On Being a Photographer and Walking the Kisoji

While walking the Kiso-ji, central Japan. A Honda dealership, a mobile phone tower, and some derelict barns. The snow-covered Chuo Alps in the distance.

I prefer scenes like the one above over touristy photos. This is what most of the Kiso-ji looks like.

I’ve been thinking about my past walks along the Kiso-ji recently and how despite walking numerous times over the course of a year never really felt satisfied with what I was doing and photographing. There just wasn’t enough substance. I made myself a Blurb book but it didn’t excite me. It has potential – of course it does – but it needs a lot more work.

It needs to be authentic. Photographing what you think is expected of you is foolish. Touristy images never work for me. In fact touristy destinations no longer work either. The authenticity of these places disappeared decades ago.

Walking as a purpose in itself is perfectly fine but if you’re trying to go deeper, learn more about yourself and the world, and see things from a new perspective – walking instead of driving, cycling, or catching the train – then there needs to be a more in-depth plan in place before starting. Simply walking, from a photography perspective just doesn’t cut it. It was more like scouting than photographing.

I realised this recently while re-reading David Hurn and Bill Jay’s excellent book, On Being a Photographer, which I first came across in 2010 or thereabouts. Hurn clearly defines the steps needed to come up with a solid project and over the past few years I’ve been guilty of not heeding his advice. Advice which is simple, straightforward, and indispensable for living with a camera in hand.

Craig Mod executed this perfectly when he walked the Kiso-ji (and Nakasendō) and produced the wonderful book, Kissa by Kissa.

These are the questions Hurn recommend you ask yourself before you start any photography project:

  • Is it visual?
  • Is it practical?
  • Is it a subject about which I know enough?
  • Is it interesting to others?

So answering these for myself regarding walking the Kiso-ji.

  • Is it visual? It can be if you have done research and find yourself in the right place at the right time.
  • Is it practical? It’s fairly accessible so long as I have the time. Juggling family and work life is the main issue.
  • Is it a subject about which I know enough? No.
  • Is it interesting to others? The Kiso-ji seems to be a popular destination within Japan and well-known amongst foreign tourists. The problem is that most people only visit Magome and Tsumago which are overrun with tourists and lost their authenticity decades ago.

I often find myself fluttering about between photography genres, dipping my toes in all kinds, but if truth be told I find it exhausting. I need more focus and drive towards one particular subject.

Simply put, more depth and more authenticity.

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