Game Changers of Japan: Deby Sucha from Indonesia on How to be a Professional Photographer in Japan
Meet Deby Sucha, an Indonesian who is currently working as a professional photographer in Tokyo. She is one of the persistent few in a small but growing group of foreigners who were able to obtain the elusive artist visa of Japan. Her story is one of a consistent state of hard work and effort, and of continuing to challenge what is possible for foreigners in Japan.
Author: Jen Santelices | Published date: 22nd November, 2019
We talked to her on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon at the SPeak office, and despite the chilly weather, Deby entered the room and greeted us with a warm smile and bright, friendly eyes. It’s these same eyes that peer through camera lenses and produce photos that grace the webpages of her clients, such as Airbnb and Getty Images to name just a few.
The Background of an Artist
How did Deby get to where she is now in the first place, and what path did she take to land an artist visa, something highly coveted by creatives across Japan?
Before she was landing big-name clients, Deby had her roots in Jakarta, Indonesia as a girl who documented her daily life in school with her friends and occasional band rehearsals. She visited Japan for the first time in 2007, after winning a photo contest that allowed her to visit for the first time.
“I came to Japan for five days, and I thought, this is a really interesting country,” she recalls of her trip. “I really wanted to know about their creative stuff. I came back to Indonesia and did a little bit of research about creative stuff in Japan, and then I tried to find my way back [through] events or opportunities that I can join.”
After a string of short-term volunteer work that kept heightening her curiosity about Japan, she finally decided to take the leap and live in Japan full-time in 2012, despite her mother initially not knowing about her plans until a month before she left Indonesia. She attended a Japanese language school for a year, then proceeded to attend a photography senmongakko (a two-year vocational school) in Tokyo.
However, Deby already started taking photography seriously even while she was back in Indonesia. It was during her university years that she "learned photography by practice in the beginning, just as a hobby." She says she also grew her skills by offering to do small collaborations with people around her.
"I didn't think about money back then. I just wanted people to know that, 'Hey, I can do this for you, let's create together and see how it goes.' That was the beginning."
The more she started collaborating with people, she eventually started getting paid for her work. Through collaboration and practice, she also developed her distinctive style of documentary and portrait photography: “At first I just took photos randomly, I had problems finding my photography style. But the thing is, I like trying different things. I think that’s how I developed my work. I found that documentary and portraiture really fits me really well because I can not only create, but also learn about other people and cultures as well. Plus, if I really care about the issue or project then I think that's the key to create a great story.”
Working her way to the Artist Visa of Japan
It was these foundations she built while in Indonesia which she used to actively pursue freelance photography work while she was in her senmongakko in Japan. She started working for companies like Airbnb at this time, and she used this period to keep building her portfolio. This proved invaluable not only as a budding creative professional, but also for obtaining her artist visa.
Deby had found out about the existence of an artist visa while she was in her senmongakko, and she decided to give the application a try.
In a nutshell, the artist visa is a type of work visa for those who want to pursue creative works and activities in Japan. It allows the visa holder to do any work related to their respective creative field—in Deby’s case, this can mean work such as contracts or projects as a photographer for companies, but it also includes being allowed to sell her own photography books or prints. However, this can also set some limitations. During the application, the applicant needs to fill out what type of creative work they will be doing specifically, and anything outside of this is not allowed. “I cannot do part-time at a 7-Eleven (convenience store) for example,” Deby says.
One of the things Deby had to do for her artist visa application was to prove that she can earn a sufficient amount of income from doing artistic activities, and this was where her freelance work portfolio came in useful—she had proof that she had the contracts and that companies were trusting her as their photographer.
In applying for the artist visa, Deby states that for her, collecting the paperwork for her past works and experiences was the hardest part. “Basically you have to summarize all your life into one folder,” she explains. She also mentions that you have to create an outline for your plans for a year as an artist as a requirement: “It’s not only about your past works, but also what you want to do next.”
But after six months of painstaking bureaucracy and document gathering, she was awarded a one-year artist visa in 2017, which meant that she was ready to become a creative professional in Japan.
The Challenges of Becoming a Creative in Tokyo
For Deby, one of the biggest challenges in her career as a professional photographer is networking. With some of her big name clients, specifically for Airbnb, she admits she got lucky that she was approached by them while she was still in senmongakko. They saw her photos on her website, and after some talks, she was offered a job to work as a freelance photographer for Airbnb.
However, for other jobs, she said that she had to be proactive and send out emails to magazines and companies to see if they had opportunities.
At that point, she had fluency in English and a JLPT N3 Certification to prove her Japanese skills, so in her emails to potential clients, she made sure to mention things about her being a photographer from Indonesia who is able to navigate both languages. She says that being able to speak English was an advantage for her, because it helped her land some projects from international companies.
However, being a foreigner who was starting to get immersed in Japan’s creative industry, Deby struggled to understand Japanese culture at first. “Japan is very distinctive in a good way. They have their own way to express everything—they have their own rules and their own system.” She goes on to explain that, “At the beginning, I found it difficult to connect with people. Because I’m not Japanese, it was really hard for me to get deep into their culture, to understand them.”
Although she has noticed that in recent years Japan’s creative scene has become more global, her hope is to have Japan accept more foreign artists and foreign culture: “I think Japan has to adapt more culture from the outside. So that it’s not always from our side—it’s a mutual effort.”
Word of advice for aspiring artists in Japan
As for Deby’s advice for aspiring artists in Japan, it boils down to what she believes are three essential things for establishing a career in the creative industry here: preparation, networking, and perseverance. “Do some research about the market in Japan. Prepare your portfolio. Your portfolio is your basic foundation [as an artist]. Keep building your portfolio in Japan.”
Preparing yourself for all the work that goes into being a freelance artist is also essential. “People tell me, ‘Oh, you work in freelance! That's the dream for me!’ But they don't know that there's so much work behind it.” This means that Deby has had to take various photography jobs outside of the scope of the documentary work that she normally likes to do, just to reach the minimum requirement of earnings in order to keep her artist visa. To counterbalance this however, Deby believes that it’s important to do personal projects on the side to keep yourself interested.
Another component is networking, which she believes is the key to expanding opportunities as a freelance artist. “Try to connect with a lot of people and companies—make friends. At the beginning, that’s how it starts: from friends to friends or word of mouth, [that’s why] connection is important.”
And last but not the least: perseverance. “There is actually a chance [for artists in Japan]. When people hear about the artist visa, and then they see all the legal paperwork that they need, they think, ‘Oh it’s impossible’, but actually it’s not. It just takes time.” Deby, with her persevering spirit shining throughout our interview, advises aspiring artists to “Never stop trying new things, just keep going. Because I’m sure that if you like what you’re doing, you’ll never stop.”
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