Photos & Projects

Images from the Last Normal Thursday in Tokyo with Meg Hewitt – Steven Bleistein

April 8, 2020

Some months ago, I signed up for a Tokyo workshop with Australian photographer Meg Hewitt for March 18-24 this year. Despite circumstances with the growing global COVID-19 pandemic, Meg still showed up in Tokyo to run the workshop although participants from Europe were no longer able to travel, and those from elsewhere elected not to. I was one of only two participants who took part. Both of us live in Japan and were not going anywhere.

If you are not familiar with Meg Hewitt, it is definitely worthwhile to check out her work. Meg’s website is here, and Meg is featured in the current issue of LFI magazine. If you do not subscribe to LFI, now is a good time to start, as Leica is currently offering three issues gratis as people are forced to stay at home.

I had first learned of Meg last July when she was featured on L’Oeil de la Photographie while she was exhibiting her Tokyo is Yours project–the book for which is in this article’s featured photo above–in Arles, France during Recontre d’Arles photography festival. Her work immediately resonated with me.

Even though I live in Japan and have spent hours photographing the streets of Tokyo, there are still parts of the city with which I am unfamiliar. Even in the parts that I think I know well, a different photographer can introduce me to aspects and layers I did not know existed. So I was enthusiastically looking forward to having Meg serve as my guide. 

The coronavirus pandemic made it an eerie time to be doing a photography workshop, and at times I even questioned the wisdom of it. Europe was already locked down, Italy had become a nightmare, and things were just beginning to get worrisome in New York. Tokyo however appeared to be an outlier. Case numbers were limited, a few hundred at the time, and people mostly carried on as usual. 

I met with Meg and the one other participant for dinner Wednesday, March 18th. We met again Thursday morning to do some shooting together—street portraits of strangers. Then Meg gave an assignment, and left us to shoot on our own before regrouping in the evening.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day, and the streets were teaming with throngs of people where I was shooting around Shinjuku Station. No one appeared particularly concerned about the pandemic. Only half of people were wearing masks, either because of lack of concern or because masks had already become hard to come by.

Universities were on spring break and public schools had closed at the request of Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe, so ecstatic groups of high school kids along with university students were out joining in on the holiday fun.  The harsh sunlight and the shadows cast by buildings and bridges in the concrete jungle outside Shinjuku Station’s south exit made for superb street shooting conditions. Yet as I was shooting, I was beginning to feel some unease.

It was already becoming clear that Japan had not been conducting widespread testing for Coronavirus, unlike South Korea, which was already beginning to get the infection under control. Before the press began clamouring about Japan’s approach to testing, it was becoming apparent to me that no one could actually know the real extent of infection in Japan. There simply was a lack of data.

So as I was photographing the frolicking around Shinjuku, after a time, it stopped being fun as concerns invaded my mind. By mid-afternoon, I decided to return to my hotel to rest, clear my mind, and think.

Maybe I was overreacting, or maybe I wasn’t. Whatever the case, I had little desire to remain in Tokyo and continue photographing. I resolved to return to my home in Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture, about seventy kilometres from Tokyo, the next day even though it pained me to do so. 

Meg, the other participant and I met for drinks in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai. We talked about the day, marvelled at the throngs of passers-by from our outdoor standing table of a typical Japanese izakaya, what passes for a pub in Japan but completely different. The crowds pulsated even more than during the day with couples holding hands, out on dates. Usually you would expect to see lots of tourists in the area, but they were few and far between, and there were absolutely no Chinese, whereas only some weeks before, the area would have been full of Chinese tourists.

After some dinner at a different izakaya, Meg took us through her favourite haunts in Kabukicho, an area of Tokyo with a cluster of buildings dating back to the end of World War Two if not earlier, the narrow alleyways between them packed with cramped drinking establishments, each one of which was steeped in history with it own story to tell. It was like walking back in time. Parts of Tokyo during the Occupation likely looked much the same.

We went from one establishment to the next, never tarrying too long in one place in an attempt to somehow minimize risk of exposure, although I am not sure how effective that was. We took photos, chatted with other patrons and people serving behind the bar, and quickly moved on.

At the end of our evening, before calling it a night, I told Meg of my decision to return home the next day. She understood. And so I left Tokyo early the next morning. Nonetheless, I continued shooting around where I live. Meg and I communicated regularly by Zoom to review and edit work while she was still in Japan, and even after she had returned to Australia, while having to self-isolate at her home for fourteen days.

I learned a lot from Meg working with her, and spending hours reviewing and editing my work. The photos I took I believe are among some of the best work I have ever produced.

The photos in the piece I took around the Shinjuku area on Thursday, March 19th. The following week on Wednesday, March 25th, Tokyo mayor Yuriko Koike called for residents of Tokyo to stay at home that weekend unless absolutely necessary to go out.

Department stores and other retail decided to close shop for the weekend. Even Starbucks shuttered its ubiquitous Tokyo cafes. Cherry trees in full bloom in the parks were cordoned off to prevent people from congregated under them, as the Japanese do in normal times. The crowds in the city thinned. The streets became quiet. The holiday atmosphere had ended.

As I look back on the photos I took on Thursday, March 19th, I realized that I had captured the last normal Thursday in Tokyo, Japan—at least for some time to come—and maybe longer. Who knows?

Thankfully, I’m not sick, nor is anyone in my family. I texted Meg in Australia the other day, and she is doing just fine too. Let’s hope we all stay that way.

I am a street photographer who lives in Japan. If you would like to see more of my work, have a look at my website, or my Instagram @sbleistein

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  • Reply
    April 8, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Considering your images I’d say its high time for the good people at LFI (yes, looking at you Inas Fayed) to run a story about you, Mr Bleistein!
    Best from Berlin to Tokyo!

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 8, 2020 at 10:31 am

      Thorsten, that’s kind of you to say, but I don’t I’m quite there yet. I will say however that I believe I improved dramatically working with Meg.

  • Reply
    ian simpson
    April 8, 2020 at 11:10 am

    top pictures steven, made even more interesting by the way society changed so fast. Great narrative. Hope you’re ok and that Japan will soon recover her beauty. Stay safe.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 8, 2020 at 11:12 am

      Thanks, Ian. Same to you. State of emergency declared in Japan yesterday evening. Hoping we can get through this as fast as prudently possible with minimum damage.

  • Reply
    George Appletree Photography
    April 8, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    I liked the photographs of your webpage, Steven (don’t know if you had a look to mine). I like the shadows cast in some of what you bring here too. Are they digital?, just curious, some of them seem strongly vigneted. Not the best time for street photographer for a long while; perhaps time to reflexion in our images instead of keeping on shooting.
    Stay safe

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 9, 2020 at 5:31 am

      These are all digital. I prefer digital when doing a workshop so I can rapidly share images and get feedback. I did look at your work in the link you sent me. There is some nice artwork in there. Perhaps organize some of the best into collections or series of photos if you have not done so already. In my view, now is an excellent time for street photography given the uniqueness of this period. Don’t violate any stay-at-home rules, but definitely shoot when you do go out when you are permitted to go out or otherwise document the world from wherever must remain, even if it means shooting from your room, your window, your balcony, etc.

      • Reply
        George Appletree Photography
        April 9, 2020 at 7:32 am

        Thanks for having a look. Sad documenting all this, in case you practice documentary rather than street photography

        • Reply
          Steven Bleistein
          April 9, 2020 at 8:26 am

          It does not have to be sad. There is extraordinary resilience, compassion, and humanity in all this as well.

          • George Appletree Photography
            April 9, 2020 at 9:22 am

            I don’t feel comfortable taking people keeping queue with a mask three metres one from each other to get some bread, and they either do.

          • Steven Bleistein
            April 9, 2020 at 10:38 am

            Ok. So find something else!

  • Reply
    Jeremy Orozco
    April 8, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Anytime I see a post by Bleistein I know it’s going to be some top quality images, this article just proves that. You should consider making some videos in regards to how you process your work and how you shoot! Reach out to me when you do @analogisnotdead. Keep it up Steven, this makes me want to return to Japan!

    • Reply
      George Appletree Photography
      April 9, 2020 at 10:47 am

      You’re the one to find… perhaps time to reflexion

      • Reply
        Steven Bleistein
        April 9, 2020 at 10:58 am

        In my view, doing whatever you need to do to get through this period is fine. If reflection works for you, do it. If actively photographing works, do that. Both are perfectly reasonable. Some of the photography I have been seeing from around the world right now is outstanding–even photos people have been shooting in their own homes or of their own families. If giving photography a break for a while however is what you need, that’s OK too. In any case, this situation won’t last forever. We will get through it.

        • Reply
          George Appletree Photography
          April 9, 2020 at 11:26 am

          If what you need is taking photographs anyhow to document all this disaster, just do it. Enjoy
          Not the best time for street photography.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 9, 2020 at 11:00 am

      Thanks, Jeremy! I don’t know about a video, but I might write more about process and thinking.

  • Reply
    April 9, 2020 at 1:36 am

    Still like the Leica meter which is in better shape than mine.

  • Reply
    David Hume
    April 9, 2020 at 1:37 am

    Cool stuff Steven – story and images! Although it’s presumptuous of me – with just a quick look I’d have to say that I agree that this is the best work of yours I’ve seen on 35mmc. Lots of questions are raised too. I reckon it would be really interesting to hear how you feel the process of the workshop helped you and why it enabled you to improve. We’re all looking for a bit of that magic I reckon. I may be drifting in to a bit of a rambling comment, but there’s the whole interplay between a sort of pre-apocalyptic Tokyo, the chaos of uncertainty, and the grabbing of a moment that might be the last – that gives energy to the images. And am I right in thinking your contrast is a little higher than normal? (I like it – the shot of the two girls is my fave, but in the vertical street shot beneath it the contrast in the reflections from the street itself worries me a bit) I had not heard of Meg but just had a very quick dip in to her site and saw that she does like contrast and is not averse to a vignette either! I’d be keen to hear what you thought about her work. I’d be surprised if you were not a fan of William Klein, (less contrast than Meg but more impact) but oddly I watched this docco on him just yesterday; a great watch if you’ve not seen it.
    Anyway, it’s lovely to read this post and and see fruits of your endeavour. All strength to your arm.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 9, 2020 at 5:24 am

      Meg Hewitt’s work is top notch, and she is a superb teacher if you have the chance to work with her. I had not known about William Klein. I like his work. I’ll have to explore more. Thanks!

  • Reply
    Peggy Marsh
    April 9, 2020 at 8:00 am

    Glad you and your family are all well, take care. I love seeing your photos as I am not brave enough to try that style. Maybe when lockdown is over I will give it another try.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 9, 2020 at 8:32 am

      You know, as an exercise that Meg had suggested, I approached complete strangers in the street and asked to take their photographs. Some people declined. Most said yes. I did not include those photos in this article. I might write about them in a different article. The street photos in the piece all candid except for some of the ones in the bars.

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    April 9, 2020 at 11:06 am

    Steven, I agree this work is evidence of a marvelous evolution. I appreciate the contributions you make to the photography community on the site. It would be great to see a few words of wisdom Meg imparted to you. The words worked in spades….Be well and safe, Louis.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 9, 2020 at 11:17 am

      Thanks, Louis. I don’t think a few words here paraphrasing what Meg told me would do justice. However, an article on what I learned makes better sense. I might write one.

      Just so you know, Meg offers portfolio review and coaching via video conferencing if you wanted to work with her. She has the details on her web site.

  • Reply
    Floyd K. Takeuchi
    April 10, 2020 at 11:09 am

    Impressive work, Steve. What I like most about this portfolio is that in nearly all of the people photos, there’s clear engagement and a sense of an acknowledged relationship with your subjects. So much of contemporary Tokyo street photography seems to be riff on the theme of a land of a thousand lost souls. A Tokyo photographer whose work I’m familiar with, Arimoto Shinya, breaks the mold and has a clear sense of humanity in his street photography. Your styles are very different, but your work shares Arimoto-san’s grounding in a respect for humanity. Well done.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 13, 2020 at 4:04 am

      Thanks, Floyd. This is exactly what I am trying to express. I love living in Japan and I convey my feelings and experience here through my photography, always grounded in a deep respect for people whether in Japan or elsewhere. Arimoto’s work is fascinating. Thanks for turning me on to him!

      • Reply
        Floyd Takeuchi
        April 13, 2020 at 7:50 pm

        Arimoto-san is one of the main figures running the Totem Pole Gallery in Shinjuku. It’s a group of talented photographers who exhibit frequently at the gallery, including Arimoto. His beautiful zines, very affordable, are a good way to spend time with his photography.

  • Reply
    Jason Cha
    April 13, 2020 at 3:24 am

    Hey Steven, thanks for sharing this. The workshop looks like it was a great experience for you, shame you had to cut it short. How did you find out about it? I’ve kept my eye out for workshops just like this in Tokyo, but never saw this one with Meg. Am looking for something to push me to look deeper, differently, but they seem kinda rare. Really glad you got to have this experience!

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      April 13, 2020 at 4:01 am

      When I find an artist that I like, I check out their website. If they are offering a workshop, I’ll likely to join if I can.

      When I travel to different cities, I check out artists who live there to see if they are offering a workshop. If they don’t or if they offer workshops but the timing is wrong, I contact them to ask if we can work one-on-one for a day or so. Happy to pay them of course, and it is great to work with someone talented one-on-one.

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