What Would They Know? Iku Motonaga & John Kung of harustudio

by | Photography Wisdom, What Would They Know?, Wisdom


Ms Polka Dot

Whenever I look at images of weddings it is easy for me to get lost in them and wonder about the story of each couple. And when the images are filled with landscapes, colours and shapes of buildings, with a clean and soft simplicity, the appeal is magnified – no trickery – just a couple in love, within a landscape that reflects the place, the time and the day. And that is what Iku and John of harustudio do so well. Everything looks effortless, (even though behind the scenes a lot of effort and experience has gone into making the images look this way), but there is a deep thoughtfulness behind the images – a love and respect of people, of atmosphere and the importance of the wedding day as the beginning of two people’s lives together. Let’s read their story.

Did photography always play a large part in your lives?

Absolutely. Iku got her first film SLR camera from her uncle when she was in her early 20s and it’s not really left her hands since, and when John was little his Dad used to give him a camera with a roll of film on family days out for him to use. Those early photos were pretty rubbish — but you’ve got to start somewhere! 😀

When did you officially make it your profession?

Iku started shooting professionally as a wedding photographer about 18 years ago in Japan, and John started about 8 years ago after Iku suggested he make the leap. 

What do you bring to your work from your unique backgrounds?

Japanese culture puts a great deal of emphasis on good hospitality and customer service, and that’s something Iku has brought with her, along with a sharp eye for details. John isn’t quite as good with the details but having grown up in Australia he brings the easy going vibe and a love for whatever goes. We balance each other out, so we make a pretty good team! 

How does the Australian light differ (from other countries) and how do you use it to your advantage?

Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of photographers like the Australian sun! And with good reason, it can be really harsh and especially in summer it does feel overwhelming, compared to the soft and sometimes hazy light you get in Japan. But there’s no bad light, it’s just how you shape the clay. Helmut Newton found his signature style in part because he was wrestling with the Australian light, and his studio partner and contemporary Henry Talbot once said that there’s not much that Australian fashion photographers can do that can’t be done overseas, but the one thing they don’t have is the Australian environment. The clear blue sky and our iconic beaches are a big drawcard for some of our couples who come from overseas just to experience it.

The biggest challenges with shooting in our light is the colour and intensity. We try to avoid the really harsh blue midday light, mostly because it sucks to stand out in the midday summer sun, but also creates heavy shadows and lights the ground so that the colour of what you’re standing on is reflected under the chin and cheeks. Because it’s so bright even in the early mornings and late afternoons we always try to put the sun behind our subject. Sometimes we time it so that we shoot at dawn or well into dusk — particularly during daylight savings we’ve been known to sneak out during the mains to get that late sunset shot!

We also know our cameras inside out, so we know how to expose each frame so that we can draw out the maximum amount of information from the files in post, which is a key component of how we work. Capturing the images is only half the job, developing them is the other.

What does the landscape add to your photographic stories – whether it be the Opera House in the city or rugged waterfalls in the mountains?

Photography for us is about capturing a memory, and where something happened is just as important as what was happening. We want our couples to look at their photos and remember the moment, where they were, and how they felt. Watching the sunset on a clear day at Opera Bar with a beer in your hand should be on everyone’s bucket list, so if we have a couple who wants to shoot at the Opera House, we try and time it so they have that experience. Even if we don’t have time for that drink, just being there is memorable, so when they look at that photo down the track they remember that moment.

Plus, we just love being outside! We love exploring, there’s so much out there that is spectacular that we never see because we never go to look. Just making the effort to go a bit off the beaten track to find that remote beach or that waterfall makes the experience just that bit more special and extra memorable. And we often don’t have to go very far — Sydney is stocked with just some of the most incredible scenery and all within a few minutes of a bus stop or a train station. 

How do you make sure that you couples feel at ease with you photographing them?

It’s a process. We always try to meet our couples either in person or via Skype so we can start to get to know each other. We’re clear with them about how we shoot and what we do and what happens with the photos after — it’s all about building trust. We check in on what they are comfortable with and not comfortable with and respecting those boundaries. We’ll give direction but we don’t pose, we want to capture who they are not who we think they are. Our main goal is to get them into each other’s space — once they’re comfortable enough to tune out the world around them. that’s when the magic happens, and we’re just there to capture it.

What personal qualities do you bring to the day and your photography?

There’s a lot of moving parts on a wedding day so we want to be the dependable, drama free, good vibes part of the day! We’re both pretty chill and we have a can-do attitude so whatever happens we just go with it. We’ve been doing this a while now and we’ve had many lemons thrown at us — so we’re pretty good at making lemonade!

Do you feel that you put a little of your personality, and what you feel is important in life, into your images?

Absolutely! Being able to make a photo is just the barrier to entry, what makes one photographer resonate over another is the way they see the world. The moments we capture are the moments we think are beautiful, so all our work is imbued with our personality and point of view.

Are you known for a certain ‘style’ of photography?

No idea! I don’t know that we’re known for a style, but we definitely have a specific point of view. The core of what we do is documentary. We embrace colour. We take what we see and make it ours. Our work and style can change from wedding to wedding, because so much of the raw material is dependent on what our couples give us!

When meeting the bridal couple for the first time, how do you make a connection with them – and is this important?

The connection is vital — what we do is entirely collaborative. We take what our couples give us and present back our best possible version; the stronger the trust between us, the stronger the work will be. We start building that trust right from the initial enquiry, we always schedule a time to meet so we can chat and get to know each other. We talk about their plans and what’s important to them, and we try to be helpful with ideas or just point them in the right direction.

What does a typical working day look for you?

Gosh, do we even have a typical work day! haha!

We usually start the day with making school lunches and getting our son to school. Then a coffee and a quick catchup between us before we settle into the to-do list. Depending on what we have that day we’re either at the home office editing or we’re working on the road — everywhere from Centennial Park or The State Library or the local bouldering gym!

After that it’s usually school pickups and after school activities, followed by meetings if we have one booked in. We try not to look at work again late at night but it really depends on what we have on. It’s true what they say about keeping your own hours when you have your own business, but they never say how many hours you have to keep!

Do you plan your shots or does your experience enable you to be more spontaneous?

We definitely plan our movements and recce locations so we’re not wasting time on the shoot day, but once the shoot is on we keep it loose and go with the flow. We plan so we can be spontaneous. Sometimes you do have to rely on your experience, but the best outcomes are when you have a plan that is flexible to take in new options on the fly.

What parts of photographing the wedding day and preparing the images for delivery to the couple do you enjoy the most?

Iku loves the bride prep, when it’s just the girls and family. John loves that moment after the ceremony and guests come up to say congratulations and go from the audience to being a participant. Plus the rest of the day of course!

We also love that moment when we’ve done our selects and we can play the day back, that’s a special moment. 

In today’s fast moving digital world, what do photographs mean in peoples’ lives?

Our photos are our memories, so the faster and more hectic life becomes the more powerful photos become. We want our couples to have their photos in frames around the house, and that it reminds them of that special moment.

If you could shoot a wedding anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Iku would very much like to shoot more traditional weddings at a Shinto shrine, as well as elopement style wedding shoots in Japan because after living away from home for so long, you just realise how beautiful your own culture is. Also Japan has four distinct seasons with different looks which are quite amazing. John wants to ditch the venue completely and embrace the outdoors — whether it’s a wedding in a clearing deep in the forest, or an elopement on a faraway beach, or just the two of you on a snow capped mountain…

What would you tell your younger self – knowing what you know now?

Work harder than everyone else, stay focused on your goals, and keep believing. Also: no, don’t buy that thing, you definitely don’t need it. 

What would make the world a better place?

There are so many things, but the one that is closest to our hearts is just being more aware of the invisible structures that keep us apart. They’re usually these “common sense” things that everyone “knows”, or the words we use to describe things. One thing that we’ve been really looking for is the language we use around weddings. Couples go into the Bridal Suite, it’s the Bridal Party, they’re Bride and Groom; but how does that work for LGBTQI couples? Why would we use those terms when it simply does not apply to some couples? We’ve gone through our forms and website to change “bridal party” to “wedding party”, our forms refer to partners rather than bride and groom, and we try to keep those things in mind whenever we talk to couples, whether they are same sex couples or not. Words matter, and while these are just papercuts to the larger injustices, it still hurts — and when you hear them day in day out the damage really accumulates. Same Sex couples aren’t satellites orbiting around “normal” straight couples — they are both planets of their own accord and hold the same importance to us, and we’re trying to make sure we don’t just believe it but actually do it day to day.

What other photography or hobbies do you do that challenge your creativity?

On top of the work we do together as harustudio, we both shoot independently. We also work on our own personal projects — Iku is working on a project about her hometown of Hiroshima, and John is working on a new portrait project.

Thank you John and Iku for sharing your story. Beautiful images of those moments you are so glad you have right there in front of you to share. To find our more about harustudio visit the website.

Headshot courtesy of harustudio


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