Oriana Koren is a documentary-minded wedding and commercial photographer based in Chicago. In 2008, she spent 5 months living with a host family in Koshigaya, Saitama, Japan and commuting into the city of Tokyo to study sociology. Some of Oriana’s most profound experiences occurred during her daily 4-hour commute. Today, Oriana works as a notable Chicago-area wedding photographer; when she’s not shooting weddings, she spends her time wandering the city, photographing its offbeat nooks and crannies and all the meals in between her explorations. You can find more of Oriana’s work on her blog, Tumblr, and commercial portfolio.
AP: What was the first thing you wanted to do when you reached Tokyo?
OK: I had a list of things I wanted to do: go to Tsukiji fish market for early morning sushi; visit the Great Buddha in Kamakura and see the ocean; go to Tokyo Tower; eat crepes in Harajuku; wear a Kimono; and go to an Izakaya. More than anything, I wanted to add to my vintage camera collection and shoot as much chrome as I could get my hands on. I spent time with my host mother going to electronic junk and camera stores building a collection of vintage Japanese cameras and shot chrome almost exclusively in Japan.
AP: Could you describe something ordinary in Japan that was extraordinary to you?
OK: Commuting in Tokyo is the most incredible experience; though it seems like such a mundane activity, it is in fact a very important ritual in Japanese society. Efficient travel is really important there and the public transit system is both affordable and reliable. The need to be on time, the need to be efficient, the need to be reliable — these are all things that are extremely important within the culture and the system reflects that.
AP: What was your average day like in Tokyo?
OK: Being that my campus was centrally located in Tokyo, I spent many of my days (when not in class) wandering around neighborhoods, making pictures: Shimokitazawa, Ikebukoro and Harajuku were my favorites. I spent a lot of time in Koshigaya with my host family where I took Ikebana, or flower arrangement classes, and often sang karaoke with my six and eight year old host sisters.
AP: Many of your photos from this trip show people walking away from you. Were you at all intimidated to point your camera at locals?
OK: I found that there was a lot of isolation and sadness all around me in Japan; everyone I encountered seemed to have a hard time connecting — with me, with each other. The isolation was problematic for me and was my largest source of culture shock. Here I was living in this huge city, with this incredible amount of human activity, and everyone was coming and going without really making solid connections with each other. It wasn’t until I developed my first three rolls of chrome film that I realized how prevalent the theme of isolation was in my photographs. After that, it became more of an intentional endeavor to capture images that reflected that isolation.
AP: What did you discover about yourself while immersing yourself in another culture?
OK: Though I went to school for photography, I really do believe that everything I learned about photographing, I learned while making images in Tokyo. I learned creative problem solving and how to study and see light. I learned how to approach people to make portraits and how to be quiet and patient to make photographs. I learned to always be looking for images – even if I didn’t have my camera with me. Actually, I learned to always have a camera with me. I learned to trust my intuition and follow it to important moments, every time. I also learned that I have a penchant for adaptability and flexibility.
AP: What fond memories do these photos evoke for you?
OK: I remember learning to ride the bus by myself for the first time; the smell of the ocean and how revitalizing it was to see water; scaling stairs high off the ground at Hase Dera temple and getting an auspicious fortune. I remember the sheer fear of feeling my futon slide across my room as I experienced my first earthquake and almost thinking I was dreaming. I remember sneaking around a lot in Azabu Juban, walking into apartment courtyards, private home front yards and compelling alleyways, hoping to find a photograph waiting for me. I remember lighting hanabi with all the neighborhood kids who were ten or more years younger than me as we celebrated the end of summer. I remember the strange and distinct feeling that I was capturing stills from the hyper-surreal movie that was my life in Tokyo.
AP: How did this trip influence you as a photographer?
OK: It opened my eyes to my fascination with studying isolation in cities. Pretty much all of my personal work since I left Tokyo has dealt with that theme. I also learned to throw away all of the rules and conventions of making photographs so I could make photographs without thinking too much. That has been really important to me as a photographer, particularly in my career.
AP: Where is the next place you dream of visiting?
OK: I’ve got my eye on Krabi, Thailand. I’m yearning for a more “organic” getaway — lush flora, crystal blue water, lots of sunshine. I want to go hiking and swimming and document activity and signs of life. It would be a nice change of pace!
[Photographs courtesy of Oriana Koren; interview by Anjali Pinto, Passion Passport]