Known for his punchy portraiture and insightful documentary photography, Tokyo-based Irwin Wong is a versatile photographer and director specializing in editorial portraiture and commercial projects. Aside from serving international clients such as Amazon, Nike, and Forbes, he has also written and photographed two books about Japanese culture. His latest work, The Obsessed – Otaku, Tribes and Subcultures of Japan, showcases compelling images of Japan’s diverse history and spectacular subcultures.
The Obsessed, published by Gestalten in 2022, explores the fantastic and weird subcultures that give Japan its cool cachet internationally. With over forty photographic portraits of individuals and groups from different parts of Japan, Irwin delivers striking visuals through his portrait photography, while also documenting their obsessions through interviews and text.
Featuring fashion, anime and gaming, custom automobile culture, and so much more, this book further illustrates Irwin’s versatility and his ability to study Japanese culture and create meaningful work.
I like people who are obsessed or dedicated to something. Whether it be craftspeople or subcultures, I think there are a lot of things we can learn from seeing people so unabashedly free and open with their passion and lifestyle, no matter how outlandish it may seem to an outsider.
Irwin has been photographing these eccentric and innovative subcultures since 2018, giving readers a peek into the everyday lives of extreme subculture fans. The project was originally conceived as a joint venture with another writer but when the partnership ended, he presented the evocative images to Gestalten, the publisher of his first book. As well as taking the photographs, Irwin wrote the text — unveiling the obsessive approach that many people take to their hobbies, passions, and lifestyle choices.
I interviewed each subject and supplemented that knowledge with research into the background of each subculture by reading newspaper articles or academic papers.
Through the use of social media, Irwin was able to find the individuals who took part in the project. In other cases, he met them directly at events and introduced himself as someone working on a book. While many of the major subcultures are represented throughout his book, there were a lot that Irwin wanted to photograph but had to leave out for various reasons — “some wanted money, others were simply not going to make the deadline. It’s an endless rabbit hole of discovery.”
Every photoshoot was planned in advance and Irwin did not use an assistant because there was no budget for one. He made sure the subcultures were aware of what he was going to do beforehand so that he wouldn’t intrude on their space.
Despite the common perception that Japanese culture is homogenous and conforms to societal norms, the many amazing subcultures on display indicate quite the contrary. From Lolita fashion and latex couture to neon-drenched big-rigs, anime-plastered vans, and chrome-heavy hot rods, subcultures in Japan are as varied as they are fascinating.
I think what makes each subculture stand out here is that people can find a community in the niche they love, and they spur each other on to compete with each other in a friendly way. I think there are a lot of takeaways from this – obviously it’s good to be able to live life according to your passions, but finding like-minded people clearly makes it much more fun!
Thinking about photography in general – I always reflect that I would never have an opportunity to meet and photograph these interesting people if I wasn’t a photographer. Also – the interview with Horiren, the tattoo artist turned Buddhist monk – was three hours long and brought us both to tears a few times. I wish I could have included more of her story in the text.
I’d like to credit Yu Wada – a superstar fixer who helped connect me with a lot of the subjects. I’d supply her a list of people I was interested in photographing, and she’d put them in touch with me, with the project all explained. It was a massive timesaver and I’m very grateful for her help.
See more of Irwin’s images on Instagram.