I fell in love with photography when I did a black and white photography workshop on my Art Foundation course in Visual Arts, specialising in Ceramics and Graphic Design, at Camberwell College of Arts. I still remember the excitement of seeing the images come up onto photo paper in the darkroom! But I did not think I could ever become a professional photographer myself. I thought it was too technical and too big a dream for me. I thought I would possibly become a ceramic and product designer or a potter.
Ceramics was the subject I was mainly interested in at college but the course allowed me to do two subjects at the same time, so I studied graphic design as well, mostly to gain the access to their darkroom. I did some black and white photography on my own during those three years every now and then, but with the little access and the small budget I had, I could not do a great deal. After my graduation, I wanted to stay in London and start assisting photographers but had to go back home for various reasons.
In my second year at college in London I came across some old copies of Food Illustrated magazines in the East Street market second hand book stall (which I bought for 20 pence per copy and looked through many, many times for many years thereafter). I was so stunned by the concept of the magazines and images I saw in them – they were so beautiful and inspiring! I couldn’t believe there were people making such things for a living.
I was always obsessed with food and passionate about cooking and eating, having grown up in a family who loves good food. We always sat and ate breakfast and dinner together, always with lively conversations amongst the four of us, as my parents valued the importance of proper, home-cooked food and the daily ritual of dining. They taught me the joy and wonder of eating and dining together, with family or friends.
Throughout my college years my interest was food. All my projects were somehow related to the subject. I was reading more cookbooks and books about food culture than art books and I cooked a lot for myself and friends. I knew I wanted to do something that involved food, ceramics (both presentation and styling), design, travel and photography. I started thinking about food photography – it had everything I was interested in and passionate about. It seemed more than perfect for me.
Initially I got a job at one of the most traditional Japanese companies, Mitsubishi, and worked for the Space Development (satellite) team for the first year. The job had absolutely no connection whatsoever to my interest or education but I needed a job to save up money in order to come back to London and it gave me a great experience in many ways. During that year, I also started working with some artists and creative people I met locally. I was doing some art workshops, cooking and catering for events, running a pop-up cafe, taking pictures, graphic design and writing.
It enabled me to get some photography commissions for lifestyle magazines and a cookbook so I resigned from my ‘proper’ job after only a year and become a freelancer in Tokyo for a year.
I think the most challenging part of my career was when I came back to London as a photographic assistant after two years of being back at home in Japan. I literally came back to London with a suitcase and an SLR camera. I only knew one photographer to contact. Even that was more like work experience so I had to go out and introduce myself as an assistant to the rest of the industry somehow. As a foreigner and an inexperienced assistant, I did feel pretty small and powerless. It was very scary. And all the technical talk in English was not easy in the beginning either. It took time to get regular work but over time I managed to get enough contacts and luckily worked for many, many talented photographers, not only in food but also in interiors, portraits, reportage and advertising.
Most of the photography knowledge I have now was gained through my own experiences and experimenting as well as five years of freelance assisting in London. I am actually glad I studied art rather than photography at college.
Living as an assistant meant I had to live frugally but that was no problem, as after four years of being a poor art student here I knew how to survive on a small budget. There is always something fun you can do in London even if you don’t have much money. The hard-earned money from the year of office work back in Japan helped me a great deal in the beginning of my career.
After two years of assisting I started working for a couple of Japanese food magazines in London, so I was always doing both assisting and shooting.
The first time I shot for Food Illustrated magazine was a special moment in my career and it meant a great deal to me. I felt I had achieved a big goal.
I seem to enjoy almost every shoot I do and I am blessed with my lovely clients and people I work with. A day normally starts with a coffee or tea and sometimes even a breakfast. Once props are unpacked, we talk through shoot order, discuss the props and the idea for the shoot with the food stylist, prop stylist, editor, client, art director, or designer, whoever is involved on the day’s shoot. I believe in collaboration and want to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas before I start imagining the atmosphere and feel of the story in my head. Ideally this process starts before the actual shoot day.
When I was shooting more on film, I used to use different films and processing methods according to each story so I needed to know what we were doing beforehand. I am a very “analog-inclined” person and I love shooting films. Digital has got many great advantages but I still prefer film. I love the way we work on a film shoot and the result is magical. It’s becoming rarer and rarer but I still shoot on film whenever I can and I have one lovely book project coming up soon for which I will shoot on negatives and get everything hand-printed. A dream job!
There are some food writers, chefs and food producers I respect and love and it would be wonderful to have an opportunity to work for them all. I won’t mention the names though, as there are far too many! I have also been doing many non-foodie jobs such as interiors, travel, lifestyle and portrait photography. I have always been very interested in design and interiors and actually assisted one of the best interior photographers in this country for many years. I would love to broaden my career into the world of interiors. Food is, and always will be, my biggest passion but I love a good mix of different projects and they all fall under the big category of ‘lifestyle photography’ which is what I believe I do.
Filming is also an area I would like to develop further in the future. I always loved films and recently got commissioned to makes a series of cooking videos – my very first films! It was very exciting and interesting, I learnt so much from the experience. I could see myself directing foody videos and beyond – I would definitely love to get into that area.
As much as there are many food and lifestyle photographers I admire, I tend to get more inspiration from other worlds. All the great photo journalists like Robert Capa got me interested me in photography. I love the still life of Wolfgang Tillmans and the imagination and the execution of Tim Walker. But most of all, in every single aspect, I find the work of Sarah Moon hugely inspirational.
I have been living in London for more than twelve years all together and consider this city as my home now. Having said that, I miss Japan from time to time and definitely miss my parents and my sister very much. I wish it was much easier to go home so I could just go for a quick visit for a weekend and not only once a year. I live in a converted warehouse where I shoot from, with my partner Simon who is a product-interior designer. We live in Peckham and love it here – I am a real South Londoner and always have been.
I get more excited in food shops than clothes shops. I love discovering new places so I am always on a hunt. We go to the Brockley Farmers market almost every Saturday for our weekly shopping. It is a fantastic market with a great atmosphere and lovely people. I am quite fussy about coffee and do have a coffee map of London in my head. Cooking is my passion and obsession and if I had time, I could easily spend all day in kitchen. I love baking and could get bit geeky about it too. Unfortunately, where we live now has no outdoor space so we only have some herb pots on a window sill. I would love so much to have a garden and grow some vegetables, herbs and flowers again. We have looked around our local allotments but the waiting list is very, very long indeed.
If I had to give advice to anyone interested in entering this profession, I would advise them that it may well take a while in the beginning but if you really want it, I believe you can make it happen. Work hard – harder than others, be patient, have enthusiasm and respect others. But be prepared to work hard over long hours. If you think you are interested in photography just because it sounds fun or cool, you might be looking at the wrong industry!
Yuki Sugiura: www.yukisugiura.com