Adrian Storey is an alien. He’s been traveling the world for the past decade and a half and as raw and uncompromising as his photography is, his words are possibly more-so. Honest about his successes, failings, frustrations, and appreciations, this is an interview to learn from. This isn’t romanticism; this is the truth, brutal, and beautiful:
What inspired you to originally leave England? And why did you head to Asia? After living in Asia for a decade and a half, where is home? How has your concept of home shifted?
I guess what initially inspired me to leave England was the simple realisation that it was just a tiny island off the coast of Europe and that the world was huge and I wanted to see it. I remember seeing the name “Katmandu” in an atlas when I was a child and thinking – I’m gonna go there one day.
I visited France and Germany in my teens but as wonderful as Europe is, in so many ways it felt so familiar, so safe. I wanted Lawrence of Arabia style adventure!
In my early 20’s my best friend and I planned on going to India, then he pulled out of the trip at the last moment so I went alone, in retrospect it was the best thing that he could have done for me, though at the time I was terrified.
That initial trip had to be to India because it seemed like the place that would be the biggest shock to my system, a shake up on a very basic physiological level that I desperately wanted.
I wasn’t wrong.
A series of insane coincidences led me to having a job as the Dali Lama’s sound man on my second day there. It felt like the universe had given me a huge high five for stepping so far out of my comfort zone. It was a lesson that has served me well, if I get over my natural inclination to be lazy and comfortable then the rewards are worth it.
Notions of home are something I think about more and more as I get older. For so long it was just wherever I ‘laid my hat’ to use a cliche, but 10 years in Japan has changed that. I live here, but in no real sense is it or can it ever be my home. Perhaps it’s what I needed, to live in a place where I would never be able to integrate and become part of the society. That and middle age have made me see that despite so many problems England is my only true home.
The other thing that I have come to understand is that I don’t do well if I stay in one place for too long, one of my grandfathers was a merchant seaman who spent long periods away from home travelling the world, I definitely have a healthy dose of his DNA in me. If I stay in one place too long I end up feeling only 80% alive, the only way for it to reach 100% is to get off an airplane somewhere I’ve never been before and just embrace the fear.
Home is now and has probably always been my friends. Walking into a bar in a city on the other side of the world from where I was born, seeing familiar faces and knowing the bar man or woman’s name, it makes me sound like an alcoholic, but that really is something that defines home for me. My friends are the most important thing in my life, I thank a random deity every time I think about all the amazing people I’ve met on my travels who have challenged, educated and supported me.
Tell us about your series Tribal Women, what did you learn through that experience? What was novel about it? What about their culture were you most surprised by in terms of novelty and similarity?
I had gone to visit a friend in Nairobi for a holiday as he had said I could stay at his house – an offer I always jump at.
I had made a few plans of things I wanted to do photographically while I was there but on the first night, my friend who was a photojournalist for the NYT took me out to dinner with some colleagues of his and they basically just laughed at all my ideas. I felt a little deflated but understood that they were right, I had arrived with a set of ideas garnered from the internet that were either unrealistic or had been done to death.
The house where I was staying had an amazing group of people living there (a few years later I went on to be director of photography on a documentary made by some of the people at that house you can see it here:- http://blog.uchujin.co.uk/2015/01/twende-berlin-documentary-watch-full/) and one of them happened to mention they had an Italian friend who was married to a Turkana tribeswoman and she could arrange a visit if I was interested.
A few days and multiple cramped minivan rides north later and I was staying with the Italian guy and his wife in Isiolo in Northern Kenya.
Over the course of the next week I visited Turkana and Samburu villages north of Isiolo and with some tobacco and sugar as bribes I managed to put together the series.
It was a novel experience to be with people who I literally had zero words in common with, they didn’t know one word of English and my Turkana is a little lacking, so there was a lot of picture drawing and gesticulation to try and communicate.
It was also amazing to be in a place where there was zero modern technology – no telephones, no internet cafes. That was kind of a first for me, it felt truly remote. Some of the kids there had never seen a white guy and were terrified of my camera.
The remoteness, the colours of the women’s jewellery and clothes coupled with the sparse landscape and mud huts felt like being in some ridiculous cliche of “Africa” that I’d learnt from National Geographic magazines as a child and the women were surprisingly welcoming (especially after gifts of sugar and tobacco) I remember laughing with them a lot, particularly over my nipple and belly button piercings and my tattoos.
It sounds really obvious now but it was amazing to see just how much common humanity we shared even though we were from such radically different worlds – good food, laughter and love are truly universal desires.
I had hoped to photograph some of the men too but they were either not around or scarily adamant that they didn’t want to be photographed. One day on a long straight road in the middle of nowhere we came across 2 Samburu tribesmen out hunting. They looked incredible and were carrying some very menacing looking spears. We stopped the jeep and my Turkana guide spoke to them and asked if we could take some pictures (for a little sugar and tobacco bribe of course) but they were having none of it and at one point I felt seriously worried about ending up impaled on the end of one of those spears just for asking. The image of them majestically striding of into the brush will stay with me for a long time.
For Let the Poets, were any of the shots posed? The series is described as a commentary on contemporary Japanese society, what about this makes it commentary? What are you saying with the images? Do people sleep in public frequently?
I often get asked if the shots were ever posed. Absolutely NOT! I have only ever published a tiny portion of the shots in that series but in fact people sleeping on the streets is so common that I have hundreds that will eventually become a book. The thing about someone sleeping is that you can take your time with the framing and composition as the subject isn’t moving like in more traditional street photography so I can understand how some of them may look posed.
For me the series is about several aspects of Japanese society that bother me deeply – most prominently the Japanese relation to work and to alcohol.
The Japanese word “karoshi” means death from overwork, a phenomenon so common they needed a word for it!
Japanese work culture has rules that dictate a subordinate mustn’t leave before his/her boss does and that leaving before ones co-workers is seen as a sign of not being fully committed to the job and your team. That coupled with the expectation to work overtime without pay in many companies means that people often work insanely long hours for no extra benefit in productivity.
Many people view their company as their family, so no matter how sick they don’t take days of for fear of letting down the company. It is a relationship that I have trouble understanding.
Japan is also a country with what can only be described as draconian drug laws, cannabis and heroin being regarded equally as “drugs”. No-one in Japan regards alcohol (or tobacco) as a drug, however.
It is common to see frighteningly drunk young people everywhere in the world (I’ve been one myself so no judgement there) but, outside of Japan, far less common to see suited middle-aged business men and women publicly throwing up and passed out drunk to the point of needing hospitalisation. It is also not uncommon to see suited gentlemen on their way to work at 8 am standing outside convenience stores drinking cans of 8% cheap alcohol.
Alcohol is not seen as the potentially harmful drug that it clearly is. This leads to, in my opinion, a flippant attitude to the potentially destructive nature that alcohol can have on physical and mental health.
There is of course the safety aspect which is also almost incomprehensible to a European. These people can just lay down with all their belongings and sleep knowing that everything will be there when they wake up. On the surface that seems like an incredibly positive thing and in many ways it is a testament to one of the aspects of Japan that has kept me here so long – the safety. However the “group think” mentality that allows for this safety to me seems too high a price to pay.
The series for me has always been about the intersection of these factors and the effect they have on the psyche and physical health of the people who live with those pressures.
It’s worth noting that all the pictures in this series (any many in the “No Ghost In The Machine” series) have very specific titles that were carefully chosen to make even more explicit my intentions with the pictures.
Why would you rather be an ‘alien’ than an ‘outsider’? What are the nuances inherent to those two words that you find important? Have you returned to England much in the past 15 years? What has become alien to you? Where do you feel that you fit in? What have you learned about belonging?
For me the distinction is a semantic one.
‘Alien’ in the sense of ‘a creature from another world’ – being perceived this way by say, a street kid in Kolkata or a resident of a huge Kenyan slum seems to me to be closest to the true nature of those relationships.
‘Outsider’ on the other hand in the sense of ‘a person who does not belong to or is not accepted as part of a particular group’, the way I feel perceived and indeed the way I perceive my relationship with Japanese society feels much more exclusionary, the negative connotations are much more pronounced.
The word Japanese people use for non-Japanese seems to me to bear a far closer semantic relationship with “outsider” than it does with “foreigner”, it is this sense of not belonging or not being accepted – a conscious exclusion, that I find most difficult.
I have visited England fairly regularly in the past 15 years, sometimes only briefly and sometimes for a month or more, mostly to visit my Father who as well as being a far better man than I will ever be is one of the greatest influences in my life. I miss many things about England at this point – granary bread, mature English cheddar and the drastically more gender balanced aspects of male/female interactions to name a few.
What seems alien to me now about England are many of the things that have always felt alien, many of which have become far worse in my time away. Wealth inequalities and violent racism to name but two. Seriously? There are food banks for the working poor? WTF?
I don’t necessarily feel like I fit in in the UK too well, but at least I can get on a bus without feeling like all the eyes are on me. I am fully aware that racism is a problem everywhere and in some very real sense the racism I experience in Japan is a kind of soft racism – no one is going to beat me up for being white (although I have experienced situations that could have gone that way and heard from personal acquaintances stories of violent attacks that were accompanied by unequivocally racist language). The selfish thing now is that I want to live in place where the racism isn’t aimed at me, it’s just too tiring.
Belonging to me is about the people you surround yourself with. It’s not about location – you can always find good people everywhere if you put yourself out into the world honestly.
It’s not about a shared view of the world, always being agreed with, it is an ability to accept a wide variety of points of view and learn from them – obviously within certain boundaries, there are some people whose views are so far out of line with mine as to be abhorrent but in my experience even with those people there is a shared humanity that is undeniable. I’ve learned that the most important things if you want that sense of belonging are to be 100% yourself with no filters and to know and accept when you are wrong about something.
What is the most powerful image for you in No Ghost In The Machine? What was the moment that most caught you off guard? The woman throwing up blood is particularly visceral, it is the most close to someone suffering, how do you react to human suffering? As a photographer, how do you feel when as a viewer of suffering? Do you feel drawn to enter the frame, to help people that you see in these states?
The “Let the poets” series was always about trying to understand with some compassion something about living in Japan, The “No Ghost in the machine” series on the other hand is to be honest a vitriolic attack that grew out of a deep frustration with Japanese society. So many of the people here (Japanese, foreign residents, and visitors alike) are what I like to call the “rose tinted glasses brigade”, they argue that Japan is some sort of Hello Kitty wonderland populated by homogeneously shy, polite, law abiding anime characters. They completely ignore and refuse to accept any critique of the negative elements that are staring them in the face. I don’t think Japan is any better or worse in terms of it’s issues than anywhere else but I do feel strongly that the Japanese denial of those problems and the cultural inability to engage in discussion about them is very damaging.
The most powerful image for me is the guy in the Nazi uniform. (background here:- http://blog.uchujin.co.uk/2008/12/i-wear-black-on-the-outside/)
I have been accused of cultural imperialism for ranting about that photo and another one on my blog of a girl in an SS hat (http://blog.uchujin.co.uk/2012/03/nice-hat-bitch/).
The whole “it doesn’t mean the same in Asia” argument is frankly incredibly offensive to me. Virtually no-one in the modern world has any excuse for not knowing at least the very bare minimum of facts about the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s. I grew up on the other side of the world and yet I was aware in my teens of The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and other “Asian” atrocities that had ‘nothing’ to do with me in England. Nazi iconography is to me the single most offensive thing I can imagine and to wear it with either no understanding of what it represents or a full understanding but still thinking it’s acceptable is inexcusable. Every time I come across these people in Japan (and there have been far too numerous occasions) it always catches me completely off guard, it is always a struggle to retain composure for long enough to get a shot and not just launch into a full scale verbal assault on the idiotic person who thinks it’s ok.
With regards to the woman throwing up image, it is not in fact blood but red wine or possibly sangria, it was taken at Christmas time some years ago and I have multiple images of different people in similar states ejecting similar coloured liquids.
If it had in fact been blood I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have taken the photo but tried to help her. Despite my professed misanthropy I find other peoples suffering very difficult to deal with. I could never be a war photographer for example, though I think the work of those photographers is incredibly valuable and their work needs to be made and seen. Despite what I may claim in moments of bravado I know I couldn’t do it.
After the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in Tohoku, Japan it seemed like every photographer in the world was there (often as a sort of parachute journalism – an issue with its own dubious morals). I was asked to go by several publications from outside Japan but couldn’t bring myself too, it felt like voyeurism, a kind of disaster tourism and to be honest I didn’t really want to see the extent of the devastation and suffering first hand because I knew I wouldn’t be able to work effectively as a documentary photographer because the urge to step into the frame and try to help would be too great.
The first time I went to India the shocking poverty had a similar effect. Seeing deformed children dressed in rags begging for money was just too much.
What was your experience like with the Kibera Olympic Boxing Team? What assumptions did you have going into that experience? How were they affirmed or contradicted? What was their training regimen like?
The Kibera Olympic boxing team were an incredible, inspiring bunch of guys. I feel pretty humbled having had the chance to hang out with them.
I didn’t really have any assumptions about the team before I went but I was really nervous about being deep in Kibera by myself with my camera equipment.
On the first day I went to meet them, Hassan, the coach, met me at the edge of Kibera and we walked to the practice ground, he seemed to know everyone along the way and they all seemed to have a lot of respect for him.
On the second day I was waiting at the same spot and the sun was going down, I was starting to get jumpy as I had been warned by multiple people not to be in Kibera after dark. As I was waiting a group of teenagers approached me and I was literally shaking, but as they got close a couple of them started to feign boxing with me and laughing – they all knew why I was there and who I was going to meet, it put me completely at ease.
Hassan told me that I would be safe whenever I was there and I believed him. Everyday after practice one or more of them would make a point of waiting with me till my taxi arrived.
Over the course of about 2 weeks I went to the training ground almost everyday and developed a certain level of trust with many of the boxers. The most shocking thing was on the last day all of them asking me for my Facebook account details, it certainly confounded my expectations of what their lives were like but in a good way.
It was humbling to watch these young guys who had almost nothing but had such dedication. They were rightfully proud that they had chosen boxing instead of the multiple less productive avenues they could have gone down given their situation.
Their training was hardcore, my particular favourite was the stomach training exercise in which they lay down on the ground as the other boxers walked across their stomachs. They were all incredibly fit and didn’t let up at all during the 2 hour training sessions.
On the last day after much good natured teasing I stupidly agreed to spar with one of them, inevitably it ended after one punch with me sprawled in the dirt and everyone laughing their asses off.
Besides art, what are you passionate about? How has your travel and environment affected your passions?
I’m incredibly passionate about politics, particularly racial and gender issues.
It’s probably no surprise for me to say I’m firmly on the left of the political spectrum. I follow closely the politics of any country I’m in and always try to keep up with the political issues and situation in the UK.
Issues surrounding privacy, especially those brought to the mass consciousness by Edward Snowden are also something I take very seriously. I think the two defining dystopian views of our time are George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, two books I love. I think where Orwell got it wrong and Huxley got it right, however, are that in the age of Facebook and other online “free” services in which we and our information are the product, it seems clear the the vast majority of people will happily give up their privacy in exchange for shiny things without the need for states to come in and beat it out of them. Although certain states do seem to rather like that approach too.
The “if you haven’t got anything to hide, why do you care” argument has me banging my head against a wall in disbelief at people’s stupidity. Humans are pathetically weak (I include myself in this) in the face of new toys.
On a lighter note, I love all kinds of music.
In the dim and distant past I was a musician and recording studio engineer and that exposed me to a lot of different kinds of music that were not necessarily things I liked but it really drove me to explore.
I was also exposed to a lot of really cool music growing up which I deeply appreciate. My father saw Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in concert in the late 60’s and introduced me to such wonders as Van Morrison. My mother loved the Carpenters and even now when I hear the voice of Karen Carpenter I’m transported back to an English Kitchen on a Sunday and the smell of Sunday lunch being prepared.
Now in the space of one day I can listen to Ravi Shankar, The Smashing Pumpkins, Bright Eyes, Arvo Part, The Apex Twin, Gregorian Chanting and Abba 🙂
Travel and my environment haven’t exactly affected my passions – they ARE my passions.
I am a total neophyte, I constantly crave the new, whether that’s a new place, a new experience or a new piece of software to learn. I feel like I’m going crazy if I’m not constantly learning something or creating something. I hope that feeling never goes away as it drives me constantly forward.