There’s no doubt that Tokyo is the world’s most photogenic city. With its collision of neon futurism, traditional roots, and enigmatic citizens, Tokyo provides endless fodder for shooters looking to capture something special.
When the opportunity arose for Australian photographer Benjamin Hung to relocate to Tokyo, the decision was a no-brainer. Over his few years in Japan, his work in the commercial and fashion world has seen the young shooter team up with clients like teamLab, Paradise Advertising, The Arcade Creative, James Cook Univeristy, and The Bulletin.
In his latest series the Townsville-raised photographer has shifted his perspective on the city. Scaling rooftops throughout Shibuya and Shinjuku, Hung has captured the neon-drenched metropolis from a standpoint most of us will never experience firsthand. We spoke to Hung about ‘rooftopping’ in Tokyo and working as a commercial shooter in Japan.
How did you end up working as a photographer in Japan?
Originally I studied new media design back in Australia. I knew I was a shutterbug in high school and university really narrowed down what I was passionate about. Honestly it gave me the confidence to switch from automatic to the manual setting on the camera.
Moving to Japan was a complete fluke. My partner at the time surprised me with plane tickets and I fell deeply in love with the culture, people, and just the neon vibes. Plus, sushi is like a drug here. I applied for jobs as an English teacher to get into the country and went crazy after that, partied, networked, and just made connections with likeminded people. The community is more connected than you think.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on since you’ve been here?
I’ve collaborated with a lot of fashion designers, models, stylists, hairstylists, and make up artists. I’ve done some magazine editorials, look books and commercial work. I just finished a neon inspired shoot with a cosmetic company and a commercial shoot for a major department store. Stay tuned!
What do you think makes Tokyo such a photogenic city?
The city feels absolutely artificial, and that just turns me on. It’s a visual orgy of neon lights, rich in traditional values but saturated in a futuristic atmosphere. It’s fucking huge, different areas cater for different taste and vibe.
How does working as a photographer in Japan compare to Australia, both practically and say socially?
I’m originally from a country town, the kind of photography work that offered financial stability was mostly weddings and corporate shots. That’s fun and all, but my heart was more into fashion and commercial work. Plus where I was living barely had any neon lights. Sydney or Melbourne would have been a more natural choice but Japan oozed fashion and commercial photography.
In Japan, learning the language is a lot more beneficial since not everyone can speak English. But you can still execute a shoot with lots of gestures and sketches. Often things get lost in translation and magical mistakes happen. Also it’s a popular melting pot for international creatives.
You do a lot of fashion focussed editorial shoots, which is interesting because so many foreign photographers in Japan do documentary style work. Are these rooftop shots your first foray into more documentary style?
Originally I was shooting at night and scoping out neon lights and signs around Tokyo and Hong Kong. At that point everything was shot ground level, it was fun but I felt the photographs I was producing were a little vanilla.
I threw these shots up on Instagram and was later approached by a group of photographers for a meet up. We were walking around at night shooting eye level and ended up scaling some buildings. It was pretty exciting to be surrounded by a group of thrill seeking photographers, but low key I was a scared little chicken.
Is there a community of ‘rooftoppers’ in Tokyo?
Absolutely, I only recently started and noticed a growing group of them posting some fucking breathtaking shots. The community is nothing but a friendly bunch looking to push the limits. If you’re keen you should check out @walt_xyz, @cbje_tokyo and @hugowakui on Instagram. We collaborated over the spring vacation and they do some amazing work.
What do you think makes rooftop shooting more fascinating than traditional street photography?
It’s a refreshing new perspective, you’re seeing the world from a birds eye view. Compared to traditional street photography, it’s a lot more difficult to plan and shoot. When you shoot rooftops, you get that rush of adrenaline and thrill. That “holy shit, one slip and you’re dead” vibe combined with the chance of getting caught feeling also adds to the spiciness to the shoot.
Can you take us through what goes into a ‘rooftop’ shoot?
I love to stalk other rooftoppers on Instagram, there’s nothing more exciting than when you look at a photograph and can pin point exactly where the location is. From there you have to figure how the fuck that photographer got up there. It’s all trial and error. I’ve climbed up flights of stairs only to be disappointed when it’s completely blocked or you have to do some parkour shit.
Go nights and wear black. Treat it like you’re visiting a national park, don’t leave shit behind. Avoid places with security cameras. If you have to climb things go slow and steady. Get in touch with other rooftoppers and collaborate. Share locations and bounce ideas. Don’t be a dick and have fun, but be careful and don’t die.
What do you look for when you’re deciding on a location to shoot?
Usually I start with a theme or concept for a photoshoot. I also go location scouting and take shots off my iPhone as reference points. Locations have always been found accidentally, either I’m hanging out with friends, traveling to work or just a casual wander. Rooftop wise I love locations with fat ass billboards, neon lights and tall buildings.
What projects do you want to explore in the future?
I hope to do more rooftopping in different areas of Tokyo. I’ve planned some collaborative shoots to keep the creativity flowing. Equipment wise, I’m mucking around with film and Nishika 3D shots. Digital feeds my instant gratification, but film adds that devious anticipation to every shot.
I’ve been working a lot digitally and want to make more physical and tangible things with my photographs. Let’s see what happens.