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How Documenting Tokyo Nightlife Shaped Instructor Kaz Senju's Approach to Digital Photography

February 17, 2021

Kaz Senju

From Japan to Russia, photography instructor Kaz Senju’s evocative images have connected with people around the world. While launching his new Digital Photography certificate for aspiring photographers, Senju spoke about the importance of building a narrative, photography in the pandemic era, and creating your own community.

Senju worked in Information Technology for several years before earning a BFA in Photography from Parsons. “Parsons opened up the photography part of my life,” he said. A teaching assistant at Parsons helped Senju land an internship as a studio assistant for his photography idol Vik Muniz. “Because of 20+ years of working in the computer industry, my photography is more systematical.” Senju said. “Technical and visual elements are the first stage to bring people in, but then there’s the story.”

After completing an MFA at the International Center of Photography, Senju traveled back to Japan to spend time with family. He quickly became drawn to the nightlife LGBT scene in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The culture seemed like a new, foreign world to him compared to what he experienced growing up.

Kaz Senju

Kaz Senju spent three years documenting the LGBT scene in Tokyo.

“The bar scene in Tokyo is really different now. The vibe is more like a walk-in closet.” Senju spent three years documenting the clientele and staff in the 45 gay and lesbian bars in the Shinjuku district, as his personal style evolved from systematic to free-form.

“I’m half-drunk and keep taking pictures, and people started recognizing me as that weird photographer,” Senju joked. “The story part got bigger and bigger for me.”

He wanted to share a wider view of LGBT life that wasn’t portrayed in the mainstream Japanese media. The result was a two-volume book of photos called Shinjuku Story.

“What I was able to publish was just a window into the nighttime of Tokyo,” Senju said, adding that many bar owners (or “mamas”) still preferred to remain anonymous. “I met a variety of people there and it opened up my eyes on what the possibilities are.”

Kaz Senju

Find more of Kaz Senju's photos on http://www.kazsenju.com/.

Senju encourages photography students to think of the story they are trying to tell when they are behind the camera.

“There’s a great value in not just taking a picture, but explaining your intention,” he said. “Shutter speed, composing a frame – these are tools inside of your toolbox. My goal is to provide all these tools in six weeks so that each student leaves the class with the intention of building a visual narrative.”

As courses moved online during the pandemic, Senju tapped into his I.T. knowledge to bring the same quality of instruction over Zoom. He gives students tips on creating better photos using limited resources, such as using reading lamps in their apartments to experiment with lighting or printing photos on cheap poster paper.

Kaz Senju

Using his past experience in I.T., Kaz Senju found creative methods to teach photography online.

“Start simple – you don’t need an expensive digital camera to take this class,” he said. “Don’t let the camera decide everything for you. This class is about breaking that down so that you have control. Be in charge of how you want to create narrative and start small. Once you understand what’s happening, you can scale up.”

Despite the pandemic, Senju said this could be an exciting time to build a name as a photographer.

“We saw a rapid decline in photography as an industry. It evaporated in one sense because there was less and less printed media. That part of the window closed but the other part opened up,” he said. “There’s a beauty in the film and the camera but it never gave us the instantaneous result. We see what we are doing in our palm and we can share that with our audience like never before.”

Senju also encourages students to network with their classmates even if they can’t meet in person.

“The photography community is tiny compared to fine art. You start to know everyone. Between the social media platforms and the real-time communication, we’ll actually be able to stay in touch,” he said. “Parsons is a great example – your classmates become some of your best resources.”

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