Tadashi Onishi: I Talk to the City When I Have a Camera in My Hands

Street photographer Tadashi Onishi on why we don’t notice beauty in everyday life, why black-and-white is better than color and how people feel connected to their ancestors in Japan.
Tadashi Onishi Age 42

Born and lives in Tokyo. Started doing photography at the age of 40. Mostly shoots street life and interactions between people and an urban environment.

I started to shoot at the age of 40. Of course, I had taken photographs of my family and friends before, photographed with my phone when I traveled and even posted some of the photos online. But I didn’t realize back then they were pseudo-photos — mechanical, taken just for recording memories and with no passion or love. They were not art, but only captured the past. There’s nothing wrong with it, it is just the product of modern days with all the digital technology.

Everyone can take photos like this, even the kids. And I would keep doing this, I would even register an account on Instagram, if in 2013, while browsing the Internet, I didn’t find some great street photography. I immediately realized my life would change forever. Never before had I felt such enthusiasm and desire to do something. However, my first attempts did not resemble the pictures I was interested in. This motivated me to dig deeper and I have been hooked ever since.

I can’t say I have my own style. Rather, I have a theme — there is nothing more interesting than human life, culture and emotions. I am always focused on a mutually dependent relationship between people on the street and urban geometry.


I shoot only black-and-white photographs, this way it is easier for me to separate the usual view of the city and my view of it. Color is too real, we see it all the time, and a monochromatic image, on the contrary, is only one of the interpretations of the reality. It is my interpretation.

Once we get into the city, we can see various scenes. There are so many events at the same time, it is impossible to fully perceive them. So we switch our senses off, nothing stands out, and the world becomes usual.

However, if we pause and take a closer look, at every moment in time we find something valuable and beautiful.

Every manifestation of life is unique. I am impressed by how people and architecture in my city combine, by the gorgeous lines and changing shapes of light and shadows with time. I have taken thousands of shots of it, but this theme still attracts me, so I go on with it.

When I have this irrational feeling, I take pictures spontaneously. When I feel that logic loosens its grip, when the only thing I feel is the emotion — I push the button. It is always a moment, which captures the spontaneous nature of urban life. I wait to catch it without interfering with its integrity.

A good street photograph is about synchronization — when a thousand probabilities, plots and ‘what ifs’ fall into place at one moment. A good photograph is a time machine that brings the viewer to the moment when it was shot. The viewer feels that they are there.

I took photographs in Germany, the United States, UK, Italy, France, Korea, Austria, and Belgium, but I like Tokyo most of all. I cannot compare it to other cities. This is one of the biggest capitals in the world, you can find any combination of architectural styles here: from ultramodern buildings to wooden houses to monuments of different historical epochs. I feel the connection with my ancestors when I photograph Japan, and I feel like I’m talking to the city when I have a camera in my hands.

Speaking of things that excite me, here is a story.

Walking on one warm day in autumn, I found a wonderful striped shadow on the stairs. Not everybody could see it — it appeared only for a specific 15 minutes in the morning in sunny weather.

I visited there three times to shoot the stripes. Then when I finally took a good shot, suddenly a businessman came down the stairs. I shot him without any expectation. Afterwards, at night, when I checked the photographs I had made, I found that his tie matched the striped shadow. Funny, isn’t it? Is it a coincidence, or is the city playing with me? I don’t know.


I am inspired by the surrealistic works of Shoji Ueda, and in the world of street photography my favorites are Daido Moriyama, William Klein, Katsumi Watanabe, Osamu Kanemura, and Tatsuo Suzuki.

I am happy to have this hobby. I would be living a boring version of my life if not for photography. I hope this passion stays with me for the rest of my life.


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