By Paul del Rosario
“WHERE DO I BEGIN?”
This is what I asked myself after meeting photographer, Mattias Westfalk for the first time. You would probably ask yourself the same thing if you had to write an article about a professional photographer from Sweden, currently based in Tokyo, having returned “home to Japan” after spending the last three years living in Thailand, whose body is covered in tattoos from ankles to finger to throat, and loves heavy metal. This guy is a story salad.
Then comes the hard part: discussing his photos, his life as a professional photographer in Tokyo, and how traveling with camera in hand all come together to tell one hell of a story. Let’s begin.
MATTIAS LIKES IKEA MEATBALLS
Mattias left his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden at the age of seventeen, and has been on the road ever since. He’s forty-three now. He was a merchant marine for ten years, and now, the world is his current base. Mattias is a mild-mannered guy. He’s fluent in English and Japanese, and I can really see how he likes Japan and how Japan likes him. However, roving photographers like him don’t really settle down. They just move from one place to another, absorbing and documenting the culture around them. He identifies himself as a traveling lifestyle photographer, and he does so framing the spectrum of people, architecture, music and everything else in between that makes each culture so remarkable and unique.
THE OGRE CONNECTION
I first communicated with Mattias via email several years ago. Mattias was living in Thailand at the time working on an offshore oil project – not as a photographer, but blue collar stuff like Bruce Willis in Armageddon. Before moving to Thailand, he had produced a music video for a Japanese heavy metal band called OGRE, and I was preparing to shoot something similar, so I was referred to him for advice by a mutual friend.
Then on a separate occasion, while researching about a certain district in Tokyo called, Sanya, I had come across another very talented street photographer named, Motoyan, who also happened to be friends with Mattias. Seems like an incestuous network of artists in Tokyo, I thought. So, when I finally met Mattias in person a few years ago, we already had mutual things to talk about which was nice because I didn’t want to start off the interview with “tell me about your photos.”
When a pro photographer says “let me show you my photos,” for me that’s like Jimi Hendrix saying “Hey, man, you wanna hear some music?” I thought, “hell yeah!” While chatting over coffee in cafe in Shinjuku,Mattias passed me a thick stack of around 50 ~ 60 printed photos, as well as a photo book he made of a trip to Nepal. I had come to admire his work from the photos I’ve seen on his website as well as a couple of blogs that he manages. However, I noticed that there were many photos that I had not seen before. It was cool because many of the prints were new to me, and I was expecting to see a lot of what I had already seen online. So, it was a nice surprise.
When I asked him why he hadn’t uploaded them onto his website, his reply was something to the effect that there was no urgency to put them online for display. He didn’t seemed pressured to stay up-to-date on things. He didn’t seem anxious to market his work and skills for projects and what not. I got the impression that Mattias is not the type of photographer to say “Hey, man, you have got to check out my cool photos NOW!"
As of this writing, 120 LOVE will be putting those unpublished images to print in a booklet tentatively called "A Four Letter Word." You can think of "ASIA" or whatever suits your imagination. So, some of those images that I first saw in the cafe, will now see the light of day. Stay tuned, people!
If I were to categorize Mattias’ work, I would classify them into two categories: soft and hard. The soft being clean, fit for the general-public editorials for ANA’s in-flight magazines, as well as his travel photos which has a Steve McCurry flavor of daily life in some of the countries he’s visited; particularly in Southeast Asia.
In Mattias’ travel photos, you will notice a consistent simplicity in form and composition. At times, there are only perhaps two or three dominant colors that seem to ooze in an organized fashion. His use of geometry and lines are pronounced, very clean, and balanced; reminds me of a mixture of a Rothko and Mondrian painting.
Mattias’ travel and lifestyle photos focuses on the simple things we don’t really consider; yet these familiar objects are filled with flavor and emotional substance. They are calming, and they move. This is where I begin to scratch my head in wonder. I’m surprised how Mattias can seemingly shift photo modes when he shoots his “hard” stuff.
GENTLE HEAD BANG
Mattias is into Tokyo’s underground scene of heavy metal bands, tattoos, the bike culture, so he likes to photograph people that look like they’re either going to eat you for dinner or bust a cap in your ass. His subjects are big, usually splattered with intricate tattoos, and some Japanese dudes even look like East L.A. cholos. Mattias’ portraits of people from “the gutter” tend to look abrasive or intimidating in nature; perhaps they really are, but when they are captured on camera, their scary qualities are lessened or neutralized in a way that makes them look more approachable and dignified. They serve as a gentle reminder that these hard-core looking rockers, bikers, tattoo lovers are human just like everyone else. They pose, they laugh, smile, and they show the world who they are. If the subjects in his photos could speak, they would probably say something like “Peace, bro.” rather than “I’m gonna kick your ass!” Mattias demonstrates very well the artistry of how a good photographer can enhance someones persona.
From this moment on, play any track from Iron Maiden and turn up the volume on the iPhone; it will add a nice dimension when you look at Mattias’ other photo specialty – the hardcore life from the heavy metal / tattoo art in Tokyo.
You get the picture? Hard, loud, veins popping out, sweat, long hair, tinnitus from standing in front of the speaker. The whole bit. This is not the place for Japanese boy bands or “AKB666″ bullshit; this is Tokyo’s underground heavy metal music scene, and Mattias can often be found with his Canon 5D snapping away at these gigs. Justin Bieber would be eaten alive at these types of places (and should be).
Mattias relies on his 580Ex flash combined with a slow shutter speed to capture the musical insanity of screaming, guitar distortion, and crashing cymbals. His shots are focused on either the instruments or on the entranced crowd. I particularly like how the borders of his gig photos are black which gives me a kind of pinhole feel into this dark scene. It gives me the feeling of tunnel vision or that I’m drunk from Tequila shots or high from the intense thrashing.
ONE ROLL OF FILM
One of the biggest privileges I've had was to co-produce with Mattias and two other Tokyo-based photographers a short documentary called "One Roll of Film" in collaboration with Hasselblad Japan. In brief, this experience of working with Mattias on this project was a high point in that he was the one that infected me with the Hasselblad bug. If it weren't for him, 6x6 film photography on the iconic Hassy would probably never have happened and neither would this project,
LOVE ON THE ROAD
Mattias told me that despite his appreciation for metal music and Tokyo’s underground, his passion is really to travel the world with his camera. Sure, photographing bands such as Slayer, Anthrax, and Suicidal Tendencies in Tokyo for music magazines was exciting, however, in the mountains, in the desert, in a rainforest or some side street in Hanoi, this is where Mattias feels “at home(s).” He also says that he’s still living that life. Where is his next base? Only Mattias knows.
Mattias is a very versatile photographer. He’s has the talent to shoot the streets of Bangkok or dogs on a beach, and equally capable of photographing headbangers with horns. What struck me is that Mattias approaches photography with a pragmatic view. He understands that being a professional photographer requires hustling and determination to survive even if it means shooting mundane things like car rims or toilet accessories for crap pay. In this economy, there’s a price to pay when your camera is the means to pay the rent – limited freedom to shoot the way you want to shoot and lead a relatively comfortable existence.
Mattias is not extravagant; he doesn’t need glamour and fame, he’s comfortable staying at cheap hotels, he doesn’t need a Volvo, he rides his bike all over Tokyo. Mattias liberates himself from that romantic image of a professional photographer that perhaps some budding photographers want. Mattias says “I want to be an amateur.” And he says that not with his nose in the air. What he means is that he does not want the pressure to have to shoot stuff that are restrictive, mind-numbing, and not being able to sustain a normal life. There has to be a point when you have to modify your life to be comfortable and then have the freedom to create with your camera. And this is why he’s absolutely fine doing work completely outside of photography; he is truly a “free” freelance photographer and has the freedom to shoot. I can dig that.
It's been over three years since my first meeting with Mattias, and sad to report that his time in Japan has come to an end. He was not meant to settle in just one place, and the same goes for Asia. Mattias moves on with his cameras and lives out what many people including myself only dream of – being free, seeing the world, and living life to it's fullest. Fuck being a cog in the machine.