Shino Yanagawa is an artist from Tokyo, Japan, who uses travel and photography to understand the lives of marginalized communities and highlight the importance of humans and their experiences.
Select publications include SONY Music, Vogue Japan, adidas, BLUE NOTE, Marie Claire, ELLE Japan, and Asahi.
Shino celebrates authenticity in everyone and expects that treatment in return. She’s worked hard to break the societal mold in her hometown of Tokyo, Japan to become the artist she is today. Her photographs combine the inherent beauty of the natural world with the true equality of humanity. There’s a rawness emphasized in her imagery that draws the audience in and tells a story. Most notably, her project We The People—a collaboration with writer Rico Washington—confronts misconceptions and stereotypes associated with African-American and Latino residents of New York City public housing and is part of the Smithsonian Collection.
After moving to New York City, and later Portland, Oregon, Shino is now living in the Midwest. We talked about her desire to slow down, the importance of mentorship in her development, her interest in documenting Black America to seek understanding, and breaking the mold of Japanese standards.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
It’s been great. It’s been great. I like this area a lot.
It’s very quiet. I like it because I don’t need anything crazy in my life right now. It’s already crazy enough.
I mean, I’ve been investing in real estate now. I went to the auction yesterday and like…it’s a lot of hustling. More than I realized. You have to find out the property and you have to find a seller. And after that you spend a lot of time writing the contracts. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s a different type of hustling.
Well, sort of. My business partner and I just purchased a house back in July at the auction and for a good rate, but some of the money came from home (Japan) and we took a big hit when you calculate the currency conversion.
Yeah it happens. If you plan to visit Japan, now’s the time to go.
Asa. I’m telling you you’d do so well out there. You’d make a ton of money doing whatever you wanted: photo, modeling, writing…whatever. I’ll freaking promote you. Seriously.
I’ve actually been wanting to organize an exhibition in Japan curated by, and only featuring Black photographers.
That’s it. I am so tired of seeing images of Black folks in Japan, based on the perception of what it looks like in the United States through non-Black eyes. Ever since 1853, when Japan became an open country, it’s pretty much been influenced by the white gaze. Every time I visit home I’m like, “Hold on a second. Why is everything I’ve experienced throughout my travels and photo projects different from the things we’re being told through the media?”
I think because of social media, there’s been a shift in the global conversation. For example, BTS is dominating pop culture, right? Not only that, but Asian pop in general is doing so well. And it seems that BTS often shows respect to where their music inspiration is coming from, which is mainly Black folks. A lot of people start listening to the K-pop and realize that this music comes from here (United States) originally. It’s an even exchange, right? In fashion, you have people like Pharrell who clearly takes inspiration from Asian design. I think that’s fine.
The exchange wasn’t as fluid 20 years ago when I moved to New York. I got an, assignment from a Japanese fashion magazine and they asked if I could refrain from using Black models. I was shocked that they were so explicit saying that, maybe because I was Japanese and they trusted me.
No. I told them that I don’t think I can do this. I still wanted to photograph Black people. I want to include everybody. At the time, I understood why they were saying that. Because they were freaking brainwashed. Things are a lot different now.
For me, it started with the music. My father would always listen to jazz at home. I still remember the first time I heard the funk music. James Brown, specifically, and I was in third or fourth grade. It was an enlightening moment for my body. My whole body was vibrating. Like, shaking. It’s like I was on a rollercoaster. Like, whoa!
And then I learned about Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye and artists like that. I couldn’t believe music like this existed . So I started researching, I wanted to know who they were outside of the music. Who is James Brown?
Yeah. Where are they from? What makes you decide to make this kind of music? It changed my whole perspective about the music and the people. And as I’m researching, I’m like, “Yo, wait a minute. They’re slaves?”
Yeah. So vividly remember learning about the slave ships, and the triangle trade agreement. You know, stuff like that.
That, and news about how dangerous it is in the United States.
Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
And hip hop.
Haha! I really love 90s hip-hop and, I was listening to people like A Tribe Called Quest, of course, KRS One, and people like that. I used to go to clubs all the time in Shibuya, and I had a lot of DJ friends that put me on… I just really appreciated how you could feel the music, you know?
Yes, and obviously fashion is connected with that right? Also, James Baldwin… I read his books in Japanese along with Maya Angelou.
It’s so funny because there are layers to it. I always wanted to be independent and, as a woman, that didn’t fly in Japan at the time. I couldn’t picture myself making tea for my boss everyday. That and I didn’t have the ideal body type. I know I’m tiny here, but I’m a little bit thicker compared to regular Japanese girls, and my skin is a little bit darker. I felt undesirable.
I felt like I was out of options. I asked myself, “Where is a place that I can freely express myself and be celebrated for being me?” I don’t think I was brave enough to be me in Japan.
I also wanted to put myself in like authentic circumstances based on the things I was interested in, like music and streetwear I wanted to find out more about Black culture because I wasn’t learning at home. I wasn’t trying to be Black. I just want to put myself in an intimate situations because I was seeking understanding. I know what the optics might look like, but I wanted to learn. I genuinely want to know how they’re doing.
No. I was going to interview for a job at a bank in Shibuya. I don’t know what I was thinking. Shibuya has one of the biggest intersections. I was waiting for the light to change and I had a choice to make: if I keep walking straight, I was going to the interview. I took a look at the tsunami of people around me, right? They all looked miserable.
I looked to my left and saw a used bookstore. I didn’t have money, but I’ve always love books so I just went there. I still remember the smell of that building. So old, but so cool. I grabbed one of the photography books documenting apartheid in South Africa. I started flipping through the book and was blown away. And when I turned to the back cover, I see that a Japanese woman took all of the photos. I couldn’t believe it!
Ruiko Yoshida, who is now my mentor. I wanted to do what she was doing. So I contacted her and asked if she needed an assistant. She said, “No, I don’t need anybody.” I After that, I offered to make her a website even though I’d never made one before. She finally agreed to have me over for tea or whatever. I went there and asked as many questions as I could think of, and that’s I how it started photography.
But when you feel something, you have to follow that path, right? Of course, it’s scary as well, but I think she saw my drive and I was able to build trust early on. I started working as an assistant in the photo department of an ad agency. Mostly in-studio photographing anything from cars, to furniture, jewelry, food and models. Really everything. So I learned how to shoot commercially. But it didn’t feel like me. I’m not the type of person to stay in the studio all day. My favorite part of photography was moving and getting to talk to people.
I started on my own, and just photographed the people I hung out with, you know. I wish I still had all the pictures. I don’t think I have any of those negatives anymore. I don’t know, I just shot a lot. Shibuya, I shot club scenes for awhile. I was always outside.
You mean my camera? It was a Nikon F3. I still have that camera. I didn’t have money so I just got whatever I could afford.
Ruiko Yoshida. I would like to put on an exhibition of her work as a thank you for her guidance to me. She was in Harlem back in the 1960s, you know?
Yes. She knew some people in New York, and when I moved there, she introduced me to some people.
I was disappointed. It wasn’t like I expected. Everything was gone. All the Bohemian crew stuff was gone. The art that I researched was gone. Everything was getting gentrified. Even in the nineties.
I was so lost for a long time. For a long time. I couldn’t find inspiration, I tried so hard. I went to the concerts, Broadway shows, talked to a lot of people, but nothing really…it was like the fire was gone. I realized that it had nothing to do with outside circumstances. It was me.
My friend, from Vietnam, invited me to her brother’s wedding back at their hometown, and at the end of the evening we sat by the beach and talked for a long time. I’ll save you the details, but our conversation had me overwhelmed. Everything changed for me during that trip.
I was worked in a studio for three years and thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t know shit. So, it was trial, error, and repetition for a long time. Once I got confident, people started recommending me to photograph for someone else, which turned into larger clients. It just felt like networking.
It was hard. I was living in Brooklyn, Flatbush, near a drug dealer’s house. I was with my now ex-husband. It was so hard for me because this was real life. The people I cared about were going in and out of prison. Knowing the reality of Black folks in this area was devastating to me. I just got a phone call from my friend Daniel the other day telling me got locked up again. Like, I’ve known him for a long time. We talk pretty much every week, and it’s hard to deal with stuff like that even from the outside.
Another friend of mine, one of the drug dealers in my neighborhood, would always tell me, “Yo, Shino, you know I got you, but make sure you always keep your eyes open.” One morning I heard NYPD at 5am, but I didn’t think anything of it because it was normalized to me at that point. It was my friend. He got shot, tried to drive himself to the hospital by himself, and couldn’t make it.
So, stuff like that was a hard realization. At the same time, I was invisible. Almost immune to that happening to me. I think it’s because I’m Asian. I feel like there was a different dimension, there was Shino’s dimension, and everyone else’s. Never a crossover. I feel that and it made me uncomfortable. Like my, my nephew was getting recruited by gangs by the time he was 15. Of course, it never happened to me. Nobody wanted to recruit me. Ha ha ha.
Exactly. Like, wow, we live in the same neighborhood. I felt ashamed of myself. Like I get to be part of the cool, stylish parts, but none of the other parts.
Yeah, that’s all I could do. That’s also when I met my creative partner, Rico. He is from the projects in D.C.
Yes. So, we started a project together called We the People. I photographed a lot of folks from the housing project, and he wrote about it. I always felt like an outsider. I mean, of course I was an outside because I wasn’t Black. At the same time, I’m asking myself what I could bring to the images. I kept telling myself I shouldn’t be taking these images.
Yeah, I just questioned why I wasn’t photographing Asian folks? I’m looking at this community from the outside and at times it doesn’t seem fair or respectful. But I kept photographing. I wanted to show support. Maybe my invisibility can be used as a strength. I just wanted to show more real, authentic images. I wanted to show the truth.
I’m not from a rich family or anything. I’m from the industrial, polluted, dirty downtown Tokyo. It always smelled like alcohol and like there’s porno movie theaters and that type of stuff, you know, there was a building in my neighborhood all my friends were living. It smelled like piss. The elevator smells like piss. So when I went to the floor housing project on the first time to work on We The People, it reminded me of my home. I mean that respectfully.
Mmm, I don’t think so. I think that project needed more humanity.
Rico always focused on that. We know the stigma and struggle the Black folks are faced with every day and I have empathy for that, but I wanted to focus on the other aspects of everyone’s experience. But it’s more than oppression, like, you still laugh, right? You still smile. You still eat the food that makes you happy. So I want to highlight those moments. So that’s what I mean by humanity. Like, you love your children. You love your mother. You, believe in God—or whatever religion you follow—and you still struggle. All of those can be true.
Hmm… I appreciate your comment. Thank you so much. I mean, Jamel Shabazz…
He’s my mentor. Man, he’s just… his pictures show everything. He gifted me one of my favorite photographs of his on my birthday. It was a picture of three girls sitting on a tree in Prospect Park, black and white. It’s a beautiful picture. I was like, wow. I can’t explain it, but looking at that image changed my perspective. When I see his photos I sense the emotions and vibes he felt when taking them, and that’s something that goes beyond technical expertise. It’s an aspect that simply cannot be captured solely through technical skills, the overall feeling is undeniable.
I don’t want to mimic it, I just want the work that I make to feel warm. Back to your question about teaching humanity, I think it just depends on the person? Everybody has a different perspective, right? You don’t have to photograph the same way that I do. That’s my preference because that’s something I’m intentional about. Some people take pictures just because they look cool and that’s fine too! Is humanity something I can teach through photography? How? Maybe you can read books on it and see what they tell you.
I don’t know. Yeah. I’m not saying there’s anything that’s special about me, I’m just different. Like, you’re either good at something or you’re not.
Yeah. And I’m not saying that I can help everybody. At least if you’re here photographing with me, I want to make sure you have a great time, and we capture a great moment. I feel like I have a responsibility to honor your time. I don’t know why. Nobody told me that, but I feel that way.
I guess someone could make that connection. Hospitality has always been important.
This is special. I was introduced to him during the “We the People” project. Dashaun, my former husband, and Jamel had a good relationship, and it was Dashaun who brought Rico and me together. I am sincerely grateful to Dashaun. He invited me and Rico to his house, and his wife cooked for us. Brooklyn is such a small place, you know? In a certain community, you always run into somebody. I often bump into him on the street, and when we see each other, we grab coffee together. Yeah.
I’m running into so many people. Like, I ran into Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) the other day. Like, when I was in New York. Yeah. Like, hey, Mos! Yeah. I have a friend who’s a die-hard Mos Def fan and her mother was dying. And usually, you don’t talk to celebrities when you see them on the street, it’s an unspoken rule. This time I said, “You know what? I gotta do this to my girl.” So I went up to him and said “Yo, Mos!, can I videotape you? Like, can please, can I shoot videos? My, my friend Keiko, she’s a huge fan, you know?” And then he’s like, you know what? Okay. Hmm.
I have to otherwise I won’t shut up! Ha ha! Even with Jamel, he never told me I was his mentee. I told him, “You’re my mentor, Jamel, and I want to learn from you.”
He said, “Oh okay, now I have a new responsibility. Someone to look after.”
Ahh. maybe you’re on to something.
I think people were just wondering what I was doing. I’m so used to rejection, so nothing really caught me off guard. A lot of people asked me what I was doing there and like, why I wanted to take pictures of them. I always lead with a compliment. I’m impressed by most things, so it was easy for me to point out something I liked on that person. You know, it could be anything. the color you chose to wear, someone’s nails, lipstick, even their smile. I just wanted it to be sincere if I say “Hey, I think you’re beautiful.”
And if they’re really not into being photographed, then I just don’t push it.
Well, I moved to Oregon first. I was a little bit overwhelmed by the big city. I’m from Tokyo, you know, and wanted some change. I’m getting older… I lived on Atlantic Avenue, right across from the Brooklyn Nets Stadium. There was never any down time.
I wanted move somewhere that reminded me of the nature we have in Japan. And I want to know about white folks, too. Ha ha.
I’m still unpacking that. This doesn’t have anything to do with my personal or professional relationships, but there was a lot of privilege relative to where I had just come from.
Yeah, I think I can adapt to any situation.
Three, four years.
Took a lot of pictures of nature. I started painting too.
No, more abstract, and portraits. I just sat and enjoyed the nature. It’s so quiet and beautiful there.
Oh my god I loved that project! First of all, I’m a huge Georgia O’Keeffe fan. So, I got assignment and I think New York Times did an article following O’Keeffe’s path in Hawaii. She hardly did any commercial work, but she got assignment from The Dole Company. She was asked to paint pineapples, so she stayed there for a month to work on it. She loved it so much that she went back to Maui again to keep painting. So, my assignment was to follow the path she took while she was making this work.
It was. It was such an amazing experience. I pray for the Maui people every day. Like, seriously.
It came so naturally because I’d always been an admirer of her work. My mom had books by O’Keeffe in the house when I was growing up. Back then, I didn’t know anything about her besides the work looking pretty. I didn’t know she was a woman; she was just an artist. I think I looked at her paintings so much that when it was time to take photographs responding to her work, my instincts took over.
I don’t know, I think it’s just something I enjoy that helps contextualize the moment.
Yeah, my kanji, pronounced Shi, means poem. Yeah, I’ve always liked to write. Ever since the second grade or third grade. I’ve always been a reader. I tend to get lost in things, in worlds. It’s why I’m always going to bookstores and libraries. I always have to find an answer. I came from a generation where my parents didn’t want to answer any of my questions, so I had to find out on my own.
Ohio is so cool. People don’t understand what they’re missing. It’s so chill and livable. I mean, I wish there were more Asian folks here, but there’s a nice mix people here. You have anyone from hardcore Republican Christians to laid back hippies, you know? Ha ha. There’s a good balance.
I feel like it changed everything. I’m investing in real estate now, and I bring my camera to foreclosures and building tours, some of the houses are in decent shape, and others are destroyed missing roofs, doors and windows. So, I’ve been photographing a lot of those houses and paying attention to their architecture.
Yeah, so I’ve been taking photos, but I don’t really work as a photographer here. I’ve just enjoying taking pictures of things like rustic cars and abandoned buildings, because you don’t see things like that in New York. The neighborhood I grew up in used to be a block away from the Isuzu car company factory and two blocks away from the Asahi Beer factory. The industrial parts of Ohio remind me of home.
I think I’m going to expand what I do here. I’m learning how to be an investor and a project producer. I also want to publish, a book about a cross-country trip I just took. I’m starting to think of myself as more an artist than a photographer hunting down assignments.
I don’t even want to do any commercial work unless I can really get behind the mission. I’m pass the point where I want to take photos because they look cool. I don’t have a desire anymore.
Of course! The editor is always the first. Are they happy? I want to inspire them.
It is so corny to say that, but my father always criticized my work and who I was. Because he always told me I didn’t have enough patience. I’ve been photographing for many years, and I never quit. He says I don’t sacrifice enough, which is a very Japanese or immigrant way of thinking. He believes that your job has to be something that you don’t like.
Yeah. If you love something, it’s not your job.
Sort of. I shot some of images of Ron Carter for the Blue Note Japan. Keep in mind my dad is a huge jazz fan. Huge! After the assignment, I asked the editor if they could send me free tickets to the show, and they sent me enough to bring my parents with me. When we got there, my father saw my picture. He looked at the picture, and then looked at me and said “Okay. You made it.” Ha ha ha.
Yeah, so in the end he’s proud of what I do, but sometimes I still consider what he thinks of my path.
See, I love the mentality. I wish I was born in the 90s. I probably would’ve never left Japan.
Yeah. I’d be accepted.
I don’t know, both are kind of easy for me. I think it’s because I understand both languages and cultures.
Yes, particularly Japanese people living in the United States. For next project, I would like to photograph Japanese women who moved here and married non-Japanese people during World War II. They’re in their 80s and 90s now and sadly dying. Wow. So, I want to photograph them and hear their stories before they pass.
Well, there’s an association I’m connected with that has a database of names and information. I’m going to start there.
And every time I go home, I’m reminded of how beautiful Japan is. I didn’t like Japan so much growing up, but it’s so cool now.
Yeah. What’s going on?
That’s why the manga and gaming industries are so important to us. Visual art, festivals, and now things like Halloween have taken over Japan. We need a reason to express ourselves.
Yeah. Okay. So, this is interesting. I mean, think about the crossovers we see in pop culture. You know, we kind of steal from each other. Cause you have groups like Wu-Tang, and Pharrell like we were speaking on earlier, and on the flip side there’s like so much of Japanese street culture now comes from, what is happening over here (U.S.). The music and the hip-hop scene in Japan are really booming now too.
We love each other, don’t you think? I think where we fall short is when it comes to things outside of content and media. The humanity part needs some work. There’s a disconnection there.
That’s a big ask, but I think through conversation. That’s why I want to bring more artists of color to Japan. We can see each other in more situations than what we read or watch. I mean really see each other to seek understanding. I want to have exhibitions in Japan about the Black experience organized by Black artists and curators like I mentioned before. It wouldn’t be my show, I’d just be the one with the connections. We just need more respect.
It’s going to be special, and I’m happy to play my role and sit in the backseat. There are younger, more equipped voices who can lead this work. Just let me support.
That was fun, thank you.