Anton Kusters is a Belgium-based photographer specializing in long-term projects. In 2011, he published his first photobook on the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime families, that he photographed for two years.
Tell us about your Yakuza project.
‘YAKUZA is a personal visual account of the life inside an inaccessible subculture: A traditional Japanese crime family that controls the streets of Kabukicho, in the heart of Tokyo, Japan. Through 10 months of negotiations with the Shinseikai, my brother Malik and I became one of the only Westerners ever to be granted this kind of access to the closed world of Japanese organized crime.
‘With a mix of photography, film, writing and graphic design, I try to share not only their complex relationship to Japanese society, but also the personal struggle of being forced to live in two different worlds at the same time; worlds that often have conflicting morals and values. It turns out not to be a simple black versus white relationship, but most definitely one with many, many, many shades of grey.’
How were you granted this rare access and why were you drawn to the Yakuza?
‘We were granted access after negotiating with them for about 10 months. My brother, who lives in Tokyo, and our fixer, Taka-san, led the negotiations as the three of us talked about what my intentions were, the way I wanted to tackle the project, and that what I wanted to create was an art project, not journalistic in any way. After those 10 months, they were sure we could be trusted and agreed to me publishing a photo book, and so we were granted access to photograph them for two years.’
You work primarily on long-term projects. How do you go about conceiving, organizing and executing a long-term project?
‘Pretty much the same as any other project … with the difference that you have to keep a keen eye on expenses along the way and be stricter with your budget as to not let it get out of control.
‘For me, having several long-term projects going on at the same time is like freedom … I can choose which project I feel like doing on any given day, and regularly switch from one to the other without immediate effect on the other. They key is to have more than one long-term project at the same time, and to regularly have short-term projects as well, to keep your mind sharp.’
How does a longer time commitment influence the story being told?
‘I think time makes you understand more, and it gives you the chance to make mistakes and correct them along the way. Because making mistakes is necessary, and accepting them and being able to correct them and move on is important.
‘I’m kind of a slow learner, everything has to seep in, so maybe, in a way, this is me safeguarding myself against my mistakes, and giving me time to understand things better, to the point that I am happy.’
Where do other mediums like writing and film fit into your work? Do they inspire your work?
‘Of course. … As usual all things NOT photography inspire me most: writing, music, film and design are all important things that help me grow in finding a way to use this visual language called photography to express myself.
‘As for me using writing and film, it is about the story I want to tell. Everything and anything that can help me get my point across in the way that I want to get it across is important. If I could draw or paint, I would probably do that too.’
What role does symbolism play in your photography?
‘I hope it plays a large role, but I feel very much like I am at the beginning of learning photography. Yakuza was literally my first large project and book. I already see that more and more with the new projects I am tackling, that what is actually happening in the photograph is less and less important, but that the meaning of it is becoming crucial.
‘In a way, Yakuza was a very difficult project because nobody can look past the real part of it, because they are so mythical and famous.’
Are you currently working on a new long-term project?
Yes, there are three new long-term projects that I am working on.
Heavens takes symbolism in photography to its extreme, to the point where it actually becomes abstract, installation. It will take three years to complete and it involves me trying to conceptualize the weight that the Holocaust had and still has on mankind.
‘With Dislocate, I try to photograph what the cities/places where people that I love live in, mean to me, while struggling to find my own home, my own place.
‘Finally, I am deeply collaborating with a close friend of mine on a project he has recently photographed called a little glow in the dark. I’ll be helping him bring his photographs to life by developing, editing, creating and publishing two books. This last thing is an illustration of the fact that I’m always looking for interesting collaborations with other people.