Renowned Japanese photographer inspires at Spark

Photographer Toaki Okano shared his experiences with a packed crowd at Spark Week.
Photo:Tom Rowland

Follow your heart was the message from Japanese photographer Toaki Okano to a packed crowd at this year’s Wintec Spark festival.

On introduction, Okano admitted to nerves and excitement prior to his presentation.

“I saw the people in the [Wintec] Hub and thought shit, is that the crowd, oh no,” Okano said.

However, once on stage Okano stole the audience with a visual and captivating journey through his career.

What started with a fascination over his father’s camera, led Okano on a path to producing work with the likes of whiteware colossus Fisher and Paykel, and band Shihad.

“It was a magical moment [picking up the camera], the process was not magical but the actual taking of the photo was sensational.”

It was not always so easy for the photographer. After dropping his education, Okano worked in a restaurant and a fashion retail store, before moving to photography.

Applying for a role as an assistant at a local photography firm in Japan, Okano got the call two weeks later with a job offer. He worked as a photographer’s assistant for two years.

Okano wanted to be better than an assistant, and for several years he moved between roles from freelance, to chief photographer, and then back to assistant during his time in Japan.

At the end of the 1990s, Okano met his wife and moved to New Zealand.

“We came to New Zealand and I loved it, you just have space, I was born in Tokyo so I know about space, [in NZ] you can stretch your arms and you can walk straight.

“I had a quite a thick portfolio, so I applied with every agency and they would say ‘come, come, come’ and would say ‘wow, such a thick book’, but still no one gave me a job.”

Okano reverted back to a role as an assistant in Auckland to establish his credentials, and spent three years assisting photographer Tony Drayton.

A new offer in Auckland came up and, this time, admittedly with a smaller portfolio, he won his first photography job in New Zealand

It took a move across to another country, several determined years of trying to break into the photography world, but Okano has now solidified himself as a renowned photographer in New Zealand.

For students on the path to becoming a photographer, Okano only had one line.

“Follow your heart and just go for it.”