Omar Essam’s ‘Japan Street Opera’ Shows How Inspitation Helps to Overcome a Creative Rut

All images by Omar Essam. Used with permission.

“It encouraged me to discover what I actually did over the next 18 days – without limits.” These are the words of Omar Essam as he describes the impact Japan had on him and his street photography. Having found himself in a rut, the Italian born photographer planned a trip to the other side of the world. Once he arrived he was overcome with inspiration, giving him fresh eyes and a thirst to create. Over the course of 18 days, he was “in a trance”, centered and focused on street photography. An environment in which he came into his own, he created some of his best work to date. In a series he calls Street Opera, Omar shows us his view of Japan – the country that gave birth to his fresh creative groove.

Phoblographer: Let’s go back to when you first arrived in Japan. You see the city, the culture, the atmosphere – from an artist’s perspective. What’s going through your mind at this point?

OE: I was surprised like a child when I got over the shuttle that should have picked me up from the airport to the midtown of Tokyo. It was the longest trip I ever had and for the very first time I was completely alone in a city that makes you feel very small. I was surrounded by skyscrapers, enormous streets, and tons of people walking around but never colliding into each other. All of it left me breathless for sure.

Phoblographer: What is the local response to street photography? Are you able to shoot without being noticed or do you find locals to be rather reserved and closed off in response to the practice?

OE: Tokyo is such a “Mecca” of street photography. The people know what street photography is about, and generally speaking, from my personal experience, they don’t allow you to photograph them. Therefore, I had to maintain an attitude in order not to be noticed. I have been caught sometimes, like in the frame “Ironic Wind”, but let me say I was in my artistic trance mood so that enriched the photo rather than it intimidating me.

Phoblographer: Where were you mentally prior to this trip? Had you hit a creative rut and the inspiration had come just when you needed it most?

OE: Before leaving for Japan, I hadn’t been shooting for a couple of months (the last project was about Naples in April). During that time I was collecting all the information about Japan and which places would have offered me more cues to photograph, but luckily all my plans went out of the window. For example, the first night in Tokyo I wanted to go to Shibuya just to calm down my curiosity. (Un)fortunately it was too late to go there by public transports so I took a ride near my hostel in Kita Senju where I took my favorite shoot of this trip (Taxi Driver). So I would say that the inspiration came out from the first day then all my frames came out naturally.

Phoblographer: On day one you’re hit with a ball of inspiration. By day 18, had your trip not ended, do you feel you still would have had the energy to keep creating and making more wonderful street photographs?

OE: During the trip I had no idea of what would have come out from these shoots. In a river of inspiration, I photographed lots of frames over the 18 days. At the beginning I was thinking about creating three different projects: Street Opera, Documentary, and Old Beauties. The latter came up as an idea in the last period of my trip when the inspiration started to decrease. So I decided to focus on the elderly people. This project is not released yet, maybe one day it will be included in “About Japan series”. By the way, said project helped me to have continuity and was crucial on the last days there.

Phoblographer: What was it like to have to cut that energy? Were you able to keep it running when you returned home?

OE: I can assure you that the energy I had in Japan is still alive every time I look at the photos. But once I came back home, after taking the time to set the projects, I went for smaller trips around Europe for which I will create something in the next future. In other places I’ve visited since I haven’t had the pleasure to find the same energy that Japan gave me. I think it was mainly because of the lack of time I had on my “European trips” having just a few days on each one. Not enough to assimilate the place in my opinion.

Phoblographer: You also did some documentary work whilst in Japan. How was your focus different in comparison to your street photography?

OE: As mentioned before, when in Japan, I never wondered what I was going to create, so I was shooting anytime my eyes felt satisfied of the frame I had in front of me. I used to check the photos of the previous day every morning, while having breakfast. By looking at those I realised that I was going to create two different projects. All I had to do was to subdivide the frames and give a way and a tone to each.

Phoblographer: In terms of the images that made the final cut. What do you feel drew you to these frames?

OE: The taken shots were really many and so were the ones that have obviously been discarded. Once I came home, I was surprised about the total number of shots I have taken and it took me a lot of time to check them all. Basically, my criteria for choosing was only one: Not to get boring. So I selected a limited number of frames that were connected to each other, it was quite intuitive.

Phoblographer: Comparing Tokyo to Naples – both hectic cities – where is crazier when shooting street photography?

OE: I would say definitely Tokyo. It’s a city that suits perfectly to the street photography experience – anytime of the day. Also Naples offers good ideas and interesting situations but is not so easy to capture compared to Tokyo. For instance, in Tokyo, even if you’re walking a dead end, you could probably come across something inspiring. Just to give you an idea, Tokyo has over 9 million inhabitants compared to the 900.000 of Naples. Anyway, I spent only one week in Naples and for this reason I can not have certainty. it’s just about my experience in these places.

Phoblographer: Finally, where’s your next series of inspiration going to be?

OE: I was born in Italy from Egyptian parents. I always saw Egypt with a tourist’s eyes since I used to go there during my childhood once every two years (one month stay). I haven’t been to Egypt in the last six years and this time I am planning to go and would like to create a project or more. In particular, I would like to visit places I have never been before, like the most rural Egypt along the Nile, or the New Valley zone. I will stop in Cairo as well, where the atmosphere is interesting for street photography.


You can enjoy more of Omar’s work by going to his Instagram and Behance pages.