Sacha Dean Bïyan
“Life is finite, but within are infinite possibilities. So I try to remain open to wonder, to exhilaration, to the messy, catastrophically beautiful nature of existence.”
―Sacha Dean Bïyan
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It’s been 16 years since we last interviewed you. Loads to catch up on. What have you been up to? Any new assignments?
Sixteen years feels like an eternity. In that period, technology has revolutionized the way images are made, and consequently, their intrinsic value and significance within society. Cell phones, digital cameras and social media have facilitated the democratization and homogenization of photography. Nowadays, the barrier to entry is low, meaning anyone can pick up a camera, build an online following, and boom! — they’re a “photographer”. While it’s great that so many people have this freedom to express themselves, it comes at a cost.
I’m old school, so I miss the human aspect of photography, the nuances that gave analog images a certain character, or feeling. Every photographer used to have a signature style, which was instantly recognizable. It took a real mastery of the craft to develop that style. These days, everything kind of looks the same because of an over reliance on machines and software, and an over saturation of images on social media.
When I noticed this shift happening in the industry, I decided to quit commercial photography at the height of my career in 2012, and focus on my own projects. I spent the better part of the last decade off the grid, without social media, just traveling around the globe acquiring life experiences, capturing images I truly cared about. It was a conscious decision to regain my freedom, to return to my roots as a photographer, and to be driven purely by my love of the craft and my unquenchable curiosity. In a way, it was my attempt to fulfill the most privileged assignment of all: life.
Do you have any new favorite locations to shoot?
I spent five years in Japan, which was an unforgettable experience, particularly during the pandemic. In 2020, when Japan closed its border and declared a state of emergency, I discovered a silver lining to the pandemic. In the absence of tourists, I could see the ghosts of Japan’s past. I’d be in an empty alleyway at night, and suddenly, a black cat or a geisha would slip out of the shadows like a throwback to the chiaroscuro films of Kurosawa and Ozu.
Although I grew up in North America, I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture. My earliest impressions of Japan were shaped by the cyberpunk imagery of Blade Runner, and the mangas of my childhood. Later, the stories of Kawabata and Murakami and the poetry of Bashō invoked a deeper appreciation of traditional Japanese art and culture. I left New York City in 2016 to explore my visceral connection to Japan. A friend once told me that Japanese culture dwells in the shadows. Whether it’s tea ceremonies, flower arrangements, gardening or architecture, there’s always a conscious appreciation of subtlety — that which is hidden. This sentiment captures the very reason I became a photographer as well as my desire to explore Japan.
To catch a glimpse of Japan’s fabled past, I settled on the ancient city of Kyoto, the center of traditional Japanese art and culture. As one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, Kyoto had some obvious drawbacks: it was overexposed, over-photographed, and overrun with tourists. Four years passed, and I had very few images to show for it. Then the pandemic hit. An unusual stillness and hush descended upon the city, and slowly, Kyoto’s true character emerged. I suddenly found myself in an alternate reality, immersed in the most extraordinary setting with all sorts of intriguing characters. Having that Kyoto all to myself was like a dream come true. I seized every moment.
Has your style changed over the years? What camera and equipment do you use?
While my style remains the same, my approach to photography has changed. In a sense, I feel like I’ve come full circle. During the pandemic, I began recording my experiences in Japan with my workhorse Hasselblad H6D camera because, well, old habits die hard. However, I often found myself reaching for my iPhone, which was quicker and more discreet, but lacking the quality I desired. As a compromise, I purchased a Leica M10, a compact 35mm rangefinder camera similar to the one I started out with thirty-five years ago.
Soon, I rediscovered a way to photograph with fresh, inspired eyes. After so many years of working with big crews and bulky equipment, I had developed a rather rigid approach to photography. So, I came to appreciate the simplicity and spontaneity of these in-the-moment shots. I almost felt like a paparazzi. This whole experience brought back the thrill of discovery as when I first started out, which had been lost to me in the world of commercial photography.
What does your photography aim to communicate?
In the purest sense, my goal is to convey a feeling. I recently worked on a very special project called Visceral, which paired some of my images of Japan during the pandemic with original haikus by ninety year old living legend, Dr. Shunkichi Baba, a pioneer of avant garde haiku. It was an honor to collaborate with Dr. Baba because I had always admired the simplicity and sophistication of his masterful haikus.
The pairing of photo and haiku seemed natural to us because both art forms aspire to the Japanese concept of yugen, which is the ability to evoke an emotion so profound and mysterious it can only be felt, not described. Ultimately, Dr. Baba’s perspective allowed me to see my own photos in a way I’ve never seen before. Our collaboration was like a modern incarnation of Haiga, an art form dating back to 17th century haiku masters who created simple paintings alongside haiku. These paintings and poems complemented each other and formed a complete visual and artistic expression.
Similarly, Dr. Baba and I shared the belief that words and pictures together are more potent than either alone. Each inspires the other, though neither defines the other. To me, a photograph is a haiku. The purpose of both is to express the essence of a moment, a feeling. Our goal from the onset was to transcend the language of images and words, and bring the observer closer to an actual feeling.
Are there any current art trends you follow?
I don’t usually follow trends, but I did step one foot into the non-fungible token (NFT) space. I decided to give it a shot because I believe blockchain technology has the power to usher in a brave new decentralized art world, one that’s fair, balanced, and hopefully more intelligent than the one we have today. I think NFTs have demonstrated that art can be democratic – a medium for everyone.
I recently launched the first five NFTs from my Visceral collection of photo-haikus with Dr. Baba, which are available for purchase on the Rarible marketplace. These five NFTs were exhibited earlier this summer during the 59th Venice Biennale. They’re also part of a broader collection of images that will be exhibited in collaboration with the Kyoto City International Foundation.
Over the years, which shoot has been the most impactful?
I can’t pinpoint any specific shoot that I consider as the most impactful. Many of them have affected me profoundly, and even changed my perception of things. I’ve been fortunate to acquire a unique myriad of experiences from around the world. Over the past thirty years, my camera has been an instrument to see into the shadows of the human soul. My encounters with cultures around the world and people from all walks of life have shown me that there is no race but the human race. And its beauty stems from our sameness despite our differences.
Every person has a story of love and heartbreak, of joy and tragedy, hope and despair. Everyone shares similar dreams and aspirations. Every single human is fascinating if we care to look and listen. My work is a celebration of every one of us. It reflects my awe of being alive and my thrill of discovering what it means to be us in every shape, color, and form. For me, there is nothing more impactful than that.
What is your artistic outlook on life?
From a lifetime of both ordinary and extraordinary experiences, I’ve learned a thing or two. Like all of us, I’ve found good and bad, love and hate, pleasure and pain, comedy and tragedy — all the yin and yang pairings. My conclusion is that every life narrative is inevitably a collection of ‘woohoos’ and ‘boohoos’. And my creative outlook on life is merely a meditation on this discovery.
Life is finite, but within are infinite possibilities. So I try to remain open to wonder, to exhilaration, to the messy, catastrophically beautiful nature of existence. Yet at the same time, I’m acutely aware of the opposite pairing — that I’m not immortal — that all I have, as Buddhists will attest, is now. So death motivates me to live. In the course of my travels, I’ve glimpsed the face of death on four occasions. Each time, it whispered the same promise into my ear: “I’ll be back”. It told me I’m not unique or special, that I’m just a decaying organism like everything else around me. Its ruthless indifference forced me to redefine my priorities. Now death follows me like a shadow — not in a morbid way — but as a constant reminder of life’s fragility, and of the value of each moment that remains.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A dear friend and mentor told me the following during the final days of his life. “Life is a sea of mystery and wonder,” he mumbled in Italian, his voice weak and raspy from the cancer that had ravaged him. “Don’t float on the surface,” he continued, “Dive in… go deep… deeper… till there’s no more light… till you can’t breathe… till you’re consumed by fear… explore what lurks in that darkness. Never lead a mundane life.”
What would you like others to take away from your work?
I hope my work allows people to appreciate the beauty and fragility of this precious gift we call life. I hope it encourages them to respect their fellow humans and our planet, our shared home. I hope it inspires them to stop, to think, and to realize that we’re all the same despite our differences, and that each of us is having our own unique experience of the exact same phenomenon.
For more information, please visit: sachabiyan.com
Sacha Dean Bïyan (born October 1, 1967) is a Canadian photographer, filmmaker and author who often describes himself as an Earth pilgrim. His body of work, gathered across the globe over three decades, is a celebration of the beauty and diversity of the human spirit. Bïyan holds a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, and was an entrepreneur in the aerospace industry before becoming a professional photographer.
Bïyan’s editorial images have appeared most notably in GQ, Details, Maxim, Vogue, and Marie Claire. He has shot advertising campaigns for Lexus, Diesel, Adidas and The Gap, among others, as well as documentaries for PBS and the Discovery Channel. In 2006, he collaborated with German house music label, Dessous Recordings, on two albums, Skin Is In and Eccentris Vibes. Both albums were spawned by the popularity of his fashion photography website, Eccentris.com, which was considered groundbreaking during the Flash era for its fusion of image, music and motion. It won numerous awards, including the Communication Arts Interactive Annual design award, and has been showcased in numerous print and online publications, including Taschen’s 1,000 Favorite Websites and Taschen’s Web Design Portfolios.
Bïyan’s works have been exhibited in galleries and museums in São Paulo, Florence, Barcelona, Paris and Los Angeles — the latter as a benefit for Amnesty International. In 2022, a selection of his work was chosen to be exhibited as NFTs at the Decentral Art Pavilion during the 59th Venice Biennale. Each NFT combined one of his images with an original haiku by legendary Japanese poet, Shunkichi Baba.
Bïyan is the author of two fine art books: Spiritus Mundi, published in 2005, which documents his encounters with remote indigenous cultures around the world, and Eccentris, published in 2012, which is a retrospective of his work in fashion and advertising. Bïyan is currently working on his third book, A World Apart — a broader compendium of images, and a synthesis of stories and observations of his travels to eighty eight countries.
For more information, please visit: sachabiyan.com