Kaz Senju has been photographing in the LGBTQ bars in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, an area he’s been going to for about 30 years. His upcoming thesis show, Shinjuku Story, will show a selection of work from this long-term project. I sat down with Kaz to talk with him about the progression of his work and his upcoming show.
Gen: So, tell me a bit about your project.
Kaz: I’ve been interviewing and photographing gay and lesbian bar owners in Tokyo in an area called Shinjuku. My project is about them and the street scenes in Tokyo, representing some of the LGBTQ community there. Within Shinjuku, there is this one district called Shinjuku Ni-chome. It’s about three Manhattan blocks in size, and within that area there are about 350 gay and lesbian bars, making it one of the most concentrated areas in the world. Most of the bars are small, about the size of a living room, although some are the size of a walk-in closet. I’ve been going there about 30 years now, and I started interviewing bar owners about three years ago. I really enjoyed getting to know them, so I kept doing this as my project.
G: How did you start going to these bars?
K: I knew I was gay when I was 12-13 years old, and when I was 16, I accidentally walked into one of the porn theaters. When I walked in, that’s when I had my first gay sexual experience. And then he showed me around a little bit, and I found out about some of the book stores that sold gay magazines. While looking at the magazines, I noticed advertisements for the bars, including ads for bars in Shinjuku Ni-chome. When I went to university near Tokyo, I took a train, went there, and started walking around. A café owner told me about other places to go so I went to the next place and after that I actually met the bar owner of one of the biggest gay bars and he asked me to work for him. So, I started working as a bartender at the Zip Bar in the Shinjuku area when I was 19. It was a really eye-opening experience for me.
G: Did you have prior connections to art before beginning to photograph?
K: I had a long career outside of photo and art. About ten years ago I decided to take a break from my job, and when I did that I wanted to take time to go back and study art and design. I began studying photography in the BFA program at Parsons. So that’s how I really started getting into photography. After that I was a studio assistant for different artists, and between this project and switching jobs I decided to finish my school with an MFA at ICP.
G: I want to ask about the magazines you discovered as a teen, and the zines you are making now.
K: During Parsons, my style was very different. I was drawn to precise photography. This reflected my personality, having been an IT department development manager. I needed every photograph to be like an excel sheet and have functions and lines. While taking a book class with Victor Sira at ICP, I really changed my attitude about how I could create an object. Creating a zine reminds me of when I was working on the computer doing software development. You make one version, find a mistake, make another one, make small improvements, go back, and make another one; the alpha release, beta release, and final release. The zine is like that too.
G: How will you incorporate video in your show?
K: I will have at least two videos in my show. One is a “movie theatre” made out of an Amazon box. The inside looks like a little movie theater, with a lot of Godzilla and monster figurines in the audience. It shows a picture of my childhood, an actual 8mm film my dad took, and it looks like I am the monster, I am the biggest one on the screen, and destroying the city. It has lots of secret meaning too. My childhood, my monster part, my character, and I mentioned earlier that I had my first gay sex at the movie theater. When I was interviewing the gay bar owners, there were a few that also said the same thing. Their first sex was at the movie theater as well.
The other one is virtual reality video. The space is so tight in Japanese gay bars and I’ve been having a hard time communicating that through the regular sized photo, so I’m bringing a 360-degree camera and taking a video of every direction in the bar and I’m editing that so people can actually experience that virtually. Those are the two video elements.
Kaz Senju’s exhibit Shinjuku Story is on view April 26th through April 30th at ICP-Bard MFA Studios in Long Island City.
Opening Reception: Thursday, April 26th at 7pm
24-20 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY