Photographing Jidai Matsuri, Part I: Making Connections



I usually do not take portraits like this of the male participants in Jidai Matsuri. Their faces rarely match their costumes, and I find the details of their armor or robes more interesting from the side or back. This man was one case where I broke my own guideline, partly because I think his face could be the face of a samurai, and partly because I was able to establish a brief connection with him as he rode by me (you can't see it, but he is on a horse).

There can be as many as one hundred thousand people watching Jidai Matsuri, and many of them have some kind of camera. So, how can one photographer establish any kind of a rapport with the festival participants as they walk or ride by? How can you not be just another face in the crowd?

First, I do need to be honest and say that I will often get noticed simply because of my size. I'm 6'2" (189 cm), so I stand at least a head taller than most Japanese. I'm not too difficult to spot. However, most of the time when I'm photographing Jidai Matsuri, I'm squatting, not standing, so I actually appear smaller than most observers. The reason I'm squatting is that people are watching the parade on the opposite side of the street from me. If I don't want them to be in frame, I have to squat down and shoot from a lower angle to keep them out. Also, since I photograph outside the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the trees surrounding the palace are a beautiful out-of-focus green background that fits any historical period.

Second, at events like Jidai Matsuri, I've got a 70 - 200mm Nikkor lens on my camera, and it is much longer than the average consumer-grade zoom. I've actually had people around me "ooh" and "ah" when I take my camera out my bag a few minutes before an event starts just when they see the size of my lens. I can't imagine that happening anywhere else but Japan, and I don't even want to think what Freud would say about it.

So, being tall and having pro-grade gear does help, no question about it, but that's not why I'm often able to make a brief connection with a complete stranger who is passing by me for a few seconds when there are hundreds of people all around me that he or she could be looking at instead.

What's the secret?

I think the secret is stillness. Or focus. Call it concentration, if you like, or just looking like you know what you're doing (and really knowing it). If I have to put words to it (and I'm not sure that I want to), I'd call it "the stillness that comes from really seeing."

All of us have that sixth sense that tells us when we are being watched. You just feel like someone's looking at you, you instinctively turn your head in that direction, and someone is either staring at you or just looking away. We just feel it.

When I'm photographing, all my focus, all my concentration, is on seeing my subject (and the light, the pose, the background...). If you are that focused, that concentrated, you have to be still. You can't be talking or moving or doing anything else. You just have to see. Not look, but see.

Fortunately for me, at Jidai Matsuri or any other big event, most people aren't really focused, even many photographers. They aren't really seeing what's going on in front of them. They're talking to their friend or eating a snack or thinking about something they have to do that evening.

If you are still and really seeing, perceptive people will notice you noticing them, even in a crowd. It's that instinct again, I think. Eye contact is made, something passes between you, a nonverbal exchange where permission is requested and given, and you take the picture. For those few seconds, the person is open to you and reveals something of who they are.

That's what happened with this samurai. I wasn't even planning on photographing him. I was just studying the armor and the way the light was bouncing off it. We made eye contact, he acknowledged me with a slight nod, I raised my camera to my eye and photographed him as he went by.

The whole exchange lasted only a few seconds, but I remember moments like these quite vividly. I know I've made a photograph worth keeping.