Jesse Freeman wears many hats. Writer. Photographer. Filmmaker. Teacher. Traveler. Minimalist. Ikebanist. And there is, and will probably always be, plenty more. The cool thing about Jesse, though, is the amount of time he spends wearing each of these hats, alternating between and breaking them in so that each one fits him just right. For instance, he's watched over 400 [classic and foreign] films a year, and has read a novel a week since 2007— the awareness spawned from which ultimately manifested itself as the blog, i'm nothing in particular. We caught up with Jesse during a rare and brief recess (before he got swept back into the animated, never-ending, larger-than-life bustle of Tokyo), and discussed his initial, tentative exodus from Baltimore, the ennui that led to an exploration of his creative self and the skill sets that ensued, his love of minimalism, feeling more respect abroad than at home in the States, and, essentially, how travel enabled him to go from wearing zero hats to many.
ND: You moved to Tokyo in 2006. What inspired the move?
Jesse Freeman: Just got lucky really. I'd just finished high school and was living in Baltimore at my grandparent’s house not really doing much. My father was in the military and was stationed in Hawaii, so I moved out there to attend college. Once I finished it was either go back to Baltimore or follow him to Tokyo. So I went with him, got a job within six months and have been here since.
ND: How was it transitioning from Baltimore to Hawaii and then Japan? Did you say, "Hey, I'm just gonna go for it." or was there any nervousness or apprehension?
JF: Baltimore to Hawaii not so much; I just saw it as 3 to 4 years in exile because I didn’t want to leave Baltimore, as I was content living in my grandma’s basement. I was really in a different mindset. My father was a Colonel in the Air Force when we were in Hawaii, so we lived off base in a condo in Honolulu. All of our neighbors were Japanese and the parking lot was like a collection of German automobiles— me and my dad shared a 1990 Honda Accord. I was studying Japanese at my graveyard shift job, so I would always try to strike up conversations on the elevator at the condo, but I would never get acknowledged.
ND: [laughs] In what way would they not acknowledge you?
JF: Like they would seriously ignore me, though I think half of them just thought I worked there. So coming to Japan I thought it would be the same and was nervous about that aspect, but found it to be quite different. Other than that, I was just excited to be in Japan.
ND: What are you presently doing there?
JF: Currently… I am doing a lot of things. I teach part-time at a JHS in the suburbs of Tokyo, and assistant coach the school basketball team. I freelance [in] photography and writing. I make short films and screen them at venues in Tokyo. I just released my last short film, which was a color silent film. And more recently started getting into modeling.
ND: Oh wow. Tokyo seems to be a great environment for you! I remember when I lived there— I feel like I couldn't help but be more expressive than usual. There's just something intrinsically creative about that place! Do you think Tokyo has had some influence on the more creative paths you're traversing or were those plans always in place?
JF: Tokyo has definitely been the influence. Really, before here, I hadn’t dabbled in any of the things I’m doing now, except for basketball of course. Without the distractions of the things I had in the US, I started reading to pass the time in 2007. The only English language books available here are usually classics. So I got hooked on all the greats, from Dostoevsky and Balzac to Mishima and Zola.
ND: How'd you transition into film?
JF: I got into film once I saw that a film could have the same layers of meaning and depth that novels could have. So I got heavy into films. Mostly silent, to about the 1970s. In 2010 I was given an old film camera and started to replicate my favorite directors' styles before I came into my own, shooting mostly in black and white film. I was able to get the resources to start trying to make short films and just set to it. If not for Tokyo, I’d be an entirely different person.
ND: You've also gotten heavily into Japanese flower arranging.
JF: Branching off into ikebana was inspired by one of my favorite Japanese film directors— Hiroshi Teshigahara— who gave up making films in the 1960s to take over his father's ikebana school. I was blown away by his ability to translate his film aesthetic into [flower arranging]. I'm currently under two years away in my studies from being certified as a teacher, and am looking to freelance that as well. I think it will be cool, because as far as I know, I’d be the only African American certified in ikebana.
ND: That's major! It's interesting that you've chosen to study an art form like Ikebana, which is known for it's simple lines and having an overall… very minimalist form. When I look at the images you post on your Instagram, a lot of the photos seem to follow those same rules. Did Ikebana influence your perspective, or did your aesthetic kind of lead you down a path toward ikebana?
JF: That's a great observation. My aesthetic lead me to ikebana, as I was attracted by the medium's preoccupation with minimalism and composition based on line and space. So jumping from photography— that is a 2D medium— to ikebana, which is 3D, was a fun way of seeing how my ideas could translate across mediums. Ikebana since has influenced my perspective in that I have a better understanding of the importance of negative space.
ND: Negative space can be very calming… really tranquil. Its very Zen, which is what I find ikebana to be. I came to appreciate negative space more as a resident of Japan. I feel like a lot of the Japanese culturally identify with the concept and importance of negative space. It's so ingrained in them, and comes out in the most interesting ways. I remember being in Shinjuku station one day and seeing this lady just sort of zoned into her book, while things around her were in a state of franticness. I thought to myself that she was creating her own kind of negative space. In a city that packed, it's only right to want a slice of solitude. It fascinated me. I said all of that to say, Japan is a great place— photographically speaking— to appreciate, be inspired by and capture [negative space].
JF: Exactly. And precisely: it is the Zen concept of mu (nothingness) that ikebana exemplifies, and can be seen in other mediums as well: the films of Ozu Yasujiro, photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto, or literature of Kawabata Yasunari. In addition, just being aware of the aesthetic concept and being in Japan, you can see it in the everyday just as you observed in Shinjuku station.
ND: What other places have you come across in your travels that have inspired you artistically speaking, or have spoken to your love of minimalism?
JF: Minimalism is an aesthetic that I found truly characteristic of Sweden. Everything was just so clean and functional without any unnecessary ornamentation. I’m sure there have been studies on the socialist influences, etcetera, but the Eames concept of “The best for the most for the least” is alive and well. I was only there for a couple of weeks, but I’d imagine [being there in winter], one would be able to read and write a great deal with little distraction.
ND: I'd never considered Sweden a place I'd go to create. But now that you mention it, it does seem well-suited to people with artistic leanings. Anywhere else?
JF: Artistically, I found France welcoming. Just being an artist in France is admittedly romantic, but with the siestas and overall leisure it is really ideal. Plus, unlike America, I think people there can easily get past my appearance. To think African Americans— from Richard Wright to Miles Davis— enjoyed that equal standing and character based judgment there that I feel still isn’t always afforded to us in the US, to be entirely honest.
ND: It's interesting to me that you brought up feeling more welcomed elsewhere. I've found that I've been embraced by other cultures as an expat, and when traveling too. Whether out of respect, sheer curiosity or because they're genuinely nice human beings, its been nothing but love. This is the message I've been trying to relay to other young black men. There's such a fear of the unknown among us, but there's no reason for that fear to exist. And its so important [for us especially] to travel because of how we're represented in American media— its vital for us to shake those stigmas and stereotypes, and by being out there traveling the world and being our best selves, people are able to see the truth.
JF: It is those exact three things: out of respect, sheer curiosity or because they're genuinely nice human beings that for the most part, results in love. I think the only misunderstandings arise from curiosity, which never really includes any malice. American media is our Achilles heel, so just being out in the world does give people a chance to actually see for themselves. I tell my younger cousins all the time that they got to travel, [but] they self regulate themselves to an extent. To be fair, financial reasons are a factor but they can be overcome by saving a little.
ND: It's true! It's all in what you value. I spoke to a high school class once and I told them that if they can save to buy all of these expensive clothes, they can save to buy a passport and a plane ticket! [laughs] Anyway, since you've been abroad and traveling, have you ever had someone come up to you with a certain idea of how you would be, only to be shocked to find that you were the complete opposite of what they'd thought?
JF: All the time! It happens so much it would be difficult and redundant to elaborate.
ND: Wakata. I totally understand. Changing lanes a bit, I watched your latest short film last night— "Back Yet Forth." Really dope man.
JF: Thank you for taking the time to check that out!
ND: I loved the whimsicality of it. And going back to what we were talking about earlier, your use of negative space was beautiful throughout. Really stylish and thoughtful use of the landscape. I like that you showed a calmer side of Tokyo that's rarely portrayed.
JF: Foreign movies shot in Tokyo always seem to be shot with foreign eyes focusing on what is different instead of what is. [Focus is on] the neon lights, the crazy vending machines, Shibuya, schoolgirls, etcetera. Much of the landscape shots and location were based on my photography from the past two years.
ND: I liked that we weren't beaten over the head with lights, skyscrapers and Harajuku girls. It was really smart of you to incorporate something personal, like your photographic locations, into the film— that kind of personal touch provides a sense of intimacy, made it more special. And if I'm not mistaken, you even made a cameo? Such a cool moment. I love when directors do that. Reminds me of Spike Lee, John Waters and Roman Polanski. Those are the names that came immediately to mind.
JF: [Laughs] I did make a cameo! It was due to the budget and time constraints more than anything though, so not sure if that will be a continuing theme or not. I really can’t act. [But] I like that personal touch in films. You can always see it— Spike Lee’s characters in preference of sports teams, or Jean-Luc Godard’s preference of impressionist painters.
ND: What inspired the film?
JF: The film came about kind of quickly. I had been excited to see The Artist when it came out and found it to be an unoriginal throwback to what silent films were and the story just ripped off Singing in the Rain. I always like how modern Dreyer’s Joan of Arc was, and between the two films decided to make a modern silent film. So to begin with I made it a color film. I chose Helvetica for the inter-titles since the font didn’t come out till after the silent era, and shot it handheld and deliberately made it shaky emphasizing this since silent film cameras weren’t possible to shoot handheld. I got the initial story from the western, Vera Cruz, where Gary Cooper’s character gets his wallet stolen. From there, worked until the wallet was no longer the point but a MacGuffin used to drive the plot. In the end, I hoped for it all to paint a metaphor of people’s attitudes toward cinema, wanting what they've already had. The same types of films.
For the screening I had a band called The Shamanz— sorry, I wanted to name drop— I had them improvise the film live, since silent films were usually accompanied by a pianist.
ND: That must have been a dope screening. I totally get the metaphor. I've had countless conversations with my film enthusiast friends about some of the recycled material Hollywood is trying to shove down our throats, and the people who love them. [Those people] should travel more. [Laughs] Take in some new perspectives, gain some new points of reference. That, for me, is the best thing about travel: building those reference points and obtaining that firsthand knowledge. Having those proverbial scripts flipped on you.
When I look at your work and read your blog, I see someone who has been places— and it's evident that you really spend time vibing with and getting to know whatever place you're in, whether it's brand new to you, or if you're simply revisiting it. Can you recall any one of your travel experiences drastically changing you?
JF: Hmmm… I really think it was a trip to St. Tropez last summer that I got invited to through a friend of a friend that really drastically changed me. For reasons of privacy I can’t detail the artist’s name, but there were about 15 accomplished professionals at this sort of luxury compound taking some time off— all of whom were not only older but much more accomplished in their respective fields than anything I have even attempted! I seriously felt like Christian Laettner on the Dream Team, but unlike him I was given a chance to prove my worth in being prompted to shoot a short film for them, and was able to come up with a script in the course of a single night. Besides the amazing business connections I made and things I learned that will prove vital in my progress, it was— for me— the first real chance to be in a position to show and prove. And I was able to do just that.
ND: That would be insanely intimidating, but I feel like it's the kind of experience a lot of creatives dream of having. One of those, "What would you do if you were put in a room with this person and that person" conversations we've all had with our friends.
JF: It was quite an experience!
ND: And I'll say: being of the moment enough to execute on such short notice isn't easy! It's awesome, however, when pulled off! I've found that travel makes one a more aware and adaptable person. It's helped me successfully navigate situations—not nearly as cool as the one you just described [laughs]— but situations that would have proved challenging had I not been equipped with my travel savvy.
JF: I would agree. Travel changes you.
ND: It does.
JF: For me, it has enhanced my eye, it gave a real context to the novels I read, and put me in the same settings as the films I have seen throughout my life. It is the appeasement of curiosity. And by nature it forces you to adapt to new environments in ways that stay with you.
ND: What would be your travel philosophy?
JF: Taking a page from Langston Hughes, to simply wonder as I wander.