Chihiro (@lia_ottsu) left Japan following her boyfriend but mostly because she felt she would stagnate in Tokyo as an artist. From starting off as a self-taught photographer in Sydney, interpreting her roots in Tokyo, to a new artistic adventure in Berlin, she’s always shooting along the way.
Chihiro relocated to the German capital early 2019, we helped with her visa and are happy to present her as part of our Meet the Expats series.
How long have you been a photographer?
Professionally three years, but I started before. I lived in Australia for four years and picked it up as a hobby. I started to earn some money with it and people asked me to shoot things. When I went back to Japan, I decided to learn more about the technical aspect of photography so after all the experiences, I do shoot for fashion editorials, lookbooks and campaigns as a freelance photographer but on the other side, I also work as an artist.
Your work has very evocative titles. It’s not just untitled pictures.
I usually go somewhere and take pictures of what I find attractive and then put it all together as a piece of work, as a book, as an exhibit. I had an exhibition last summer in Hamburg. It was amazing for me, people coming to ask questions, people buying the works. When I first went to Hamburg, I saw a lot of yellow everywhere, on buildings etc. I asked why is there so much yellow in this city and my boyfriend joked: “Because the German president liked fried eggs.” I believed him, like oh Germany seems to be a very interesting country, I didn’t know (laughs). But then he told me and I made a book about it, and he wrote poetry with the pictures.
Visas are how you got in touch with Expats in Wonderland. We can talk about them right away.
First I came here on a travel visa. As a Japanese you can stay here for three months maximum. Before it expires, I applied for this job seeker visa which gives you time during which you can look for a job. When I went to the office they denied it because my university certificate wasn’t in the system. They had my university but neither the department nor the degree.
So it was a technical problem on the immigration office’s side?
Yea they told me to do research and get all the names and stuff, and that it would take two to three months and cost me €200 to get the names validated. Why? It doesn’t make sense.
I was desperate and then my boyfriend’s colleagues knew Ina and gave us her contact the contact to Ina. And now I can stay 2 years thanks to Expats In Wonderland. Everything was quick, she’s very professional. She’s very strong and helpful too (laughs).
I can imagine it was quite a lot of stress.
So stressful and as a funny bonus story: I had the bridging visa which is what you get temporarily while you wait for your visa. So I had booked a trip to Morocco, everything planned but with that visa you can’t leave the country. If they find out that you are out and coming back, you make things a lot more difficult.
So you didn’t go to Morocco?
No. Although I asked so many people such as the Japanese embassy but nobody knew. At the end we went to the actual airport to ask the officer: “Hey can I come back with that visa.” They answered no but everyone else just says: “I don’t know and the person at the visa office had said yea yea… I learnt something, it is a bit negative but never trust 100%.
Is that your tip for any expat coming? Double check everything coming from the Ausländerbehörde?
(laughs) Triple check. You also have to work, it’s your choice at the end of the day.
Why did you choose to move to Berlin?
It’s an interesting story. I came here for my boyfriend but I also wanted to focus more on my photography and the artistic side of it. I did some exhibitions in Japan and Korea but I didn’t really get any feedback. They tell you it’s great work and that’s it, they don’t really share what they really feel deep down. I guess It’s very cultural, they are always nice.
Living for so long outside of Japan has changed you in that regard? Are you used to direct feedback?
That or debate. So I felt that if I wanted to pursue art photography and grow further, I need to go somewhere else.
What kind of work did you start with in Australia and Japan?
I worked for some fashion magazines in Sydney, taking pictures of events and then when I moved back to Japan, I worked as an assistant for this fashion photographer in Tokyo. In order to learn some real skills for lighting setup I additionally worked at a photo studio.
Did you like it?
It was quite hard, the studio was open from 8 in the morning to the following day, basically almost 24/7, with no days off. One had to work really long shifts, like 15 hours.
That’s insane. The work ethics are so different in Japan compared to Europe.
Looking at my boyfriend, it seems easier. Sometimes he complains like he has to work longer a day, but I was working 15/16 hours everyday.
You just go to work and you sleep, that’s it?
Yes, sometimes I was sleeping in the studio. You work until midnight and then you miss the last train. You put the reflection board on the floor and take a blanket. A lot of people do that in the photography world. But at some point, I had enough to do regarding my freelance work like shooting for fashion magazines, lookbooks and campaigns, as well as photographing interviews for different media outlets. I offer the same here in Berlin and hopefully I can push my art work more and make a living from it.
What do you like most about Berlin so far?
I like the mixture. It doesn’t matter where you are from. I feel its really diverse but I need to find out more as you need to live in a place to really understand the culture and it’s dynamics.
Do you miss anything from Japan?
The old Jazz cafe in my area where I used to live in Tokyo. Some old-school cafes in Japan are allow you to smoke inside so I loved it for that. One can enjoy coffee and a cigarette at the same time and the owner of the cafe loved old movies, so he had a huge collection of Godar books…
…and of course my friends, my family and my grumpy cat.