"When you take photos for other people, you have to make compromises. When you do that on a day-to-day basis, you begin to lose sense of what you believe."
When the Japan earthquake of 2011 happened, Patrick Tsai started photographing and writing about his daily life. He kept up the project for an entire year. An honest project, sometimes intensely so, I was riveted by it. I read it all in just one sitting late at night in my dark attic bedroom. It was called Talking Barnacles.
Patrick's skill with words and photographs are amazing on their own. But what makes him my favorite photographer is his unerring belief in art, and his own visions. His work says to me: a life, lived in all its reality, is all the beauty and ugliness and neutrality that we need. It's truth, not put on, arranged, or censored. It's genuine, it's not impressing, or self conscious. A pure expression of creative energy, and a person's vision of the world.
Since then, Patrick hasn't done a project.. until a month ago, when he started Barnacle Island, a new diary about his life on a Japanese island.
Read on . . .
Hud: What are you doing on a remote (is it?) Japanese island?
Pat: I learned something important recently – at least when it applies to making art – which is the less you explain, the better. Before Barnacle Island, I attempted several times and failed at making another diary after Talking Barnacles because I tried to explain everything that happened during the last three years all at once, but it was just that – explaining. There was no art or beauty to any of it, and that’s why it never panned out. With Barnacle Island, I just started it after I had moved to the island and decided to let the readers piece together what happened beforehand as the story progressed. I think it’s much more fun that way for both parties.
Would you ever dip a roll in your islands seawater, to see what happens?
No because I am not very adventurous, or experimental, in those terms. I am not really interested in the technical side of things, especially photography. I have been using the same kind of film for as long as I remember, not because I love it, but because it works just fine. The same thing goes with my camera. My life is much simpler and I can focus more on what I am creating that way. The only time when I question what I am using is when I am in a slump, which I know deep down means that I should just be patient and wait it out instead of copying someone else’s camera or buying the latest product on the market because that wouldn’t really solve the problem…
Do you find the cultural understanding of nature in Japan to be different than in the USA?
I don’t know much about nature to be honest. I only understand what it means to me, and that revelation only happened recently. But regarding your question, some Japanese people believe that gods and spirits live everywhere, especially in nature, which I thought was an interesting concept when I first moved to this country. I didn’t really believe it then, but after I first came to the island last summer when I was hired to make a children’s book about the island (which is still in progress), I visited a sacred shrine on top of the mountain and felt something then, which I still can’t really explain now… It was as if the mountain and the shrine were pulsating with life. Like in a movie, there was even a big, white butterfly that guided us from the path to the holy pond and stayed with us until we exited. Whether it was a coincidence or not, it seemed like the project that my friend and I were working on that whole summer was blessed and protected from mishaps and bad weather, which had befallen our peers who were also making art on the island, as if someone – or something – was watching over us.
Have you ever been in the woods and felt an uncertain fear creep up?
I can’t recall off the top of my head, but definitely with the ocean because it is so vast, things like the weather can change very quickly, and there are predators in the water… My favorite author said that the only wild frontier left in the world is now the sea.
How did you feel when you were making money from your photographs?
I have never really made a living from my art and I have come to accept that. In Japan, the only way to survive in this field is to do commercial work, which is dangerous in my opinion if you are an art photographer and really care about making something real. And the reason why is because when you take photos for other people, you have to make compromises. When you do that on a day-to-day basis, you begin to lose sense of what you believe and especially what is good and bad because in the commercial world, they have totally different standards. In addition, everything that you are shooting – whether it is fashion, portraits, products, or an editorial – you are making it, or that person, into a product to sell. And when you are trying to sell something, you are trying to make it look as beautiful and perfect as possible, which is a lie. In my opinion, if you are an artist, you are trying to tell some essential truths about the world, or, at least, make people think and wonder about things besides consuming, so if your job is to create lies all the time, you will grow farther from yourself and be left with nothing real to say.
Japanese photographer, Chikashi Suzuki, basically said in an interview that the state of art photography in Japan is a joke because the only signs of success here is to get famous enough to get serious commercial work. And I agree with that because all my old heroes like Hiromix, Takashi Homma, and Rinko Kawauchi all went down that same road, and if you look at their new work in comparison to their old photographs, which was what really made them famous, you can see that their new work no longer has that inspiration or sincerity that they once had because they no longer believe or care about what they are doing…
Is there a way that art can be sold without artists “selling out?”
Yes, of course, but in regards to me, I prefer to keep art and money separate because they tend to influence one another. That’s why I quit commercial photography and am now doing a completely different job to get by. But I wouldn’t have known that it didn’t work for me without actually trying it as well as I wouldn’t have been satisfied not being a commercial photographer without getting it out of my system… Experience is the best teacher.
Why do you photograph?
I hope you can see the answer to that question when you look at my work.
You said something in a recent entry about being a responsible adult.
Good question. I think that it can be another dangerous thing for an artist because the more mature, responsible, and practical you become, the less you are inclined to make art because art usually only rewards you with something insubstantial – things which you cannot really see or use in the real world… and when get to a certain age, you begin to question sitting down at your desk and drawing for hours or walking the streets aimlessly hoping to come across something interesting to shoot because it feels like you are wasting precious time, which you should probably be using to make money, or something of that sort.
I was looking at Barnacle Island recently and saw a post that began with a series of photos. They continued, more and more, probably sixty, a lot of photos. When you shot that sequence, what was running through your mind?
Timing… and how much film I had left.
Do you ever feel torn between choosing writing and photographs?
To be honest, I’m not that interested in looking at photography these days, but just creating it. I would choose a good book, comic, television show, or movie any day over a photo book now.
Regarding your question more specifically though, once I realized that I could write to some degree, I immediately preferred it to photography because photography cannot express what you are actually feeling, or thinking, deep down. But a picture can do things that writing can’t as well, so that’s why I like to use them both to complement each other.
Have you ever reached a state of emptiness/satori/enlightenment through your photography?
No, like I said, photography only goes so far, but I have with making art. Nan Golden once said in the BBC documentary, The Genius of Photography, that photography failed her because she originally believed that if she captured her friends with her camera, then they would live forever, but in the end, they all died from drugs and disease and were gone for good. I understand her disillusionment with photography because everyone naturally goes through it if you do something for a real long time, but, on the other hand, I think that she was wrong to have placed that much emphasis on the art form itself and to blame its limitations rather than taking the responsibility for failing to do so herself. I’m not saying that I could have done it, and I am pretty sure that no one that I know could have either. What I am really trying to say is that she had forgotten the most important thing – that anything is possible – it’s just figuring out how, and that’s what makes life, and especially doing art, so fun.
That is my secret to never burning out.