Photographing Cats in Japan¹
by Ken Flick (written Nov.2005)
Five years ago, my wife, Helmi Flick, decided to turn her passion for photographing our own cats into a profession. At the age of 55, she committed herself to a career as a Cat Photographer. I supported Helmi in this venture by building her a shooting stage for formal portraiture and assisting her at cat shows by doing her lighting and cat wrangling, coaxing the cats into the poses we want to capture. In this manner, we began working as a team, driving to cat shows, usually within a few hundred kilometers of our home in the Dallas, Texas, area with a minivan full of staging and lighting gear.
It was not long before people around the U.S. began to take notice of Helmi’s work and within 15 months, she was invited to be the official Show Photographer at The International Cat Association’s (TICA) 2002 Annual show in Washington DC. This was an international event attended by exhibitors (and their cats) from around the world. Since then, Helmi and I have ranged farther from home in our travels as she has been invited to shoot at shows across the U.S. and even in Canada, where we were invited to shoot at TICA’s 2004 Annual in Edmonton last year.
For all of our travels in recent years, though, neither Helmi nor I had ever been outside of North America. So we were both thrilled and honored this year  when Helmi was invited to shoot at a show in Tokyo in October. Our hosts, the Global Cat Union cat club, which was sponsoring this show, generously offered to cover all our travel expenses.
Our biggest challenge in accepting the invitation to shoot in Japan was logistical. This would be our first time ever to fly to a show and we had figure out how to condense our minivan full of gear into a cargo volume that would fall within the baggage allowance. That required, among other things, a total redesign of our shooting stage. Having committed to shoot at a show in Florida the weekend before the Tokyo show, our other big challenge was in driving home 1,700 kilometers non-stop, with the last hurricane of the season blowing at our backs, in time to re-pack our equipment and catch our flight to Tokyo.
As much as we had been cautioned about the effects of jet lag when crossing the International Date Line and losing a day, we were already exhausted by the time we got on the plane. It was only the sheer adrenaline rush of being in an exotic land that got us through our week in Japan.
And “exotic” is the word for it. For all the cultural differences and language difficulties we might have felt traveling in Europe – or a European might experience in the U.S. – there is at least some shared heritage of western culture and customs common to Americans and Europeans. But with not so much as an alphabet in common, Japan could not have been more foreign to us had it been Mars. As extremely different as Japan was, though, we found it to be extremely delightful as well. It was a constant joy to encounter people as unfailingly gracious as we found the Japanese to be. Everyone we dealt with was pleasant, considerate, courteous, helpful and generous. The net effect was that they made us feel intensely welcome to be in their land.
And no one showed us more kindness than our hosts Sabi Karato and her husband, Toshi. Sabi, who extended the invitation to Helmi on behalf of the cat club, coordinated all the details of our trip in the months before our arrival and saw to our every need during our stay in Tokyo. Indeed, without Sabi acting as our liaison during the show, it would have been impossible for Helmi and I to have conducted business with those of our customers who did not speak English.
We had no trouble communicating with their cats, though. As feline models, the cats of Japan were just as cooperative – or, according to their whims, just as oblivious – as cats anywhere. We had expected to see quite a few Japanese Bobtails in the mix of breeds we encountered. However, this breed is not so prized in its homeland where it is regarded as somewhat commonplace. The breeds most in evidence at the Tokyo show were Maine Coons, Norwegians and Siberians. We shot one very nice Bengal named Foss. [see below]
This was a small show, compared to most cat shows in the U.S. There were only 70 or so cats entered, yet we photographed roughly 50 of them, a far greater percentage than is usual for us.
Many of our customers made a special effort to let us know they were honored to have us there. In fact, the Yoshidas, pictured here with their two Maine Coons, entered this, their first ever cat show, in order to have Helmi photograph their cats. Like a few other customers at this show, the Yoshidas also wanted some shots of themselves with their cats. [see photo]
Our cat shows in the States are typically located in suburban areas. But this show, which was only two blocks from our hotel in the Kinshicho district, was located on the ninth floor of a modern 10 story building in a very commercial part of town. Other floors were filled with restaurants and clothing stores.
After the show was over, we spent three more days in Tokyo as the guests of Tracey Taylor and Dee Green, two Australian photographer friends of ours who run an English Language school there. We had a great time sightseeing, dining and doing a lot of relaxing. On our last day there, our friends took us for a traditional Japanese luncheon and took our picture in the very Zen garden in the restaurant courtyard. [see photo]
Business trips are rarely as pleasurable as this one was for us, and rarely as exhausting. On the flight home we gained back the day we lost, but then we squandered that day and most of the next week in a delicious lethargy of self-indulgent jet lag indolence.
1. Since being invited to Japan, the Flicks have since been invited to photograph in Germany in 2006.