Anton Kusters is a badass, a humble and super down to earth badass but really, there is no better kind. To me, he is an anthropologist expressing his research through photography. He was featured in 2011 as well as on our EK Top 100 Artists of 2011, for his epic two year project with the Yakuza and he is back now to give us an exclusive on what was going through his mind in taking on a project of such caliber as well as other projects he’s got cookin’.
Can you give me a brief self-introduction? Who are you and what does photography mean to you?
I guess photography to me is the most recent way I feel I can communicate what’s inside. I feel my abilities to visually express myself are still very crude, and that I have a lot to learn. I hope I get the chance to learn and become more proficient in photography and visual arts… And hopefully there will be many stories inside me to tell. The everlasting journey of always learning and growing as a human being thanks to photography, is for me the key to it all.
In reference to your project Dislocate, can you tell me about the first image that made you feel like a photographer? What is the project about?
Those first images have more to do with the state of mind I was in at that moment, than the actual content of images themselves. More than anything, they depict a mood, they “marked” that moment for me when I felt that I should go for it. The scariest moments always seem to be the ones right before you jump into the unknown.
Dislocate is me looking for my roots. And by extension everybody else’s roots also. Who I am, where I belong. Why I am. What I feel and why I feel it. It forces me to open my eyes and my mind as wide as i can. It makes me not judge others and listen instead; it makes me try to understand. I believe it might even make me a better person. “Dislocate” is my sense of my place in this world, between my fellow human beings. Me feeling uprooted, my incessant looking for where I might belong… Where my land is. As a kid, my family moved around a lot, so much so, that I don’t seem to have the same feeling towards my birth place as many others have. It sets you free but at the same time seems to give you no real home.
Apart from Dislocate, what can you tell us about your background that has influenced your work?
Family, travel, music and books, and close friends around me are all a continuous source of inspiration that never seize to amaze me. Also studying at university was instrumental in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that level of education and that intense social interaction taught me many life lessons as an 18, 19, 20 year old, how to think and how to understand what I am thinking, how to place things in contexts I never knew even existed.
These days, I get influenced a million times a day by things happening around me, to me, with me, without me… making me nervous, happy, sad, pushing me to go ahead, sometimes stopping me in my tracks. Of course at the same time I follow as many fellow photographers, writers, sculptors, painters, and visual artists as I humanly can. They too, influence me, but on a different level. For me, understanding and accepting all these influences is an important thing to be able to learn and grow.
What is Heavens about? What enticed you to do it and how do you plan on executing it?
Heavens is again such a hard project… I honestly don’t know if can describe it adequately just yet… It is about injustice, violence, realizing, burden, memory, all of it.
Heavens is focused on the Holocaust. The story my grandfather once told me when he was still around, about his home being raided during the war by Nazis looking to deport him, started it all. He was incredibly lucky and managed not to get caught that night, but was forced as a teenager to remain in hiding for the rest of the war.
Heavens is in the process right now of being shaped. The current idea is an extremely conceptual photographic one, to go and photograph the heavens above every single Nazi concentration camp that existed in WWII, because I believe that those little pieces of those heavens should belong to the people who suffered and died below there. It is most probably the last thing they saw. Those pieces of heaven should be theirs. The combination of all these heavens into one huge conceptual art installation will be the result of an inner reduction process. I know it’s an artistic break away from my previous work, but I feel at the same time that that thought shouldn’t constrain me.
When I found out that there were approximately 1,634 concentration camps spread out through entire Europe during WWII, Heavens suddenly became catapulted onto a different logistical scale all together. A scale that might even prove to be impossible to achieve.
Heavens now requires much contemplation, more shaping, to do it justice in the best way I can possibly achieve. I hope I will succeed, so that we may never forget.
Tell us about your project with the Yakuza. What were you trying to get from your experience with them and do you feel you achieved your goal?
With the project YAKUZA I tried to understand what it was like to be a Yakuza member, to be one part inside the Japanese society, and one part outside, and the internal struggle that accompanies that position.
I learned that many Yakuza regard “being Yakuza” a way of life more than the violent actions that are attributed to that way of life. They feel that they must instill certain (what we would consider both morally bad and good) values upon the young who join their way of life, and that they have a certain role in Japanese society. While the fact that they often resort to violence in many forms, to me, is a morally wrong thing to do, yet those actions always seemed to be very framed and reasoned within their way of life.
My goal was to understand a little bit more about the Yakuza, and documenting my journey along the way. In that, I feel I have succeeded. On the other hand, in understanding the Yakuza subculture, I feel have only scratched the surface; even after the privileged access for several years, I understand now more than ever that I’ll never understand.
I learned that their world is more shades of grey than I can possibly imagine, as opposed to a simple black vs. white.
What were your initial feelings going into the project? Did those feelings change as the project came to a close?
I guess I mainly learned not to be too nervous 🙂
My main feelings changed very quickly in the beginning of the project, my brother and I kind of expected to be catapulted into a world with violence all over the place, but this quickly proved to be very different, very much more subtle and organized. This did not make it less scary, this unspoken, under the skin tension was present and palpable at all times and made us walk on eggshells literally all the time, constantly having to be aware of our surroundings.
How did the images you captured change during the progression of your two year period? How did your photography skills evolve?
Photographically I learned a lot about low-light photography, as usually everything happened at night in the centre of Tokyo under neon lighting. I’m sure my images and view on my own photography must have changed and evolved during the two years of photographing, but to be honest I don’t know how exactly. It does seem now that I photograph less often, yet in longer bursts when I see something.
During your time with the Yakuza, how did you cope with being witness to situations where you may have been uncomfortable or morally conflicted?
In a way, I felt lucky that I was never part of documenting any outright violence, because I feel that would be morally impossible for me to photograph. Other than that, I tried to keep an as open mind as possible, reminding myselt that I am documenting what I myself feel in those situations. So in a way, the act of making images has been precisely my way of coping with all this.
You are essentially documenting cultural and traditional rituals within an infamous organization that are both ambiguous and speculative to outsiders. Did you feel that you were documenting something momentous as you were taking these images?
I don’t know if “momentous” would be the right word to describe what I felt while I was documenting, as I was completely focused on every situation at that moment. I remember very often feeling lucky to be a privileged onlooker to incredible situations like the covert training camp or the funeral. I always felt that the Yakuza was unique culture/subculture that I was privileged to bear witness to.
Organized crime is an enigmatic culture, the truth behind most of the way they relate or function with each other is largely a mystery to outsiders; did you feel you walked away with a new outlook? How does your experience compare to the pop culture idea of what the mafia is?
I walked away with an initial view of black versus white that had changed into a view of many many shades of gray. As usual, the conclusion is that popular culture simplifies and exaggerates – which, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. What I saw inside the Yakuza was that they’re basically a much more subtle version of what I thought they were, and what I thought they were was of course formed by this very same popular culture.
How would you want your images to affect the way people view organized crime in Japan?
I don’t know if I have a wish in that matter… I do not want to take any political standpoint. I simply wanted to show what I saw, the feelings I had, the underlying tension I felt. I have no presumption to wish to change the way people look at organized crime in Japan, other than offering them my personal experience… as an out-of-place westerner in a closed and foreign subculture.
If you could be so fortunate again and have an “in” with any other group of people in the world, who would it be?
I have always been fascinated by subcultures in general. There are so many to pick from… documenting “la condition humaine”. I would gladly roam the earth doing just that.
If you had to choose between the prevalence of hovercrafts or the invention of time machines which one would you prefer and why?
The invention of time machines is I think a poisoned gift 🙂 … if I think this through it would change literally everything, the very concept of time, of life itself… I don’t think humanity could survive this for one second. Therefore, the only default option is the prevalence of hovercrafts, even though this, at first sight, admittedly seems a little less interesting than a time machine 🙂
Any events, shows or plans you’d like to tell as about? What is in store for the next few months?
working working working… after Yakuza I am now at a blank page on what to do next… an empty canvas… I’m trying to relax my mind, see if Dislocate is really coming back in full force as I think it is, and at the same time shaping Heavens into the shape I feel it should be taken on, photographed, and presented… or maybe a third, hitherto unknown option, will reveal itself to me soon… who knows? Life is exciting, and I’m enjoying it…