In Conversation with Isamu Sawa

Born in Japan and raised in Australia, Isamu Sawa is one of Australia’s leading commercial photographers with a career spanning more than 25 years. 

Based in Melbourne, “Issey” has amassed a vast clientele of International Brands, including Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Renault, IWC, Schweppes and Penfolds. His editorial work has also featured in GQ, Vogue and Mercedes Benz Magazines, including portraits of fashion icon Jean Paul Gaultier, actor Geoffrey Rush and Tour de France cycling champion Cadel Evans.

How did you get into Photography – was it by accident or design?

I owe my passion for Photography to my late photographer father, Peter Sawa. He nurtured me from a very young age by placing a camera in my hand when I was 11. He took me under ‘his’ wing and introduced me to the art of Photography. After graduating high school, I continued my photography studies at RMIT University. During my second year (of the three-year course), I met renowned architectural photographer John Gollings. He offered me a full time assisting role, and I spent the next two years working for him. He became an invaluable mentor, and his teachings led me to establish my professional career in 1996.

So far, what's been the biggest challenge of your career?

In late September 2017, my father, who had been bravely fighting Multiple Myeloma Cancer for over 18 months, caught pneumonia and was admitted into ICU and heavily sedated. I was about to open my second solo exhibition in Sydney that week; I had to decide whether to attend the opening. My family insisted that I go; “…because that’s what dad would’ve wanted you to do…” they said. It was tough to leave him and my family behind. I went up to Sydney and dedicated the show to my father on opening night. I returned two days later, and he passed away on my 45th birthday.

Name people in the industry you've genuinely admired?

I always admired my late father and photographer John Gollings – both were significant mentors. The late Kate Gollings, an amazing portrait photographer – also nurtured me and guided me through my career. I was also heavily influenced by commercial photographer Greg Delves and his incredible still life work; he’s now highly successful in New York.

If you could change something about your industry, what would it be?

Interesting question. I must say I do miss hand-illustrated photography briefs that were prevalent in the ‘noughties’. These days, we are often (but not always) provided with ‘photoshopped’ briefs from creatives, which I feel under-utilises our ability to be creative. The ‘client’ will more often want the result to look exactly like the ‘mock up’. There is scope for interpretation to create something more bespoke and unique with an illustrative brief – in my opinion.

What are you working on now?

A new personal ‘passion project’ that I am just about to launch…

Despite a successful career as a commercial & advertising photographer for the past 25 years, I miss the documentary photography genre where my photography love began. In recent times, my ‘Fujifilm X-Series’ digital camera has reinvigorated my passion & innocence to document moments in time & just ‘take photos’. There are not many platforms left (read print publications) to showcase these images & stories, so I decided to create my own website. 

“The Japanese word ‘ikigai’ means having a purpose in life or a ‘reason for being ‘…as an ardent (photographic) storyteller, this is a ‘passion project’, featuring people with purpose & the stories behind their own ‘reason for being’…”

When my beloved father passed away in 2017, I made a vow in his eulogy that I will embrace his legacy and continue to make him proud. In small part, this ‘passion project’ is my ‘reason for being’…

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