INTERVIEW WITH CALEB CRANE
Kendokas all over the world know “Simulacre”, an interesting blog full of marvellous kendo images that the photographer catches in fast and intense agonistic instants with amazing definition and expressiveness. For quite a long time I have wanted to know something more about this American man coming from Boston who has been living in Japan for more than four years and founded a network and computer security consulting company last year, at the age of 29. Keen on photography, he became a professional photographer for Kendo World Magazine. So I asked him if I could have an interview with him and he took it in good spirits: “It sounds fun”.
Living in Japan
1 – Why did you choose to live in Japan? Was it just an accident (due to your job) or real desire because of your interests (Minors in History and Asian Studies)? How did you end up there?
I wanted to go to Japan. In university I had a chance to do a year abroad in Nagoya, but would have had to give up my Computer Science major in order to graduate on time. I figured my chances of finding a good job would be much greater if I had a CS degree rather than just a History and Asian studies degree. I was right, I found a great job (mostly by chance) that I loved and kept me busy for five years.
During my time at Fidelity I made some great contacts with managers in Boston, Texas, Hong Kong and Tokyo. I even managed two business trips to Tokyo. I built some great technology from scratch, bought a house
with high ceilings, got a new car, a fast motorcycle, went through a few serious girlfriends and was generally content. Life was
The way I grew up is a bit different than most Americans. I lived on a farm until I was five. My mom and dad divorced - which is typical for Americans, I guess - and from then on I lived with my dad on the farm during the summer and my mom during the school year. At the start my mom had very little. We lived in a run-down house with a pot-belly wood stove for heat. She didn't have a bed to sleep on at first. She worked at a bar down the street and went to school during the day.
Eventually she graduated and we started moving around nearly every single year so that she could get a better job. Every school year I had to adjust to a new suburb and new people. It wasn't simple.
During the summers I worked on the farm from Monday to Friday with my dad. On Saturday's we'd drive in to Washington D.C. to sell our produce at the Eastern Market. We'd then spend the rest of the weekend in D.C. with my step-mother. Where she lived I was an absolute outsider. I didn't go to school with the local kids, so no one knew me. Our block was nice enough, but the neighborhood could be described as rough. There were definitely times when I didn't feel safe. I learned to keep my head down.
So by the time I was 14 I had lived in just about every cliche that America has to offer. I could honestly tell people that I was a
country hick, and inner city kid, suburb reject. I was also used to moving house constantly.
When I was 19 I lived in China the summer and had an absolute blast. A girl on the plane over taught me my first two words in Chinese, so when the immigration official demanded my documents I could say, "hello" and then "thank you" to the guy with a rifle pointed at me. By the time left China I was dreaming and talking in my sleep in Chinese.
These thoughts were not complex, at best a child's Chinese, but it opened a window for me. I realized that my failed attempts to learn French and Spanish in school didn't mean that I was incapable of learning a new language. Even better it could be fun. The best part was meeting people from other countries, seeing alien sights and eating lots of great food that I just couldn't find back home.
My decision to come to Japan was probably influenced by all of these things. I was comfortable in my house and job in Boston, but I had grown restless. I was used to moving around. I was used to having new experiences and constantly being thrown into a new environment. I wasn't having new experiences any more. I was just buying things. I had wanted to go to Japan in college, but had to pass on the opportunity. I had a great time in China, but had to leave after only three months. I could learn a new language if I immersed myself. So very many different languages are spoken in Boston, but immersion
would not be possible.
So one afternoon I walked into the office of an old boss with a lot of connections in the company. I told him that I wanted to go to Japan. He basically told me to get my resume ready then go meet Mr. So and So. I did as told and after a short interview Mr. SaS asked me when I could leave. Two months later I had sold my house, packed most of my things into storage and was on a plane.
None of my degrees have really had a direct influence on my work and interactions here, but I'm sure that the experience of studying for them and some of the information learned in school has helped.
2 – Was living in Japan as you expected it to be?
China I learned pretty early on that I would need to suspend my expectations in order to have a good time. When I travel I don't do much planning or researching about the country. I prefer to discover it organically. That way I don't build up any expectations that could be harshly deflated.
I didn't expect Japan to be wonderful or awful. I had read a bit about the culture and knew some of the language, but I tried to keep myself open to experiences as they came. Textbooks and television shows give people the idea that Japan is A,B, and C and Japanese are X,Y, and Z. The authors and writers present Japan - and any country - in a manner that makes people see it in black-and-white. People walk away with the notion that it is always rude to do such-and-such, or that Japanese never say so-and-so. When people come here with those preconceived extreme notions then they can certainly find situation and natives that will confirm those beliefs, but if they look more frankly and without expectation then they can find exceptions too. Anthropologists know that it's impossible to completely understand another culture because our observations are directly influenced by our own culture.
To sum up my babbling: Japan is and is not what I expected. I tried to quash my expectations before coming here and was mostly successful.
1 – How long is it since you’ve been playing kendo and why did you begin training?
I started kendo about a month after I moved here. Once I moved into my apartment I found a dojo down the street from my house and figured it would be something fun to try. It also seemed like a good way to practice Japanese as no one at the dojo spoke English. I moved here 4 1/2 years ago, so I've been doing kendo nearly as long with timeouts for a back and knee injury.
I wish I could say that I started kendo because I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but in the end it just seemed fun.
2 – Is kendo a separate reality from your everyday life – I mean, is it just a sporting interest or do you think that kendo influenced your way of being?
For the people that do kendo seriously here it seems to be a separate reality for them. Most of the close friends are from the dojo. When they go out it is with them. When the talk it is almost always about kendo. I've gone through periods when I spent most of my time around kendo people, but that was mostly at the beginning when I was just finding my place here. It is a bit fun to get my kendo buddies together with other "normal" people. The non-kendo people invariably end up asking questions that would be the equivalent of asking me if I can use chopsticks. It's always fun to watch and put natives into my daily situation.
Spiritually yes, kendo exists in another place for me. When it is suffocatingly hot or bone numbingly cold in the dojo it doesn't matter after keiko starts. Once the basics are down doing kendo calms me. My mind seems to shut down. All the worries and stresses of the day (or life) just fade away. All that exists is my opponent and me. I often lose, but I always walk away feeling better for it.
1 – When did your passion for photography begin?
My interest in photography began when I was very young and going through old pictures of my parents when they were my age and their parents. You can see some of those here.
I didn't have a camera of my own until I was 18. I took some interesting photos, but didn't know much about photography or how the camera works. I was still at a phase when I liked technology, but didn't think that I had enough brains to learn technical things. A lot of those photos are somewhere in my parent's attic. I guess I should dig them out some day.
I didn't seriously pick up photography until about to years ago. I was planning a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, and figured it was as good a time as any to pick up an SLR. I picked up a pretty cheap kit at biccamera and didn't give much thought to features.
2 – You wrote: “I don’t much care for camera specs as bedtime reading or wanking material”. It sounds strange for a person whose photos are acclaimed all over the world. It seems that you are a practical man; you prefer doing and learning by having experience of something, is that right?
Technical jargon and marchitecture for cameras don't interest me in the slightest. When people ask me which camera to buy I tell them to go for the one that you will take with you everywhere. Ergonomics and convenience trump everything else expect for in very specific situations.
I approach camera specs and all that like this: I use the camera that I have to shoot what I want. If I can't get the camera to take the photo I want I figure out why it can't and what feature will. Then I rent or buy the camera, or lens that has the feature I'm missing. I don't read a spec list then decide to buy a camera or lens. I decide what I want to shoot then get the camera with a spec lists that meets my needs.
When shooting kendo if you want to freeze the shinai while it is moving you need to shoot at a relatively high shutter speed. The arenas tend to be poorly lit, so you need to compensate for the high shutter speed with either a high ISO setting or a wide aperture. So you set your camera to an acceptable shutter speed and experiment with ISO settings and apertures until you find the combination that works for you. If you don't like the noise of a high ISO then open up the aperture. If the lens doesn't have a large enough aperture to suit your needs then get a different lens.
There's all sorts of other settings and features in a camera/lens that influence the resulting image. Just decide on what image you want to take then pick the right kit.
I guess I am practical. I love reading books, but I'd much rather experience life outside my door rather than on the couch reading about someone else's experiences. I absolutely prefer to learn how to fish by fishing rather than have someone write down and hand me the process. I'll ask for pointers and advice about a particular technique, but I need to discover the strategy on my own to actually internalize it.
1 – Last year you founded Helix Industries, based on you studies and your 8-years working experience. Can you tell us something more?
Helix Industries is a small network and computer security consulting company. I had been at Fidelity for 8 years and Japan for 3. I had the choice of signing on here full-time or returning to USA. I felt that
my time in Japan wasn't finished. I wanted to stay. The job I was in wasn't challenging though. They didn't really know what to do with my specific skill set; only that they wanted to keep me around.
I had been working in the marketing department at the time and realized that there was money in this country for this particular type of work. I approached three people that had skill sets necessary to starting a company and asked them to join me. We all kicked in money from our savings and submitted the paperwork to incorporate. Within a few months our investment had been payed off and we had some good leads on more business.
Basically it came down to a now-or-never decision. I could feel myself atrophying and needed a new challenge.
Your outlook on life
1 – Being young but: living in a foreign country, enriching one’s life with many travelling experiences, having a passion for photography appreciated all over the world, founding a company… elements like these create a special life and make me think about an open-minded and optimistic outlook on life. What’s your vision of life?
My outlook on life changes based on the circumstances of the day, who I am with and how much I've drunk.
I often call myself a pessimist, but I don't let it get in the way of my confidence to get the best out of any situation. I know that I will encounter negative situations, but I just fall back to my rough neighborhood mentality: I put my head down and keep walking.
I grew up with very few friends due to moving all the time, living on an isolated farm and spending weekends in a neighborhood where no one knew me. This I believe is why I value friendship so very much and why it takes me a while to actually make friends with people. I think friendship is incredibly valuable, but there are only really a few people that trust with my friendship. Only a few people that I know would drop everything and fly around the world to help me; the same
way I would help them if they needed me. Those are the people that I value more than anything/anyone else.
For me life is about having new and varied experiences, finding those relationships that you can trust and will last a lifetime, and controlling my own time. When I do die I want to be with people I love and be able to say that I had a unique and accomplished life. I just want to feel satisfied. I want to feel that I was never too scared to try something new and interesting.
2 – Is it right to say that you had dreams that you've realized? Have you got any more dreams you haven’t achieved yet?
Of course, I build new dreams for myself every single day. Some are simple and some are not. Lately I'm feeling in the mood to pack up a bag and hike from England to Japan. I'd like to build my company up to the point where I am employing lots of people and building a successful enterprise that will outlive me. I'd like to photograph the arctic. I'd love to spend a year on a boat sailing around the world. I'd like to start a farm of my own. I'd like to see one of my photographs hanging in the Smithsonian. I'd like to see an illustration of mine hanging in the Tate. I'd like to be able to draw.
This summer I want to ride my motorcycle across the USA. I'd love to play kendo for the rest of my life and love doing it every day. I'd be ecstatic to publish a book that's read and enjoyed by many. I wish to have happy and healthy children that carry on my family name, respect their family history and accomplish far more than me.
Caleb, I am very impressed by what you wrote.
I knew you were a special person, but now I know why.
Thank you for your kind words. The past few days have been a bit rough, so it is nice to receive encouragement.
I look forward to meeting you and the rest of the Italian kendoka when I visit Italy in the future.
Sure, probably in 2012. The WKC will take place in Italy!
Either way I'm hoping to get to Italy well before 2012. It's high on my list of countries to visit. I'll need some good recommendations for places to eat well...
This is the last thing I could think about after reading the interview: ....Caleb as a locked person!
Photos by courtesy of Caleb Crane