TOPCultureArtExploring Timelessness With Photographer Olivier Desmet

Exploring Timelessness With Photographer Olivier Desmet

Moments are ephemeral, but we still try and preserve them forever

By Sleiman Azizi

Calling the USA home, Belgian-born photographer Olivier Desmet has managed some 30 visits to Japan over the last 15 years. Wanting to showcase the love he felt for this country, he published his first book about the place in 2021. Titled Mono no Aware, a Japanese idiom referring to the bittersweet realization of the ephemeral nature of all things, it soon sold out, proving that Desmet’s eye was as good as his camera.

He soon followed that up with his most recent book — Tsukiji. Published in 2022, it was shot over a period of two years. The 54 photographs in it and accompanying essays were a creative triumph, capturing the final days of the world’s largest seafood market before its relocation. Desmet took some time to chat with Tokyo Weekender about his love of Japan, what inspires him, and of course, Tsukiji Market.

Olivier Desmet photography

What drew you to Tokyo and to Tsukiji in particular?

I first visited Tokyo in 2006 and instantly became obsessed with its exciting mix of old and new, of high tech and tradition. As for Tsukiji, it was such a unique place with a distinct vibe. Old, a bit rundown, very chaotic, full of Showa-era nostalgia and brash in a strangely non-Japanese way. Yet a place that could only exist in Japan. I’m sure there’ll never be anything quite like it again in Tokyo.

How does that tie in with your work as a photographer?

Tokyo is my favorite place to photograph. I feel a strong connection to Japanese design aesthetics. Concepts such as mono no aware and shibui have greatly influenced my work. Even the photos I’ve taken outside of Japan, I feel, have been influenced by these concepts. You’ve seen my earlier book, Mono no Aware, right?

Yes, I have. It’s beautiful with an interesting layer of modernity. Why do you favor black and white photography?

I’m not necessarily interested in telling ‘the truth’ with my photographs. I’m more interested in an interpretation of the world that might be slightly off from reality. I find that much more interesting. Done purposefully, black and white images automatically change the viewer’s perception, transporting them to a slightly different place helping to convey a feeling of timelessness.

Olivier Desmet photography

How do the tools you work with help to convey that timeless feeling?

Well, I use what many would consider to be slightly old-fashioned equipment (Leica rangefinder cameras and Hasselblad medium-format cameras) so perhaps the familiarity comes from that archaic approach.

As you shoot, what tends to go through your mind?

Each project has been slightly different. Mono no Aware really had me considering the timelessness of photography. A photo is a single moment, literally gone.

As for Tsukiji, survival. It was a somewhat intimidating place to photograph. So many things were happening quickly, turrets zooming by, fishmongers scrambling all over the place and trucks driving everywhere. Many of the photographs come from the market’s last few days and in that way, both books are related, connecting with moments that are gone. I’m very much aware of these thoughts as I shoot.

Is there a shot that hit home for you that Tsukiji was actually ending?

On page 63, there’s a photo of a restaurant owner walking back into his restaurant after escorting out his last customer. The restaurant is empty and he’s about to close its doors for the last time. You only see him from the back, but you feel a sense of weariness and sadness from him.

Olivier Desmet photography

Have you ever faced any hurdles photographing in Japan?

Actually, no. Japan values politeness and social harmony, so I’ve always tried to be discreet. Taking photos of individuals in public places without consent is legal here, as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, which, by the way, doesn’t include fine art, editorial, or photojournalism work. It’s common sense, but without a waiver, I won’t do images of children, embarrassing or compromising situations, objectionable shots and so on.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers attracted to Japan?

Japan is safe, offers endless exciting subject matter and has a deep connection to photography, having produced some of the best photographers in the medium’s history. Be respectful, treat others as you’d like to be treated and you’ll be rewarded with great images and beautiful experiences.

Olivier Desmet photography

Has the pandemic influenced your photography?

Very much so. Being uninterested in people wearing masks, I switched to landscape and still life. Japan has plenty of that, lots of temples and culturally significant scenes and so on, so I’m ready to come back the minute the borders reopen.

Your Tsukiji book also features essays written by Yukari Sakamoto. How did that collaboration come about?

Yukari wrote a book called Food Sake Tokyo in 2010. Since I love Japanese food I purchased it, eventually touring Tsukiji with her husband, Shinji, who used to be a fishmonger there. We became friends, sushi-eating buddies, and naturally the opportunity to collaborate came up.

Finally, what would you like your Tsukiji book to say?

Tsukiji was such a unique place with a distinct vibe and unique sets of rules, inhabitants and quirks. Sure, the outer market remains, but it’s not the same since the inner market closed. I’m glad I could capture its final days. Tsukiji meant a lot to me. I hope others who’ve visited will get to relive some of their memories through the book.


Follow Olivier Desmet on Instagram and buy his limited-edition book Tsukiji and other works from his website.