Todd Antony Explores Japan’s Unknown “Dekotora” Culture in Painterly Images

All photos by Todd Antony. Used with permission.

Japanese culture is full of many fascinating and colorful subcultures, but perhaps there’s nothing as intriguing as the Dekotora tradition. As its name — a portmanteau of the Japanese pronunciations of “decor” and “truck” — suggests, it involves decorating a truck’s interior but following a certain theme, or an aesthetic even. Dekotora is a mostly unknown culture among the older generations, and UK-based commercial advertising photographer Todd Antony helps shed light on this through his personal project of the same name.

Antony began shooting for Dekotora in 2013, as a side project while shooting various sub-cultures across the globe. He eventually decided on Japan as one of his destinations, wanting to do things differently and having discovered that the country is rich with sub-cultures to photograph. It wasn’t long before he stumbled upon the Dekotora and instantly knew that he had to document it.

There are many interesting bits in my recent chat with Antony, so I better let you read the full interview below.

Phoblographer: Hello Todd! Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do?

Todd Antony: I’m originally from New Zealand, but moved to the UK 13 years ago where I’m a commercial advertising photographer. I’m represented here, as well as the US, France and Australia. Aside from my commercial work, I try to shoot a personal project each year to keep myself creatively fresh and engaged. It’s a fairly symbiotic relationship between my commercial and personal work. The commercial work helps to finance my personal projects, and in return, the personal projects often help to land me commercial jobs.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography? How did you discover the kind of photography and imagery that you make now?

Antony: I first started taking photos when I was around 13. My dad brought home a Canon EOS 650 from his office one day, and I started shooting pretty much anything and everything in sight. From there I started taking it at high school in New Zealand a few years later before moving on to University for a year. I took a slightly unusual detour for a few years, working as a photographer on cruise ships, where I got to travel the world and take photos at the same time. I returned to NZ eventually and began assisting an advertising photographer called Chris Lewis there who became a real mentor and friend to me. His input to my career was incalculable.

The sort of personal work I shoot now all stemmed from a personal project I shot a few years ago on the Sun City Poms, in Arizona. One night while travelling the US shooting landscapes, I stopped off later at night in a place called Sun City. I jumped online to find out where in the world I actually was, and came across the Sun City Poms. I didn’t shoot them while I was there, but rather got in touch with them and returned a couple of years later to shoot the series on them. I shot a great campaign for Finlandia Vodka a couple of years after that, that had us travelling around the world shooting ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives. A gay, drag, luche libra wrestler in El Paso, all the way through to a man who lives with Grizzly Bears in Lapland. I’ve never come off a commercial project feeling quite as fulfilled on an emotional level as I did in that job, From that point on, I knew that I wanted to concentrate my personal work on people like that and sub-cultures.

Phoblographer: We’re particularly interested in your Dekotora project. How did the idea for this project come to you? What served as your inspiration for this project?

Antony: I try and undertake a personal project every year in whatever gap my commercial shooting schedule allows. For the last few years, this personal work has been focused on shooting various sub-cultures around the world. This started back in around 2013 when I shot my series ‘Sun City Poms’ and has evolved from there. In some instances it has even crossed over into a couple of my commercial shoots as well. I was researching for a new part of the project and in this instance, different to how I would normally do it, I actually decided on Japan as location for my starting point for research, as there is a wealth of different sub cultures over there. From there it wasn’t long before I came across Dekotora and I instantly knew that I had to shoot it. From there it was a case of working out how I wanted to portray the drivers and the narrative I wanted to get across. Visually, movies like Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives’ provided a lot of inspiration, as well as ‘Blade Runner’ which was a hard one not to reference.

Phoblographer: Dekotora shows us a fascinating peek into a virtually unknown side of Japanese culture. What do you think is the most compelling element that makes this tradition worthy of being documented?

Antony: Aside from the obvious instant visual impact the trucks have, I think it’s about finding the extraordinary within the ordinary. We’re all used to seeing trucks hauling things down the motorway. The trucks themselves we never really give much of a 2nd glance, and it’s sometimes almost hard to relate to the fact that there’s a driver in them. All we see is the truck really. These Dekotora drivers have a relationship with their trucks in an abstract way. So I wanted to show that, and the human side of the truckers as well.

Phoblographer: Based on your experience doing this project, what is the current state of the Dekotora tradition? Are there still a lot of drivers passionate about this craft? Are there any young ones picking up this unique art?

Antony: Dekotora has been around from roughly 1975, and at it’s peak there were thousands of drivers. Now it is unfortunately very much on the decline and the number of drivers is now in the hundreds. That played a small part in my motivation to shoot the series, as at some point in the future, Dekotora might not exist potentially. When I’m researching my new projects I always come across things that I think are incredible, only to find out shortly after that they are no longer in effect.

Phoblographer: Out of all the trucks you photographed for the project, which one made the most impact on you? Are there any memorable stories or experiences that you learned from the drivers?

Antony: Junichi Tajima and his trucks definitely had the most impact on me. He is the head of the Utamaro Kai (the association of Dekotora Drivers) and I spent the most time with him both before and during the shoot. We ended up in a Ramen bar, that looked like a set of a Wes Anderson movie, at midnight in the middle of nowhere after the shoot. He knew the owner so got him to stay open late for us, And we just sat there drinking cold beer and talking about anything and everything, through my producer Mai translating for me. I asked him what Dekotora means to him, he said, “After 40 years, Dekotora is my children, my brothers, my family.”

Phoblographer: Can you tell us about the gear you used for this project? What made you choose to work with these tools in particular? How did they allow you to achieve the results that you wanted?

Antony: I used my Phase One XF100 digital camera for the shoot. It’s my main camera. Medium format and 100MP, so the level of detail it provides, and the dynamic range, is absolutely incredible. Lighting wise, I rented Profoto lights once we got to Tokyo. The lighting in the images was pretty much a 50/50 blend of ambient/available light, that was then supplemented with my flash equipment.

Phoblographer: Which aspect of this project did you find most challenging? How did you work around it?

Antony: This project had a few challenging aspects that were unique to a lot of my previous shoots. Obviously, with shooting in Japan there was the language issue, as well as the culture over there being very different to work in. There’s a distinctly different way you need to approach things over there. Despite having learnt Japanese at school, I’d basically forgotten 95% of it, which wasn’t overly helpful. Luckily, one of my main assistants speaks fluent Japanese, so he was a ‘must have’ in my equipment list so to speak. I also hired a local producer to help me with the pre-production of the shoot, contacting various people to help organize everything in advance. And then she was also with us on the shoot to help further with logistics, language, and most importantly she had already laid the groundwork by meeting a couple of the key figures in the series prior to our arrival in Japan. The heat was also played a large and unwelcome part in the shoot. There was a typhoon of the coast of Japan, so the temperature was in the high 30’s and nearly 100% humidity. We spent the best part of a day inside a shed that was housing one of the trucks, and the temperature was well into the 40’s. It was like shooting in a sauna for 10 hours.

Phoblographer: What do you consider to be the most crucial element that makes your style truly your own?

Antony: That’s a hard one to put my finger on really. I shoot such a broad range of subjects across my personal and domestic work. My portrait and landscape work used to feel completely different to each other years ago. Never sat very well together. But over time, as my style evolved and was honed, my images now have a cohesion to them, no matter what the subject matter. I think most of that is down to color and tone which I always spend a lot of time on.

Phoblographer: Lastly, what would you advise those who want to make their own unique photography projects?

Antony: Shoot what you are most passionate and interested in. Not what you think you should be shooting because you think it will be well received by someone else. If it’s something you are passionate about, that will provide the motivation needed to stick with the project and will hopefully come through in the work itself and it will find its audience.

Don’t forget to check out Todd Antony’s website and Instagram to see more of his work.