I first heard about Patrick Tsai through my colleague, Mindy Alberto, who is a designer in Lomography. He maintains three websites, but it’s his third project, Like Beer For Kids, that he regularly updates. It’s an ongoing 100-day project that is set to end as he says goodbye to his twenties. I asked Mindy what his photography style is; he answered: “My photographs are more like a self portrait. A way to communicate my feelings and weird thoughts since I have a bit of a trouble expressing myself vocally.”
At work, we usually talk about our favorite photographers and share what we find inspiring. I remember that Mindy has mentioned Patrick Tsai quite a few times, especially recently, since he ordered Patrick’s latest photo book, Barnacle Island. I thought it would be a good opportunity to feature Patrick and have Mindy prepare the questions.
When asked about what he likes about Patrick’s work, Mindy said that most of the photographers these days focus more on looking for the “big picture” of things and the decisive moment. “Patrick Tsai, on the other hand, interestingly and honestly tackles what people are missing out because they are so focused on the big picture. I think it is important as a human being to question what’s in front of you, rather than looking away ahead where everyone else is going.”
What was the “aha” moment for you, when you knew you wanted to focus on photography?
I’ve been doing photography since I was real young, but I didn’t take it seriously until I moved to Taiwan after I graduated from film school. But then it was still just a “passion” and not a career. Many years later, when I moved to Japan, even though I was kind of known by then for my photography work, I still had to teach English for money and a visa. Eventually when the earthquake happened in 2011 and the whole country was temporarily in chaos, I coincidentally lost my job as well. Both factors forced me to reexamine my life as well as my priorities. It was then that I realized that I only had been putting half of my potential into what I really wanted to do, so I gave up on the idea of finding another job to pay the bills, and decided to try to make a living doing photography. Of course, I soon became really broke, but it was also one of the most challenging and enlightening times in my life as well.
Can you describe your photographic style?
In Japanese, there is a term called “heta-uma,” which translates “bad but good.” I’ve never been very good at technical things, nor interested to learn them, so you could say, from a technical viewpoint, that my work is not very professional. I have come to accept this weakness of mine and use it as my strength. My weakness is part of my style.
What is your take on working on a single image versus a series? What makes a photo essay/series effective?
My first big project called “My Little Dead Dick," which was my co-online photo diary with photographer Madi Ju, got a lot of attention back in the day. Besides the photographs themselves and how we took advantage of the internet at that time, I believe it was the editing, which created a narrative about our love story that moved people (thanks to my film school days). After that project was finished and I eventually moved to Japan, I tried to focus on taking this so called single image like most people. But later when I was invited to do an exhibition, I put up all my best photographs together with no rhyme or reason except that they looked great and immediately I realized that the show was a failure. There was no meat, or substance, to anything. They were just nice photos, which you could consume in a split second and then move on. There was not much room for interpretation, except to think, “Oh, that’s nice.” or “Oh, I like that.” That for me was the moment I gave up chasing the single image.
Now I only make projects instead of “photographs”.
Can you tell us what Barnacle Island is about?
Well first, I have to explain the background. “My Little Dead Dick”, which I just mentioned before, was my first online photo diary. It was the project, which defined my style of using photography to tell a narrative about my life, that I hoped other people could relate to or at least get them inspired. When the great earthquake hit Japan, I started my second online diary called “Talking Barnacles” with a new approach by using writing as well. The text was just as important as the photographs. They both could stand alone from one another because they told short stories in their own special ways. But when they are all consumed chronologically like how it is intended to be read, you begin to realize that the text and photos are just little pieces of a bigger puzzle, forming one epic narrative. What’s interesting is that these photographs were probably the best photographs that I have ever taken (and probably will ever take), but surprisingly the people, who followed this online blog day after day, kept saying that it was actually the text that kept drawing them back. Anyway what I wrote and shot was not about the disaster that everyone in Japan and foreign news were so busy covering, but the small things about daily life that changed or grew stronger in the wake of the quake.
Now about “Barnacle Island”… It is the third installment to my photo diary series about rescuing an abandoned dog on the beach and immediately afterward moving to a remote island in Japan. It documents our lives together in this strange, but wonderful place, which we call home. The project also originally started as an online photo diary in a similar format to “Talking Barnacles,” but I was forced to stop halfway because of my writing (I won’t get into why), so I had to figure out another way to release it without getting into trouble. Hence, the photo book. Making a photo book is an art in itself, so I enjoyed this new challenge of recreating this project. Because my work is not very flashy, hip, or marketable, no one would publish it in Japan, so I released it myself.
What convinced you to move from Tokyo to a small island? How does living in the island impact your creativity?
Ironically, after living in Tokyo for 7 years, I found it too confining physically and mentally. I wanted to try living in the countryside and see what it would inspire.
Living in the countryside is interesting because no one here really cares about art, so it is refreshing. You are free of the art world, trends, etc. that normally clutter and consume your thoughts, but in a way you are utterly alone. Without the conveniences of the big city, everyone here works hard, like planting vegetables, fishing, doing their day jobs, etc., all day and night to get by. It’s a waste of time to be doing something as unproductive as art in their eyes. When everyone around you feels that way, it’s easy to lose confidence in the importance of what you are doing.
But there is also a lot to learn about life and living here as well that you can’t get in the city. My job as an artist, I believe, is to keep finding ways to grow as a human being, and then translate what I have learned into my art.
You’re a very prolific photographer in terms of time and materials you put into your projects. Can you tell us your daily routine as a photographer?
Because most of my work is about my life, I try not to live like a photographer. I wake up, go swimming in the ocean, walk my dog, go to work, go home, and make curry.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self to do differently?
Tons of things, but I would still probably end up making the same mistakes.
What advice would you give to a photographer who is just starting out?
Stay raw for as long as you can (I’m not referring to the digital file). A famous Japanese illustrator, who I love and is also “heta-uma," said, “Being a pro is extremely dangerous.” I totally agree. When you are young and starting out, you have all this rough energy pulsating from you. Like a wild horse, you want to master and tame this beast inside you, so you try to get better. With time and experience, you’ll eventually master and tame it, which in a way defeats the reason why it was so special in the first place. Your original talent gets hammered down and smoothed out the more you learn about your craft since you are basically learning the same things that everyone else has learned, which means you become less YOU and more like everyone else. Ironically, the heroes that you look up to are probably jealous of you because the hardest things for professional artists is to stay fresh, and especially passionate, about their trade after doing the same thing year after year after year. So that’s what I mean by staying raw. Find a way to nurture who you really are and not who you think you should become.
The other advice I would give would be to read “Talking Barnacles” because all the wisdom that I had accumulated during my thirty years of living was put into that. Basically it is about how to fight the good fight, being a forever underdog, and learning how to love things, people, and everything when things are not going your way. I still get letters from strangers from time to time, saying that the project had changed their lives, which is still hard for me to believe, but that is the power of a good story, I guess.
Interview by Mindy Alberto.