack and a Leica rangefinder. “This city is made for walking,” he tells me. “There are lots of interesting stuff you can only find when you’re on foot.” I tie my shoelaces and tighten my camera strap.

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Lee Chapman, 24 August 2019. Photo by: Isaac Griberg

Lee grew up in Manchester and made his own Brexit in the late 90s. In the search for change and adventure, he boarded a flight to Tokyo for a one-year gig as English teacher. He bought a camera, fell in love with the city and his wife-to-be. For over two decades, Lee has documented life in the megapolis he now calls home. “The longer you spend exploring this place, the more there is to find,” he tells me.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We make our first stop at a peaceful market in Minowa, an older district of Tokyo. It seems like this place hasn’t seen a lot of change in a long time – in particular when you notice the shop owners and their clientele. “I love this place,” Lee says with a smile. “Most people here are in their 80s or 90s, still running the family business as they’ve always done.”

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

I can see that Lee has been here before. As we walk through market, he stops to chat with the people we meet, points out interesting stuff to photograph, and explains how the area demonstrates one of Japan’s greatest challenges – an ageing and shrinking population.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

As I move around, compose my shots and press the shutter, I realise how Lee’s presence, acceptance by the community and fluency in Japanese are giving me both confidence and access to snap photos of people and places I would not have discovered on my own.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We leave the market and continue our walk towards Ueno. I notice a difference in the shape and state of the buildings we pass. Some look patched-up, others deserted. An old bicycle embraced by nature invokes a feeling of tranquility and loneliness. “It’s expensive to inherit a property here,” Lee tells me while showing a photo of an elderly woman standing on the porch of the now-abandoned house in front of us. “So, when someone passes away, the house might just be left as it is.” Is this really Tokyo?

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Some would probably describe Lee as an urban explorer and street photographer, but I think there is much more depth to his character and to what he does. His photos commit moments to eternity. By returning to the same streets for over two decades, documenting the people living there, Lee is a preservationist of life and his work is a longitudinal study of the ever-changing Tokyo. I’m impressed.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Evidently, his work has been published in several top-tier media, most recently in The Guardian. I ask Lee if he ever thought of exhibiting his photos in a gallery. “If I did that, I’d like it to be in the setting where they were taken,” he answers. “Perhaps in a small shop or bar, providing context through the people working there, the ambiance.”

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We grab a quick bite, stroll through the remnants of a post-war black market and make our last stop in Golden Gai. Tucked away in a corner of the red-light district, this maze of tiny bars connected through narrow passages is a relic of the past. “The area rose from the ashes of the Second World War,” Lee tells me. “I hope it won’t be bulldozed to make room for another skyscraper.” I peek into a few bars and notice how guests laugh and trade elbow space for drinks. Despite the rather dodgy feel, this seems to be a happy place.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the human impulse to create. You find beautiful stuff in people’s homes, in galleries, by the roadside and – sometimes – where you least expect it. When I woke up this morning, I thought I’d spend the evening writing about some jaw-dropping installation or an eccentric street performance, not about the photographer who would show me around. By sharing his wealth of experience and eye for photography, Lee has helped me discover a Tokyo I didn’t expect. I feel privileged and I’ve made a friend.


All photos in this blog published with kind permission from Lee Chapman himself. You can find out more about Tokyo photo walks on his website. Should you like to see any of the photos I shot during our walk, please check out my Instagram post.

Saving the ocean, one plastic bottle at a time

It’s summer holiday and we’ve just arrived in Indonesia. We’re on our way to Labuan Bajo in the eastern archipelago, but we’ve decided to spend a few days in the capital to beat the jetlag. I’m not too fond of the bustling and congested megacities of the Far East, but Jakarta is the hometown of my wife and a good reminder that life is not always as comfortable and peaceful as in Geneva. This time though, the reminder is a little starker than usual.

Photo credit: The Jakarta Post

The Big Durian has just been hit by a massive power failure, with big parts of the city completely blacked out, paralyzing the traffic and forcing buildings to run on back-up generators. As we enter a mall to buy some necessities for the kids, Twitter tells Sari that “the blackout has affected some 30 million people in Greater Jakarta” and that the “recently established metro system was evacuated this morning.” Should we be worried? I’m not sure.

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As we venture deeper into the mall, a rather odd-looking installation catches our attention. Squeezed between Guccis and Pradas is a little shop, with its ceiling covered in odd-looking, colorful and sparkly stripes. At a closer inspection, we learn that the stripes are made of plastic waste recovered from the Indian Ocean, and that the shop is the entrance to an exhibition. How exciting!

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Benji finds the installation amusing. He pulls and rattles the plastic bottles, treating them like an instrument. Josi looks rather concerned and tries to curb her little brother’s enthusiasm. I take a few photos. The ocean-like glittering caused by cold light meeting plastic translucence reminds me of a dive in Bali. Just after rolling off the boat, we found ourselves looking up at a surface covered by a thick layer of plastic bags and trash, probably dumped by a nearby boat. At the time, we didn’t do anything about it. Today, I feel embarrassed.

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“Laut Kita” (“Our Ocean”) is an installation by Sejauh, an Indonesian fashion brand, attempting to educate the general public about the importance of reducing the use of disposable plastics and protecting the environment. The curator has juxtaposed images of Indonesia’s coastal beauty with stacks of plastic waste and recyclable bottles installed to mimic a kelp forest. “Indonesia is the second largest plastic waste producer with a total of 3.2 million tons per year,” Sari reads on the info board. “About 40% ends up in rivers and the ocean.” Ugh.

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At the end of the installation, a group of kids has stopped in front of sign posts equipped with catchy slogans and data on how plastic pollution is destroying the ocean. I wonder what they think. Are they contemplating how to save the world, or are they just appalled by the extent to which their parents and friends have lived their lives at the expense of the environment? Perhaps a bit of both. I don’t dare to ask. As we leave, Josi writes a note about sharks in the guest book and Benji adds some color. Proud papa moment.

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I didn’t expect that our trip to the mall would turn into a cognitive journey from consumerism to sustainable living. I’m glad it did. As the fluorescent lights of the mall continue to flicker and the ventilation system struggles to keep us cool, most shops and restaurants remain empty. The setting reminds me of a scene in Dawn of Dead, where people are looting the pharmacy for medicines, scavenging the supermarket for food and arming themselves in the hardware store. Let’s hope our current path of destruction won’t take us there. In the meantime, we can all do something to save the ocean. Why not start by recycling one plastic bottle at a time?

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Three favourite snaps nominated for the 2018 Geneva Photo Awards

I’m at Galerie La Cave, this week hosting 2018’s Geneva Photo Awards. There are lots and lots of photos on the walls, all submitted by local photographers. One of the friendly hosts hands out pens and papers and asks visitors to “vote for your three favourite photos.” The most popular photos will be announced at finissage on 25 March.

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I look. I stop. I think. There are photos of people and animals, landscapes and streets, concrete and abstract. Many of them are technically accomplished. Some capture moments, others evoke emotions. But there is no common narrative or theme, and there are no captions. I struggle, but manage to narrow down my favourites to three. I take photos.

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“Karnak” by Arnaud Chamorel

I love the harsh contrast and light in Arnaud Chamore’s photo from the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt. It reminds me of Gabriele Croppi’s photos of European metropolis. Whatever camera and editing software Arnaud used, the contrasty and monochromatic result is bold, moody and elegant! Unfortunately, there’s little space on the wall at home.

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“Le Tram Blur* by Neil Maccormack

Neil Maccormack’s photo of Rive is fun! The fisheye-distortion combined with a long-exposure makes the whole place look like a funfair. We all know that it’s not, but that doesn’t matter. I appreciate photographers who go that extra mile to find a fresh view of a scene often experienced from only one or two perspectives.

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“La Jonction Canard” by Frédérique Tissandier

The third and last photo getting my vote is shot by my colleague Frédérique Tissandier. The one-legged duck looks happy, ready take a dip in river Rhône. A simple composition with balanced colours like this can never go wrong. Well done, Fred!

Unless memory fails, this is the third year the Swiss Photo Club hosts the Awards. It’s clearly a very clever way of encouraging local photographers (their family and friends) to share their best photos and meet up with people who share the same passion. Well done, guys! I’m looking forward to next year’s edition, and perhaps I will then submit one of my photos…

Rio 2016 through the lenses of four photographers

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I visit the Olympic Museum to check out “Rio 2016 through the lenses of four photographers” even though sports photography has never been my thing. I consider myself a decent photographer but before I even see the first photo, the exhibition challenges me. “Everyone’s a photographer” it states in the introduction and then, rather like Orwell’s pigs, goes on to say “some more than others!” I discover that this is true and am humbled by what I find.

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Four professional photographers – obviously from the group “some more than others” – were invited to exhibit their favourite shots from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

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Mine Kasapoglu Puhrer (TUR), John Huet (USA), David Burnett (USA) and Jason Evans (USA) have done much more than capture great moments in sport. They provide an archive of the passion, emotion, and even unintentional comedy that is the human face and real draw of the Games. In addition, each great image is garnished with a little unexpected detail.

Great sports photographers have an eye for the image and for the moment. I mean, just take a look at the cover photo of David Burnett’s book (above). And the photographers admit that they are constantly exploring new angles, new compositions, new techniques and new narratives even though they’ve been in the business for many years.

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What a contrast between these two images: women’s hockey and women’s golf!

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The video interviews of the four photographers fascinate me:

“Sometimes winners have this different face before they win, it’s really exciting. I like to play with that photographing the moment before the race, the start.” – Mine Kasapoglu Puhrer

“You have the best photographers in the world coming together and creating their own photo Olympics. It’s like the athletes, every photographer is trying to be the best, they want to beat the people next to them, they want to beat everybody in the room. – David Burnett”

“You still need an emotion, you still need a story, you still need to find what that is, even though the technology helps, it’s just a tool. You have to use it wisely and properly. – Jason Evans”

“If you see the photograph through your camera lens, you don’t have, it’s when you don’t see it is when you have it.” – John Huet

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The photographers also make reference to the implications of technology for their work. Twenty years ago, sports photographers shot on film. From clicking on a top shot through development to sale for publication took about 40 minutes. Now, a captured image can appear on a news website anywhere in the world in under one minute.

The exhibition lasts until 9 November. It’s a must-see for everyone (who’s a photographer!)

Cosplay at the 2017 Geneva Gaming Convention

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I’ve been looking forward to the Geneva Gaming Convention for a very long time. In happy anticipation, I drive down to Palexpo. I’m in heaven. Surrounded by hundreds of gamers, all there to celebrate their love for games. I particularly enjoy the retro corner. I grew up with many of these games. GoldenEye! Street Fighter! But, my favourite thing this year? Cosplayers!

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In case you missed it: Cosplay (costume play) is a rapidly growing hobby-verging-on-culture in which the participants dress as specific characters from films, games, cartoons or books.

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Cosplay has multiple long roots that can be traced to the carnival dress of the 15th century, the costume balls of the 19th century and the “fancy dress parties” that were in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The first big leap was when attendees at 1930s science fiction conventions increasingly turned up in a pertinent costume. As a hobby unrelated to a specific event, it began to boom in 1980s Japan. No surprise there!

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Now, cosplay is much more than a costume ball writ large. It is globally connected being fuelled by social media, dedicated websites and specialised conventions. A hijab wearing Captain America even made the BBC news!

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There are cosplay competitions too. Cosplayers are judged on: resemblance to the original character in terms of appearance; quality and details of the costume and props; character portrayal and performance; stage presence and connection with the audience.

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An undercurrent of cosplay is based on sex appeal – by choosing a particularly alluring character – and changing gender (crossplayers!) This, unsurprisingly in today’s non-fantasy, pc world has precipitated fierce debate about what is and what is not appropriate.

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I’m a role-playing, hack-n-slash kinda guy, but I’ve never quite had the nerve to dress up as a character from a film, game or cartoon. I’ve always admired those that did. They really throw themselves into it.

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What is it about dressing up as a fantasy personage? I admit, it kind of appeals. Maybe next time. Maybe in a Vault 13 jumpsuit. Yea!

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