The Fire of a City

February 2016

Interview with Japanese Street Photographer Haruto Hoshi

The night beckons. At first, you don’t know why. You just answer. Carried down the slick and unfurling asphalt, the neon buzz like a tuning fork. The dull rhythm of monotony melts away and possibilities take shape. Faces that were steely during the day’s work come undone and alive. You have no destination in mind. It’s enough simply to drink in the heady potion rising from the shadows to embrace whatever unknown may lurk around familiar corners. Nighttime is the richest banquet of them all.

A man who answers the nocturnal call is Haruto Hoshi. Born in 1970 in Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture, early on in his life, Hoshi got caught up in the Yakuza. But soon, he would turn transform his attraction to the street from petty crime into arresting art. After a stint in prison, he enrolled in night school seeking creative self-expression, plunged into photography, and returned to his old haunts reborn. His starkly poetic photographs of urban dwellers are raw blazes of humanity, tenderness and unconventional beauty that leave you breathless.

You wandered around towns in your youth as early as age ten – can you talk about the connection between wandering in your childhood and your career in street photography?

When I remember those days, it was the time my parents got divorced. My mother started working and was out most of the time. Since my home was located in an ordinary and quiet residential neighborhood, the people hanging around at night were mainly juvenile delinquents. They treated me nicely. I enjoyed playing with them. Since I thought they were cool, I acted like them and wore similar clothes. In my youth, I usually went out with friends, but I liked going to big cities alone. When I think about the relationship between my childhood and my career, I might have always been somehow longing for human companionship.

In your twenties, you got involved with a childhood friend who was a member of the Yakuza – could you explain that relationship and how it happened?

I met the friend at a workplace when I was a teenager, and I sometimes went out with him. I ran into him later in an entertainment district in Yokohama. I realized that he was a Yakuza member because he wore the uniform. At that time, many juvenile delinquents and Bosozoku (teen motorcycle gangs) members became Yakuza members. He was one of those boys. I had some friends like him. Most of those friends have left the Yakuza now. The reason I became a fast friend with him in my twenties was that I had neither a job nor any particular purpose in life, and he was also tired of the position and the relationships in the Yakuza world.

During that time, you have talked about dealing drugs and wanting to get out of a life of crime, but not wanting to betray your friend? Could you tell us what that struggle was like?

Although I might have said that the reason I dealt drugs was that I had debts and it was hard to leave my Yakuza friend to whom I felt an obligation, honestly, dealing drugs was an easy way to make money. I went out with my friend every day. Since he was a main member of the Yakuza, I used his status when dealing. At the time, I knew I should not have mixed friendship with such work. I thought I should not continue this relationship, but at the same time, I did not want to lose him. I had no intention of becoming a Yakuza member, but it was difficult to cut ties with the Yakuza except by leaving the city.  Eventually, I was arrested and served a term in prison. Soon after that, my friend was also arrested. We did not see each other for about four years. As a result, I could distance myself from my friend and the Yakuza. I studied photography very hard while my friend was in prison. After his release from prison, he encouraged me a lot to pursue a photography career. Now he lives quietly, having left the Yakuza. We sometimes see each other. Our lives are still unstable and uncertain.

Ultimately, you were caught and sent to prison. How did you find photography as a creative possibility for your future?

I was in prison for a little less than two years. I was not that conscious about art and creativity, but I wanted to find what I could have a strong passion for. Although I dreamt of being an artist, I did not know what to do. I read books to acquire knowledge and drew up scenarios based on the experiences of my childhood friends and myself. Remembering the old days, I became attracted of photography since it visually keeps the memories as they are.

You studied photography in night school at the Contemporary Photography Laboratory – what effect did that have on your work?

At school, I learned the pleasure of expressing something in photography and the importance of human relationships. I could meet people with various jobs and ages whom I would not meet in my daily life and converse with them on an equal basis. It was such a valuable experience for me.

Your photography focuses on urban nightlife and captures the human drama taking place on the streets. What fascinates you about this subject matter? And what keeps you returning to it?

Answering briefly, I was fascinated by the chaotic situations of urban cities generated by the energy of the people that create lively scenes – that is the motivation behind photographing urban nightlife. However, recently there is not that much energy in the nightlife of the entertainment districts and not so many people around. There are not that many attractive people I want to photograph.

Your aesthetics are incredibly stark and striking – high contrast, frequent use of flash, unique composition. Was your style something that developed over time or did it come right away?

I think my style came right away. I might have had a natural sense for it. However, not all of my photographs are made like that –  some are developed over time since I discover something new every time I have an exhibition. When I look at photographs I shot in an improvisational way, I often discover they are different from what I initially expected.

“Luminance of Streets” was your first book of photographs – how did you come up with this title? What is its significance to you?

The Japanese title of the book is Machi no Hi (Fire of a city, literally. Machi means city, Hi means fire). The English title is “Luminance of Streets” because the word “fire” leads to a different meaning. The editor of the book entitled it. I like it very much. Each person in my photographs is a small blaze.

Most of your past work is in black & white. Recently, you have been shooting in color. What caused the change?

It simply happened by chance. One day I forgot black and white film. So I used color film instead, and I thought it was interesting. I don’t care about the difference between color and black & white photographs that much. I am a little conscious of the color of the background and the clothes.

What is your attitude toward the rise of digital and mobile photography in the street with the proliferation of iPhones and Instagram?

Digital and mobile photography has not had a big influence on me because I use film and print the images myself. Maybe there is a big difference between looking at photographs as prints and as data – meaning looking at images on a screen of a computer or mobile phone. When images are looked at through the transmitted light of computers or mobile phones, I think they are stronger than printed images. Although they are strong, when we get used to them, it will be hard for us to enjoy the interesting flavor of photographs shot on film and printed on paper.

Tell us about the Third District Gallery. How important is it for exhibiting your work?

The Third District Galley is an artist-run gallery that my associates and I manage. In Tokyo, there are many similar types of galleries that photographers run to show their own work. The Third District Gallery has existed for 20 years with some changes in members. The name of the gallery used to be “Galeria Q.” It still gives me a sense of nervousness when I present my work, because I am surrounded by my associates who are very serious and earnest about photography.  Without this gallery, I believe my new work would never be developed in the best way it could.

Photography HARUTO HOSHI


Interview translated by MAKO WAKASA