TO THE UNINFORMED, the picture looks innocent enough. A man in a tweed suit and silk tie reclines in the back seat of a car, his face partially obscured. Nothing crazy here. But for Belgian photographer Anton Kusters, the scene behind the lens was nerve-racking.
"Yeah, I was pretty scared. I was shaking in my boots, actually. This is a high-ranking boss in his car looking straight at the lens. Because it was my first shot, I was really nervous and I framed the image incorrectly, cutting off part of his face. This lucky accident became one of the most important images of the project - a testament to the tension that was constantly present," says the 37-year-old.
The project Kusters is referring to is the two years he spent photographing the life, rituals and habits of the yakuza, the organised crime syndicates in Japan, his portraits focusing on the Shinsekai family who control Tokyo's infamous red-light district, Kabukicho.
He was the first gaijin (foreigner) to gain access to the super-secretive society. Now the photographic fruits of his labour will go on display in an exhibition "YAKUZA" at the AO Vertical Art Space in Chai Wan starting tomorrow. The exhibition sheds light on the ambiguous relationship the yakuza have with society. Kusters shadows members who struggle with their existence in these two opposite worlds, an existence lived in shades of grey.
Images show yakuza members with traditional full-body tattoos, as well as the nerve-racking first image, Eye of the Beholder, which shows boss Nitto-san en route to the Niigata prison to pick up two yakuza members who are to be released that morning. Taken in 2009, the image remains the photographer's favourite: "It reminds me of the tension I felt under my skin. Always."
It's the first time the exhibition has been shown in Asia, and it is also Kusters' first visit to the city. "I'll be in Hong Kong for about two weeks and will concentrate on the exhibition," he says. "I expect it to be a little like Tokyo, but more condensed into a smaller area. I hope to catch a glimpse of the vibrant community and, of course, some of the nightlife."
Staging the first Asian show in Hong Kong, Kusters says, is a matter of practical circumstance more than anything. "The negotiations for an exhibit in Japan are still under way. I want to do the closing exhibit in Tokyo, as it would be very symbolic to the project and a perfect closure."
The project also resulted in a book Odo Yakuza Tokyo, which received attention from the international media and resulted in two further editions (some copies will be available at the gallery).
While Kusters can now bask in the glow of the show's success, gaining access to the yakuza was no easy task. "Negotiations lasted 10 months. The main reason I was allowed access was because I talked about making an art and documentary project, and not a journalistic project. I wanted to photograph with an open mind; without judgement. The intention was clear from the beginning, to publish an art book and hold an exhibition. I wanted to learn about Japanese culture and yakuza subculture. After discussing all these things, they allowed me to photograph for two years."
"Every week, members of the yakuza got to see all the images I made during that week. They could say no to any of them, even without a reason. But they also knew that I could say no, so they didn't push me in any direction. We were effectively on an equal position. The proof of concept is that during the two years, they never said no to any images."
The project also opened Kusters' eyes in more ways than one, as it erased any movie-like preconceptions he had of the yakuza. "I expected to arrive into a world of extreme violence, like in a Hollywood movie, but it was the opposite. It appeared to be an extremely controlled world of social interactions and respect, with the threat of violence more than violence itself. It also appeared that the members of the yakuza were acutely aware of their often difficult position inside Japanese society, and in their [real] families.
"They constantly walk the thin line between black and white. They mainly regard themselves - rightly or not - as beholden to traditional Japanese values. The father-child or oyabun-kobun relationship, based on absolute respect, is a cornerstone in that."
Kusters says it would be interesting to do a similar project on the Hong Kong triads, but it will have to wait a while. "I've had contact with a triad branch in Tokyo, but after five years working on the yakuza, it feels too much to start immediately with a new project on organised crime. I should pursue some different projects before I return to this one."
Kusters' exhibition has travelled from Berlin to Rome, and has been well received. "I'm humbled by the support and success, and I have been able to remain completely independent. I'm so happy about the recognition it's getting."
Some of these projects include a conceptual photographic project about the blue skies above the Holocaust, and a personal documentary photographic project about finding where one belongs. "I hope to complete them in 2014, unless something else interesting comes along, maybe in Hong Kong."
YAKUZA , AO Vertical Art Space, 13/F, 8 Fung Yip Street, Chai Wan. Ends January 25, 2014. Monday-Saturday, 10am-6pm. Inquiries: 2889 2503