Photographer Kiên Hoàng Lê went exploring in Tokyo’s entertainment district: meeting night owls and lovers, artists and cross-dressers, outsiders and lonely people – a colorful combination in black-and-white, all centered in a tiny bar. See more of his images in the current issue of LFI, on sale now.
Q: Can you explain what this series is about in a few sentences?
A: Tokyo appeals to both my German and my Vietnamese identities. I lived in Tokyo for three months and became part of a group of artists, musicians and cross-dressers. The Suna no Shiro bar was at the heart of it all. We experienced excess in eight square metres. On the one hand, we were our own masters, yet, on the other, the feeling that we were not actually free crept over us. We’d had enough of simply functioning and trying to get ahead. The series captures my partners and me in intoxication in highly subjective moments.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: I stumbled across the Suna no Shiro bar by chance. At first I spent a lot of time in a photographers’ hangout in the Golden Gai district. There I met a filmmaker who told me about Suna – afterwards we went there and spent the whole night partying. That was repeated in the following days. After a week of partying, I realized that I was so fascinated by Suna and the people there that I started taking pictures.

Q: How did you get into photography?
A: Photography found me rather late in life. After studying computer science, I spent a year and a half travelling around the world. Through photography, the experiences I had while travelling kept a grip on me. I never wanted to return to a laboratory, but to remain right in the middle of life so I applied to study photojournalism in Hanover. “Suna no Shiro” is my final thesis and also the title of my second book.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: My photographic approach evolved while I was studying. I like to photograph classic reportage, but I’m increasingly looking for more open forms of expression that are subjective and tend to ask questions rather than explain everything to the viewer. I try to find imagery that suits the theme. At Suna I chose small format with flash, so as to be able to photograph in the small room under every circumstance. I was more concerned about the feeling than the picture composition.
Q: Color or black-and-white – did you give it any thought beforehand?
A: I don’t really care if my pictures are in black-and-white or in colour. There’s also a mixture in my book. All the elements need to work well together and to strengthen each other respectively. Making formal decisions beforehand doesn’t work for me. A project nearly always changes while I’m photographing it. That’s what makes it so exciting.
Q: What equipment did you use?
A: In a smoky bar situation, I couldn’t and didn’t want to carry around a lot of equipment. I took pictures with a Leica M9, the 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH. and a mini flash.
Q: If you were free to choose, who would you like to do a workshop with?
A: I was very impressed by a workshop I did with Anders Petersen and Antoine d’Agata. Right now I’m going through a phase where I’m further testing myself. Off the top of my head, I could imagine getting more conceptual stimulus from Simon Norfolk or getting to know Roger Ballen.
Q: What are you planning next?
A: I’m in Vietnam right now and I’m continuing to work on my homeland project. In summer our Cartel Collective will have a group exhibition. We are all each examining our homelands, either the place we were born or where we have chosen to live.
Thank you for your time!
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