Hot Water: An Interview with Patrick Tsai

  • · Posted 93 months Ago
  •  BY Cameron Allan McKean

Some photos trace no human form; you can't see a clear human hand in their making, others plainly reveal their shooter and, when you look at them, you get a sense of being transported to a parallel past or future. You too can hear the "clack" of the shutter as the boy in front of you grins over a bloodstained, bullet-ridden wild boar. Patrick Tsai, a 29-year-old American photographer living in Tokyo, creates the latter.

Patrick's earlier images, an autobiography from his time in rural China which document a growing love affair, were widely featured in magazines, blogs and books. Those images were heady, restless and showed the joy of photographing and being photographed. Now, at Cultivate Gallery, Patrick is a exhibiting a new collection of work and launching his first solo publication of the same name - "Hot Water". Unlike Patrick's previous images, these are quiet and still and transport you to some bittersweet end of summer where can waste away the time on a Japanese island. These images might hover equally between amusement, curiosity and sadness, but Patrick?s presence is deeply rooted in each one.

Patrick and I talked about "Hot Water" over a cheap breakfast in one of Tokyo?s overcrowded family restaurants.

So how would you describe this exhibition? The images are different to your other photos, much quieter.
Last summer I had a lot of time off so I wanted to get away from Tokyo, but I still wanted to shoot something in Japan. I have always liked Japanese photography as well as the aesthetics of the country and people, so I wanted to stay close to that. I decided to go down to the deep south, which is basically blue seas and islands, which is what this series is based on.

When you go to a beautiful, hot place like that, it?s hard to be anything but calm and quiet. What are your strongest memories from this recent trip? 
Since it was a year ago, the trip is not as fresh in my head as it used to be, but setting up this exhibition and making the book has brought back some memories. I think the strongest ones are not so much about the photos, but more about the feelings. Most of the photos were taken on islands. My friend and I decided to buy used Mamachari bikes, the ones for old Japanese ladies, and ride around. What we didn`t know was that the island was rather mountainous, so we ended up having to push our bikes up hill for hours, mountain after mountain. After the first two hours, I thought I couldn?t go on, but after the first day we got used to it and found some kind of pleasure out of this grueling process. Later on in the trip, we met someone who lent us his truck for an afternoon, but riding around in it didn?t seem as fun? It was like riding around in a sterile box. I fell asleep as soon as the car took off. I didn?t feel the experience of experiencing anymore.

Could you tell us about the photo of the dead inushishi (wild boar)?
That was probably the first inushishi that I ever saw. We met three kids, who I thought were native to the island, but actually they were from Osaka, just staying with their grandparents over the summer. Their grandfather, who owns a takoyaki restaurant along the beach, is like a lot of the men on the island who possess various talents? one night he disappeared for a couple of hours, and then came back with a dead inushishi filled with bullet holes in the back of his truck. He hunted it for an upcoming party. Anyway, I didn't get the chance to eat that particular inushishi, but I met another nice man, who also hunts, dives for shell fish and catches and sells habu (the deadly snake indigenous to the island) - actually he?s the man who lent my friend and I the truck which I mentioned earlier- anyway, he cooked us some inushishi behind his house, which, of course, he was in the middle of building all by himself.

You very rarely shoot landscapes without people and people are almost always the central focal point of your images. What is it about people you want to store on film?
People are more interesting than trees or buildings. I always thought that. Basically, I think travel photography tends to be boring. That?s why in the My Little Dead Dick series we didn?t really take photos of the exotic people around us when we traveled to Tibet and Nepal, but focused more on ourselves in these places, I think that?s what made those photos a little different. For "Hot Water", I decided to try boring.

How do you take photos? Not what you use, but how you go about making a photo. Do you search out specific images or do you pick and choose from daily life?
  Well, when you go to some exotic place, taking pictures is easy. Taking photos in your own environment is another, trickier story. All the people who I took photos of for "Hot Water" were all so kind and willing. They didn?t immediately think I was some kind of bad man with perverted intentions like people from the city do. It was a refreshing experience. For this little series, the photos just came to me. My Little Dead Dick was the same.

What images do you like to take most?
The photos I like to take most are somewhat magical things, which aren?t supposed to happen in reality, but they sometimes do, and if I am lucky and can catch one of them correctly, it's perfect. I think I am only able to take that kind of photo about two or three times a year. The photo of the three black cats, which I took on this trip, is an example of that.  

Are young contemporary photographers becoming anonymous? Shooting similar scenes with similar camera's in similar ways; isn't there a risk of becoming nameless?
For a while I thought young photographers were all doing the same thing, so I stopped looking, but then someone contacted me about participating in a projection exhibition called "Stream" last year. I knew some of the people in the show, but the majority I didn?t know. I checked their websites out and they were all so fresh and unique.  So I am glad to say that I was wrong.

Errol Morris and his protege Werner Herzog, were both obsessed with new, undiscovered images. Herzog claimed he would go to the moon to find them. What do you think about obsessing over finding the "new" images, or shooting in "new" ways?
Actually, for a while I was really obsessed about finding a new way to shoot that no one has done before, but eventually I realised that it was like setting yourself up in a trap. Everyone wants to create a ?masterpiece?, but if you start with that much pressure even before you had an idea, you won?t know where to begin. It?s better for it to come naturally. If you think about the Beatles, for example, who are considered one of the greatest bands ever, if you break it down, most of their songs have simple themes, like being in love. That?s nothing new or revolutionary. Their songs are simple, but when you put them back to back, something bigger in scope about their talent, reveals itself. I think that?s a good way to go, starting small.

What do you care about most as a photographer?
I guess finding one?s individual voice or creating a story. When you have your own voice, or style, you can create your own world with your photos. It doesn?t matter if the theme of your project is the same thing as someone else?s. For example, shooting your daily life, which so many photographers have done already.  It?s okay to do that again if it?s told in your own voice. Someone told me when I was studying filmmaking that there are no more new stories to tell ? they have all been told before ? you just have to find new ways to tell them. It sounds a bit depressing, but anyway, when you are actually making something ? something that you really love and believe is your own ? you?ll be too caught up to be worrying about little things like that.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Want more news like this? Receive our daily newsletter:
Follow HUH. on Instagram