This complete stranger in the library handed me a red starburst. It was Irwin Lewis. We were in our Perspective Journalism class back in college and he never showed up to class without his camera. Irwin is mainly a street and documentary, black and white film photographer. He is based in San Francisco where he is working as a freelance photographer and also works on his zine, DUST, with some friends. During his trips to Japan, Irwin stayed with the same family, and experienced their way of life. I wanted to get his insight on his work and introduce Irwin because he has an interesting perspective on life and his surroundings.
Before you moved to SF, what were you doing?
I lived in Arizona, on a Native American Reservation known as Gila River. I was born in Southern California but raised on the rez. Most of my projects and ideas are inspired by my culture and growing up on the rez.
Are you full Native American?
Yes I am, Akimel O’odham (Pima).
What is it like being Native American and then seeing all these trendy items like feathers and dream catchers everywhere? Does it make you proud or does it piss you off?
When I do see these trendy Native items, I am not proud of it and it doesn’t piss me off. I am not proud cause I know that it wasn’t made with Native hands. And to see it as a fashion style, all these hipsters wearing these items are just sometimes funny to me. These items were made for protection, healing, and strength. They are used for ceremony reasons, but again it doesn’t piss me off. You should always know what you are really wearing or what you have in your life.
Was everyone on your skate team 100% Native American? Were they in the same tribe as you?
Most of our team members are from different tribes and are full blood Natives or half something else. But we don’t really care if you’re Native or not , as long as you love to skateboard for fun and just be yourself.
How did you get into black and white photography? What is your philosophy on shooting? What is your stance on film vs. digital?
I’ve always loved photographing in black and white (B&W). It was just something I was raised throughout my life as a photographer. With B&W you can develop it on your own and color you have to take it in and get processed. You’re with B&W from the beginning to the end. And that’s what I love about it; your film is close to you and that’s why we make photographs that are close to us.
My philosophy changes depending on the subject I am photographing. I can be a hunter and hunt for my subjects, a fisherman where I just wait for my subjects, or a creator that just creates the subject. I just take my time with everything in photography, being patient. I feel that when you create or find a project is almost like founding love. Projects come and go but you have that one project that you want to stand by and keep working on and then try to show it to the world and share it to everyone. Film vs. digital, I really don’t care. I just feel that digital is just another type of photography, just like oil and acrylic paintings. I just shoot in film cause of the quality and I like to be surprised and wait to see what I have shot. It’s like if someone is giving you a gift and when you open it, your surprised and happy cause you got what you always wanted.
Your photos seem digital. What camera and film do you use?
HAHA, seem digital? I shoot with a Canon AE-1 program. I only use two lenses, 50mm and a 28mm.
What's your favorite thing to shoot?
I love to shoot whatever and wherever. But I find myself more comfortable photographing people. Cause you can communicate with your subjects, talking to them and just getting to know them. Leaning about other cultures and peoples stories has inspired me a lot in my photography.
How do you organize your photos? Are they scattered everywhere or organized?
Well, my photographs are organized in boxes and marked. But I am not using a file cabinet or anything like that, though I should get one.
What's your favorite thing to do besides shoot?
I love to skateboard; skateboarding was the reason why I got into photography. I also love to make music; my sound is very chill, no lyrics just instrumental. Skateboarding and music both inspired me in my life and in my photography. Where if its just skating down a SF hill and pushing away my bad thoughts not looking back and focusing what’s in front of me. Making or listening to music and thinking about how the melody, dynamics, and rhythm. Controlling my thoughts of life; my photography wouldn’t be anything without these things I love.
What are your 4 favorite places to go in SF?
The Ferry Building where I can skate and focus on my skateboarding. SFMOMA, its free for me to get in so might as well take advantage of beautiful work. Just being on the streets in SF, walking around and photographing the people. It makes me feel comfortable with all this chaos around me.
Your story on Howard is insight into many of SF's homeless people, who are addicted to drugs and stealing on a daily basis to survive. Have you seen Howard since then? How can you describe the homeless in SF?
I photographed Howard and his story around 2009. Till this day I would walk into Chinatown and see if I can find him and just to see how he is doing. I haven’t seen him since last year in 2010. He told me one day that he wanted to leave SF. He didn’t tell me any reasons. He just said that he wanted to leave someday. Poverty in SF is not getting better nor worse. Describing it can have a different meaning. Lots of people become homeless because of the economy or they get involved with other things they may lead them in becoming homeless. Sometimes the choices we make can lead to tragedy. So when we make our next choice in life, we can learn from our past and create a better outcome. I’m just attracted to people, no matter if they’re homeless or not. You can always learn something new from them and sometimes they can teach something new about yourself. So I try to be open and meet new people as much as I can. A stranger you walk by everyday or someone sitting next to you may end up changing your life or theirs.
You've been to Japan twice now, lived with a family and photographed Japan. What did you learn about traveling across the world to photograph?
Well, not only I leaned about a beautiful culture but I also learned more about myself. Traveling to Japan alone has open up my mind, sight, and my soul. As I walked and observed the beautiful city of Tokyo that made me think fast and look beyond photography. And when I walked along side the rice fields in the clam silent town of Koriyama, that told me to slow down and appreciate what I see, feel, and know in my life. I can say that Japan has helped me find myself just like skateboarding, photography, and music.
Two words to describe the difference between America and Japan.
Big. Small. Cause when I went to McDonalds Japan didn’t have super size.
Many of my friends from Japan were amazed to see what I captured in their own country as a gaijin (non-Japanese). I had one friend, who told me, "Some Japanese people don’t think Japan has style, they want to move out of Japan. But, if they saw your photographs they would change their minds about being Japanese and be more Japanese.” She stated."
How does that make you feel? Since it's straight from a Japanese native.
When she told me that, I was amazed that my photographs have such a deep meaning. Though this isn’t what I am trying to say in Beautiful Silence. I can understand what she means. When I left the reservation, lots of my family members and friends were asking me if I am ever going to comeback or just stay and live in California thinking I would forget about them and my culture, which I never will. My family and my culture are the whole reasons why I am here today. I am in a leaning maze of life, just like our tribal symbol (The Man in The Maze). So when these Japanese kids are leaving their hometown to a different city or to a different country, it’s just their time to go out and live their life and learn or teach others. It is something we all do in our life and later we can bring back what we experienced and learned from our travels through life. It allows us to share and teach others so we can open up eyes and minds to the new future.
Visit Irwin's Site.
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