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.