Capturing the Quirks of Humanity

Atsushi Nishijima’s Street Photography, from Manhattan to Tokyo

Tech : Cameras By Photo by Henry Phillips
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“If I see life there, I like it,” says Atsushi Nishijima softly, while paging through a stack of his photography publications. Nishijima, who goes by Jima, is a New York City-based photographer whose ability to capture spontaneous moments has garnered him a list of clients ranging from Engineered Garments to Inventory Magazine to Arc’teryx Veilance to Nike. His catalogue of work roams freely from black-and-white to color, but always exudes non-scripted freedom — people with their hair down, in motion, lacking pretension. And it’s these serendipitous moments that make Jima’s work human, and powerfully engaging.

Jima’s street photography highlights a wide range of quirky people — homeless men sleeping in the afternoon, old women with bright shoes in the dead of winter, tourist families caught in the chaos of Midtown. To achieve a natural quality in his photographs, he capitalizes on fleeting moments. “Photography is about the subject, and less about me,” he says. “When I shoot on the street, I usually just have one chance — I take one shot and leave.” Though Jima has a strong aesthetic style, he acknowledges how chance plays a major role in day-to-day shooting. “I’m not always looking for the moment, usually it naturally happens.”

Photography was not always a passion for Jima. In fact, he had no interest in it until he moved to the United States after finishing high school in Shinzuoka, Japan. While pursuing a liberal arts degree, 20-year-old Jima was turned on to photography by a roommate, who encouraged him to take a darkroom class in which he studied black-and-white photography. Developing film fascinated him and, being an introverted student who was new to the country, the decision-making process was empowering. He notes, “Through photography, even though I wasn’t saying anything, the picture I decided to print is the piece I like — I didn’t need to say I like it.”

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Above photos by Atsushi Nishijima

Since his first photography gig, which consisted of shooting stills for Nike’s Battlegrounds: Kings of the Court, Jima has worked for a wide range of clients, though the big-name companies are American Express, Apple, Honda, Pepsi and Google. His clients give him creative freedom to impart his personal style on each shoot, but for each job, he is challenged to create a natural spontaneity, where unexpected things can happen for the models. Another aspect of Jima’s work is still photography for films. He has shot stills for The Place Beyond the Pines, St. Vincent, Birdman and Money Monster, to name a few. A publication that features entirely his work, called Loiter, first published by Nepenthes in 2013 and designed by Nobi Kashiwagi, is in its eighth iteration now.

Jima’s camera of choice is a Ricoh GR, the modern take on the camera that famed Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama used. It has a fixed 28mm equivalent lens, but packs a 16MP APS-C CMOS image sensor into its stripped-down silhouette. It’s fast, small, wide-angle and quiet. With the fixed lens and a wide angle, he has to compensate by getting closer to his subjects. Jima said that sometimes his shooting can feel like he is “invading someone’s space.” To counteract that, he is extra mindful to create the element of space in every shot. When he’s out shooting, he shoots in black-and-white mode with the GR, so he can focus on light and shadow. He points out, “If it looks good here, it will look good in color, too.”

Just as Jima was once fascinated by the process of creating a print, viewing his prints also becomes a process. At first glance, there’s engagement — a catch of the eye — but from there, the photographs evade definite answers. Instead, they offer small additions — a detail in a corner, an expression that takes unpacking, a visual movement that loops back on itself. The longer you spend with them, the more they quietly, yet generously, give back.