Photographers on photography: Q&A with Anton Kusters on his Japanese gangster “Yakuza” photo project


posted Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 5:08 PM EST

©Anton Custers

About a month ago, we read an interview with photographer Anton Kusters in Steward Magazine describing his Yakuza project, which documented the life of Japanese gangsters in photos.

While it was an interesting interview that featured Kusters' powerful photos of the yakuza, we felt there was more to the story and reached out to him with additional questions about the project.

Below is a Q&A we conducted with Kusters via email along with images from the Yakuza project that were not featured in the Steward Magazine story. (To find out more about the project and to purchase the second edition of his Yakuza book, click here.)


IR: Give us a rundown of the gear you used for this project and why you decided to use it.

Kusters: I choose my gear based on the project and the specific situations it calls for. I have no personal connection to any camera brand or type in that regard, and when I move to a next project and it calls for a completely different setup, I will sell everything and make that completely different setup happen as much as possible.

For the project Yakuza, I had to cater to the specific conditions of shooting in Tokyo, shooting that sensitive subject, long nights and small spaces, and dark quiet situations.

This is what the result is of those conditions, this is my tech setup:

- a pack of paper handkerchiefs, a lens cloth
- any random plastic bag
- a woolen cap, a super lightweight raincoat
- a “pocket communicator”: crucial for situations when you don’t speak the local language and need help
- my passport and credit card and other necessary travel/ID docs
- extra batteries
- flash (Leica SF-24D) with band-aid on the head for softer skin tones and -2 stop by default.
- secondary camera (compact camera set up as rangefinder): Panasonic Lumix LX3 with optical finder
- main camera (rangefinder) with just one lens: Leica M9 with Summilux 35mm f/1.4 asph.
- pens & pencils, markers, little notebook
- memory cards (usually Lexar)
- audio recorder (Roland Edirol R-09HR)
- super dooper business cards with images of my work (extremely important in Japan)
- mini tripod
- Crumpler "the Horseman" bag, with added whitelabel padded inserts

Money and phone are usually not in my bag.

There are some specific realities to shooting in a metropolis like Tokyo, all of which obviously affect my setup: if anything breaks, I can usually have it fixed it within hours, or event rent or buy new equipment; that’s why I have no no need for more than one main camera/lens combination.

The bag is of course crucial: this particular bag is the lightest one around (I have to be able to carry it for a long long time), completely waterproof when closed, is low key black, has very easy inside pockets, a cross strap, and room enough for my gear sitting in padded inserts.

©Anton Kusters

IR: Most of the images are in very low light situations and because of the discreet nature of the project, I'm assuming that using flash was probably a no-no. How were you able to meet these difficult lighting challenges to capture such revealing photos?

Kusters: I found that the combination of the f/1.4 lens and a rangefinder did the trick for me. The rangefinder made me able to focus in very dark conditions (because of the brightness of the finder), the small but heavy body made handheld to 1/8th of a second possible, and that combination with the f/1.4 lens seldom made me need more than ISO 640.

I do realize that I was working with a very thin margin here, f/1.4 and a mininum shutter speed of 1/8th in very dark conditions don't make up for too many options. But being so limited actually set me free more than I could imagine. I always knew what my camera would do, I always knew and could anticipate the boundaries.

©Anton Kusters

IR: Can you describe your process for creating these images? In the interview in Steward Magazine, you said you were nervous and overly careful at first, which upset the gang. They saw it as disrespectful. How did you adjust?

Kusters: I adjusted simply by stopping to be nervous. And I started just being myself, like I would be shooting in any normal situation, only adjusting myself to the specifics of Japanese culture. I would "assert" myself more often and if I saw (and wanted to catch) a certain image of a scene happening in front of me, I would go after it instead of potentially holding back.

©Anton Kusters

IR: What strikes me about the images is that they make the gangsters seem both like corporate executives and, because of their large entourages, celebrities. Is that the persona they project in real life? I'm wondering if, at times, you saw yourself both as a photojournalist and as a type of paparazzi while shooting these images.

Kusters: No, not at all really. It's important to know that this is not at all a photojournalistic project. It is a documentary art project, in which I show, without opinion or expertise on the subject, what I myself experienced being allowed to photograph the Yakuza. This project is as much about my own fears and way of dealing with those, as about the Yakuza. I've personally never done any research on the Yakuza, and feel I am not in a position to judge them. They know I abhor violence in every way, and that I, as a person, do not agree with or condone their way of life. But all this has nothing to do with the photographic project: the fact that I try to document what I see and feel in extraordinary circumstances.

The Yakuza are certainly not celebrities, and do not wish to project that. If anything, they would as much as possible stay "understated," under the radar as much as possible, without hiding. Their "entourage" are their bodyguards and lower in rank members of the family. They would walk the streets to show their power, to show that they control the streets, a display which has a very different undertone. They do not seek, or enjoy, attention like a celebrity would. Instead they exude an air of control with a distinct undertone of violence.

©Anton Kusters

IR: What was the most difficult thing about this project?

Kusters: Learning to behave the Japanese way, the subtleties of which I think I never will be able to master.

IR: What did you find most surprising about it?

Kusters: The most surprising thing to me was how much they would not use actual violence, but use the undertone of tension in the air to get their deals done. It seems like the very real possibility of violence is more often than not a much more powerful persuader than violence itself.

IR: Tell us about the book that goes with this project. How many images did you shoot overall and how did you end up narrowing them down? Were there some technical challenges to printing these photos?

Kusters: I have a very low ratio of good images. Over the two years, I think I shot approximately 20,000 images, of which I deemed 300 acceptable for publication. Those 300 I then narrowed down to 92 images for the book. Sometimes it's frustrating to know that this ratio is very low, but I have learned to accept that and adapt my workflow to it. I guess I could say that I am a long term photographer because I need a lot of time :-)

Editing for a book almost always happens the same way: I print the images and hang them up on a wall, and start moving around, growing into the book, swapping, adding, deleting, making layout samples. Eventually all will settle down in a sequence and layout that you can only describe as "natural" and "of course." But I know this can not happen right away. It takes tremendous effort to get to the point of synthesizing your two-year story in just 92 images without losing too much of the power of the story along the way.

I have worked at a printer before so I know the specific demands for printing images on a press, choosing the right paper, ink and binding, etc. In this particular case it was challenging to prevent the images from bleeding too much into black, but with the right choice of paper and a master printer watching carefully along the way, I'm extremely pleased with the result.

(A big thank you to Anton Kusters for taking the time to be interviewed and for allowing us to post his photos. You can purchase the second edition of his Yakuza book here. To see more of Kusters' work, please visit his website: