Back in December of 2014, I ventured a couple of hours drive out into the countryside of Saitama to shoot some pics for a young and very talented Australian fashion designer, Neville Antoinette.
Haikyo or ‘abandoned buildings’ have always fascinated me. As a kid I grew up along the road from three deserted and abandoned oast-houses, which for summer upon summer – until they were converted into luxury dwellings – were the scene for a myriad of childhood games and adventures.
After that, the abandoned concrete structures and shacks on the beaches of Dungeness held similar fascination. Just before moving to Japan, in 2007, a wonderful day was spent at an old tyre and rubber factory on the edges of the Forest of Dean. There’s a few pics of that below. It was, during WW2, the place where PLUTO [Pipeline Under the Ocean] was manufactured; the undersea petrol hoses that would carry fuel across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy during and after the D-Day landings. One of the pics I shot that day [the sinks] was chosen as the BBC photography section’s ‘picture of the month’ at the time. There’s also a nice one of my son Joe, when he was about 6.
Back to a cold December morning in 2014 and my friend and model, Shinyong Lee, and I headed off to Nezu station to pick up designer Neville Antoinette, his girlfriend [now fiancee] Tara Elizabeth, plus a suitcase full of Neville’s awesome outfits.
Our target for the day was an abandoned mining village in deepest Saitama, which I had heard of from one of Japan’s leading urbex and haikyo photographers. Locations are a guarded secret, save they get destroyed or closed up due to over-attention of looting. I’d once committed the enormous faux-pas of letting the world know the location of one superb haikyo in Kinugawa. It was soon after shut down and boarded up. I may not have been solely responsible for that happening as, when the eventual closure of it was on the TV news, years of pressure from the local community was cited as the reason. Still, I felt bad about the fact that I may have contributed to a superb haikyo going ‘offline’ and was not going to let it happen again.
All iPhones were set to airplane mode once we arrived at the mining village, save any GPS data in people’s snaps be unwittingly shared. Despite the location being pretty well-known, I haven’t shared where it is and won’t be doing so here.
The last few hundred metres to the village are through a narrow and very basic tunnel, roughly hewn through an imposing rock-face and not dressed: jagged walls, a rudimentary lighting system and ventilation pipes caught the headlights of our 4×4 as we made our way gingerly through. After three hours in the car, everyone was starting to nod off to sleep. The tunnel created a sense of impending adventure that brought everyone back to life and excited about what we may find.
The village was abandoned about 20 years ago. The exodus of people had begun before but everyone had left eventually and what remained was an amazing complex of around 40 hours, two schools, a hotel and various other buildings. Our mission was not to explore it all, as that just wouldn’t be possible in the 4hrs or so of light we had left by the time we’d arrived and got ourselves set up. We were there to get a couple of Neville’s outfits shot, in the best couple or three locations we could find.
I was excited. Neville is an inspirational young designer and the outfits were extraordinary. No shoot can really succeed unless you have something of a concept and our concept needed to be more than just ‘whacky clothes in deserted building’. Plus, when I’m shooting with models, I like to put a story into their heads… something for them to imagine and use to get ‘into character’. Modelling is not so different to acting and Shinyong has done a lot of acting too, so she can work with a story, a ‘role’ really well.
Our story for the day was that this young woman – Shinyong – had travelled back in time [Neville’s clothes would suit the future very well] and come across a place where she felt a connection; maybe it had been where her family had come from generations before.
This was enough and Shinyong disappeared into her character.
We found some great places. Lots of them. Too many of them. I need to go back and will do so once the winter snows are over. As it was, going in the middle of December, there were flurries of snow and you could feel the winter setting in. The place is bleak. I’m a bit too focused sometimes, with models, and Shinyong has been in rivers, out in the cold for hours and in sorts of weird locations for me… but with decrepit and decaying buildings, you can’t take any chances. You need daylight to work, unless it’s just one of you who doesn’t mind more severe adventures.
I won’t write too much more. There’s more pictures than the ones you see below, which I havent even gotten around to editing one year or more later. I don’t mind that, though. It’s good to go back to old pics and re-imagine them long after they have been shot. It brings fresh vision. So there will be another article on here at some point soon, as I have the fire in me to re-edit these shots and work on more of the ones we took.
The shots below were taken in the old junior school and the old ryokan. We didn’t move anything. Everything here in the pics is as we found it.
Lighting? I had the Alien Bee ringflash which was used into a large umbrella on one occasion. The rest of the shots were lit with small speedlights, fired with radio triggers.
Some of the later shots were just made with what ambient light I found.
Cameras and lenses: Nikon D800E, 50mm f/1.2 and 1.8, Nikkor 36-72mm AiS, 20mm f/3,5 AiS.
Great day out. Good team. I’ll be going back soon, with more clothes and a different model.
Neville and Tara are on an epic European adventure now.
Shinyong has been so busy with singing, movies and all sorts of other stuff that we haven’t seen each other for ages.
Good to be busy though.
Hope you enjoy the pics. We had a lot of fun making them. The edits are over a year old. I’m not 100% happy with them now. But, that’s editing for you…. tastes change. The multiple exposure edits were done to convey a sort of ‘dreamlike’ quality to the story.