Learning by Doing

Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way. You make a mistake that you will never do again. While the last week has seen further strengthening of lockdown here where I have been grounded for the last year or so (hopefully the last spell before things start to get better), I have spent time organizing my analogue archive—those stories and images that I never got around to properly store after they were shot.

One such story was from a travel to Japan and about sumo wrestlers. This is back in time, way before digital cameras were even thought of. Obviously, the story was captured on film. However, it never made it into a published story. I screwed up.

I had been in Japan already for some weeks, trying without much success to get access to a gym where the sumo wrestlers train. I had been attending a tournament but was not able to access their training grounds. Then someone, now years later I can quite recall whom and how, tipped me about a gym where the big fellows trained every morning. It was in the outskirts of Tokyo.

So, I just turned up at the break of dawn. And there they were, already into their morning routine. I had no appointment, but just started photographing. It was still dark inside the gym; with the only light provide being daylight streaming through the doors and windows. Aka, harsh contrast and difficult shooting conditions.

While I was in Japan, the big Japanese film manufacturer released a new slide film with, back then, the exhilarating speed of 1600 ISO being able push to 3200. Remember at the time a slide film with 200 ISO was at the high end—before this new film. I had just bought some rolls to test it out, and I thought it would be perfect for this dark gym.

First mistake! Never do important work with equipment you have not tried out beforehand, whether a camera, a new lens or, as in this case, a new film. I pushed the film to 3200 ISO. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rolls developed while still in Japan. When I got back home and got the rolls developed, all the images where too dark. Somehow, the lab hadn’t gotten it right, I believe because they had never developed this film before.

The second mistake, which wasn’t doing things worse, really, since the films were screwed anyway, but would have been, if not for the underexposed and/or underdeveloped rolls. I didn’t move close enough. I felt I was intruding, most of all because I had not made arrangements beforehand, and couldn’t communicate with anyway at the gym. It was a little intimidating being in a place where nobody understood, and I wasn’t sure they wanted me to be around in the first place.

As I was photographing the sumo wrestlers’ morning training, albeit not knowing nothing would come out of it, a crowd started to gather outside the gym. I slowly gathered it was me, that I was the attraction. Nobody out in this suburb of Tokyo were used to a gaijin—a foreigner. That sure put extra pressure on me, and maybe part of why I failed so miserably.

At least, I got back from the whole experience with a lovely memory. As I was packing down my equipment, believing I had done a scoop and would get the biggest story ever published in a major magazine, a young Japanese man from the crowd approach me and asked in poor English if I would like to come along and have breakfast with him and his family at his home. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the invitation—and wouldn’t want to—and had this lovely breakfast with him, his wife and their only child. We couldn’t say much to each other, but used the international sign language.

Today that would be quite unusual, to be invited home to a total strange in the middle a big city. At least I got away with something.

The images here are an attempt to recover some of the images, by scanning and processing them. Took quite some time…