“What do I want to say with my pictures? I hope I accomplish the feat of making this world seem a little bit more interesting, friendly, humorous, or beautiful.”
Sean Lotman (born in 1975) is a photographer from the USA currently based in Kyoto, Japan.
“Coming from a writing background, I am interested in blending images with words, specifically short-form poetry and brief autobiographical essays. My photographic content tends to come from my journeying – most often the street – projected as a vivid color scheme of portraiture I’ve come to call “psychedelic humanism.”
Interview with Sean Lotman
Sean, why did you become a photographer?
I suppose I became one by accident. Most of my 20s I had only a rudimentary interest in photography– I didn’t even own a camera as a young adult. When I first started traveling Asia I began taking pictures, mostly bad ones. It wasn’t until my 30s that I developed a signature style that defines my work, thus prompting my identity to evolve into that of photographer.
But I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the influence my friends as well as my wife have had on me. Perhaps because writers are so much more solitary I have few friends in that discipline. However, most of my friends and intimates are photographers. From them I have learned to love the art form.
Your portfolio shows a great variety. From documentary photography to nature and travel photography. What does each mean to you and how would you describe yourself as an artist?
The variety is probably a consequence of my wandering. I’m a bit of a compulsive walker or flaneur. Photography adds meaning to the long walk. It leads me to see more deeply.
“I’m not really a street or travel or portrait photographer though I’m a bit of all of those.”
I really don’t know how to describe myself as an artist. I’m not really a street or travel or portrait photographer though I’m a bit of all of those. If I were to look at my pictures and writing I’d say there’s an undercurrent of humanism there. Because of the surreal nature I want to conjure, I’ve come to call the aesthetic “psychedelic humanism.”
Besides taking images you are a dedicated writer. Can you please elaborate a bit on that? How do the two things complement one another?
My main interest in writing comes from reading. Having a book to read means something interesting is available every single day. Writing evolved from that naturally, my love of reading leading me to try my own hand at storytelling. It is very difficult, but wonderful. Writing is how I tap my subconscious. It is where I surprise myself most. I write fiction, criticism, and short-form poetry. I keep a journal the best I can.
While writing is a solitary exercise, photography is a means for me to engage with the world. They are not necessarily separate disciplines. They play to different strengths and I’ve come to see the benefits of synthesizing the art forms.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
That’s just not possible to say. There have been so many moments.
You were born in Los Angeles and then you decided to move to the Japan. Why?
Actually, I was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles. After studying history at UC Santa Barbara I returned to Los Angeles where I struggled to find my writing voice. About ten years ago, tired of America, I decided I’d rather see the world than suffer the Bush years, broke and dissatisfied. Originally I’d meant to go to Latin America, but realized that in Japan I might make enough money to travel. It wasn’t Japanese culture that lured me, exactly, but a temptation of freedom. When you move to a new country you are essentially starting over, and thus there is a temptation to reinvent oneself. After relocating I was fortunate to make good contacts and earn a living that was not very demanding. Most importantly I found the time to visit a great many places in Asia and Africa.
How has the cross-cultural experience influenced your work as a photographer?
I suppose my ‘otherness’ allows me some freedom of voyeurism than I wouldn’t have as a local. I tend to surprise my subjects, and they tend to forgive me for my intrusions. Of course, being a foreigner means I can see the specialness in details that a person accustomed to his environment might overlook. And human beings are naturally curious creatures, especially when we’re placed in an environmental context strangely unfamiliar.
I suppose your passion for Asian culture has led to your project “I Do Haiku You”. What is it about?
“Haiku, like photography, is about discovering the poignancy of the moment.”
What led me to “I Do Haiku You” wasn’t so much a passion for Asian culture as it was a need to write something less taxing and structurally complex than a novel or short story. Little did I understand beforehand how challenging it would be writing a beautiful haiku. Haiku, like photography, is about discovering the poignancy of the moment. Haiku are almost poetic verbal arrangements of a tableau, rather than the pictorial representation. The poems are paired with photos shot with a Diana f+, an unpredictable machine of endearing flaws and surprising intensity. The hit ratio on the Diana can be despairing but with the right conditions, you might make a photo with a painterly Impressionist impact, an enchantingly beautiful image.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
“Every photograph I take is a self-portrait.”
Photography is a point of view. Most people take bland pictures because the purpose of their cameras is to document their lives or colonize the globe with their presence (e.g. selfies at UNESCO world heritage sites), rather than to make a personal statement. It can be hard work to make an object or moment of kitsch worth looking at again. Why should I care to look at another picture of the pyramids at Giza or the ruins at Machu Picchu? A good photographer with a strong personal touch will help me see the tired view in a novel way.
I think it was Dorothea Lange who said, “Every photograph I take is a self-portrait.” This is so true. A picture tells a truth, whether or not we’re aware of it: this is how I see the world.
What do I want to say with my pictures? I hope I accomplish the feat of making this world seem a little bit more interesting, friendly, humorous, or beautiful. Much of life is dull or terrifying, burdened by repetitive tasks or unsolvable problems, but there are enough beautiful moments sprinkled each day to keep us going. But we have to be aware to appreciate them.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
There are so many, but I come back again and again to Jakob Holdt, a Danish hippie who hitchhiked back and forth across Nixon’s America in the early 1970s. Though ostensibly a social dropout, he had chameleon-like powers to adapt to a wide swath of demographics, allowing him to take wonderfully intimate mise-en-scene portraits of black sharecroppers, transvestites, white gun nuts, KKK clansmen, the rich and the powerful. I go back to that book all the time. Holdt is the OG genius of psychedelic humanism.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?
I love printing my photos in the darkroom. I’m old-fashioned. I like the deliberate slowness of making pictures that has long defined film-based photography. So this quotation from Danny Lyon resonates so much with me:
“Don’t talk to me about digital. I’ve got hypo in my veins. The stains you see on my shirts are Dektol. I like the dark room, the radio, the yellow light glowing. I rip the printing paper into quarters. One square is swimming in the Dektol. Through the clear, brown liquid I see my work emerging – my picture. Then I take it, the little piece, and give it away, a gift, to the person pictured in it. A return for what they have given me. Thirty years pass. People die. Children grow old. They keep the little piece, stuck up on a wall with thumbtacks, creased and stained: themselves young and alive, forever. That is photography.”
Your project “Wanderlust” turned into a book. What is it about?
“Wanderlust” was a collaborative book featuring my work and that of my wife, Ariko Inaoka. It was published in a limited run of about 2000 copies Taiwan in 2011 with an exhibition. Thematically it was, as the title suggests, about the pleasure of travel.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case with “Wanderlust” and if so what did you learn during the project?
I wouldn’t call “Wanderlust” my own project, since it was collaborative, the layout was done by the editors, and it was more or less rushed into production to satisfy deadlines. The book was a nice surprise, very flattering, the editors worked really hard on it, but the finished product wasn’t something that I’d spent years working on. It didn’t really have a central theme so much, more of a pastiche of some of my better work. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for its existence and the making of the book had been a learning experience for all of us.
“The merits of a singular photograph are not enough. What matters just as much as what it offers the whole.”
On the other hand, I’ve been working on my photo-haiku book for almost three and a half years as well as a photo project about the Japanese people. Via making prints in the darkroom I’ve begun to learn what should and shouldn’t be included in the project. These decisions are often very, very subtle, really a gut feeling. Tapping my instinct means laying out all the photos on the floor and finding patterns, then exciting images (even beautiful ones) that subtract, rather than add, to a project’s narrative. The merits of a singular photograph are not enough. What matters just as much as what it offers the whole.
How would you describe your photographic voice and way of working? How do you plan and execute a project?
I’m a very slow and deliberate worker. I go out and shoot when the weather is fine or something extraordinary is going on. But I can go on a three-hour photo walk and come back with only five or six photos shot. I almost never shoot a whole roll in one session. And although the Internet is a wonderful place to share, I’ve come to prefer prints. I really believe if a photographer is putting together a project, he or she must print their work out. As I mentioned in the previous answer it really helps the artist perceive where the project is strong or problematic.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Technically, the axis meets in vivid colors, composed with a subject featured within a certain tableau. I prefer portraits within a certain environmental context, so there’s more to take in. Conceptually, I hope I express how strange and beautiful this world is, and there is the possibility of poetry nearly everywhere.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
Some important that come to mind right away are curiosity, imagination, perseverance, and courage.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
Of course it should be well-composed and have brightness and colors well-adjusted. But it should also be strange, something I’ve never quite seen before. It should make me proud if it’s my own, envious if it’s from another. I like photographs that insinuate that something just happened or is about to occur. I suppose, then, that I like still photos which contain a cinematic quality.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Definitely from better photographers. They push me to go deeper, stronger, more intense. A great project is years in the making. It is really difficult to say when it is really finished, until a voice in your head, the one that whispers “no no no,” all the time finally clears the air with, “yes.”
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I use a Diana f+, a Nikon fe2, and a Contax T3. I shoot with Kodak film and print on Fuji paper.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I have good friends who do blogs about photography, Eric Kim and Bellamy Hunt, that I often read. I’m often looking at “The New Yorker’s Photo Booth” blog as well. I look forward to seeing the work of other photographers on this site.
What book about photography would you recommend?
You mean a text about photography? Considering how ubiquitous photography is in our everyday lives, there is very little written about it. I read Susan Sontag’s “On Photography“ in India four years ago and loved it. Perhaps because it still feels topical 36 years later (in spite of digital and smart phone revolutions) there hasn’t been anyone daring to supersede it.
Though it’s more about art than photography, per se, John Berger’s “Ways Of Seeing“ (1972) had a large effect on how I view my environment– basically, images, whether or not you like it, have a political-economic context. It can never be just art for art’s sake.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
It depends on what “professional” means. If it means making money from photography only commercial shooters and established artists (the lucky few who sell prints for good sums) can really do that. If you are not interested in making a living with photography, but living with photography I suggest a day job that allows you some latitude to wander, contemplate, work. If you do photography for the money – as what happens in any endeavor – you’ll often end up shooting projects you have no interest in, for people who are only interested in pushing their products. Shoot only for yourself if it is at all possible. This is how you’ll stay in love, and as you become better, you’ll develop a personal style all your own.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: Why bother with being a photographer? After all, it seems like “we are all photographers now,” as the latest cultural memes have suggested. What’s the point?
A: Again, I want to quote Dorothea Lange, who says it so well: “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.” If I’ve learned anything from photography, it’s the value of seeing and noticing: God is in the details.