Far More Than “Pretty Vacant,” We Have No Place to Be by Joji Hashiguchi, reviewed by Robert Dunn

©Joji Hashiguchi, “We Have No Place to Be 1980-1982” London

There are plenty of photobooks of punk rock days, it being such a visually wild time that it’s hard to not have them filled with vibrant photos, skinheads squeezed in at the front of a Ramones or Sex Pistols concert, tatted-up bodies leaping left and right, fists flying, teeth bared, blood erupting … powerful shots, but most of the books made from them are essentially music and star shots from clubs. CBGBs from the stage, other louche downtown dives with ripped-stockinged women smoking and drinking (and for the fancier set, lines of powder on the table), guys with mohawks lurking nearby, all very early-’80s … and, for better or worse, oh so long ago.

Give ’em props, though: That early-’80s generation was unique, a pinnacle blend of alienation and nihilism, not the long-haired, consciousness-expanding hippies of the late-’60s; not the back-to-the-land earth-shoe-wearing ’70s kids; not their temporal cohorts, the bow-tied Gordon Gecko–wannabe yuppies; and certainly not today’s youth, who seem to think dying their hair in a first-flash-of-color-in–“The Wizard of Oz” palette to help them get Instagram or TikTok hits is their highest calling. Nope, the young adults of the Thatcher-Reagan years were seriously disaffected. My guess is that with “Pretty Vacant,” the Sex Pistols tune that gives this piece—and for some, the whole generation—its title, the band was being a little ironic with the word “pretty.”

Kids back then were also part of a true subculture, a concept that seems to be either lost or breathtakingly co-opted. (We all know CBGBs is now a John Varvatos store.) A true subculture means there’s one normal, highly conventional world, and then there are smaller distinct cultures outside it. Subculture denizens usually lurk in their own hood, dress in their own coded ways, and are shunned if not feared by the predominant culture. (What passes for subcultures now don’t go out every night, don’t bang heads; they curl up on their couch and jack into the dark corners of the Web, Reddit et al.) Back in the day, being part of a subculture meant you had to be all in, soul and body. (No skinheads working at J.P. Morgan.) All the way in. No place to call home. No place really to go. As the title of Joji Hashiguchi’s new book, “We Have No Place to Be,” has it, under Thatcher’s and Reagan’s reign, there really was no place for these people, no jobs to be had, no world to accept them, only a blank nihilism to embrace for whatever consolation it could bring.

Which probably wasn’t much. And in Hashiguchi’s book we’re there with them. The kids, that is, with no place to be, or as the first iteration of this book from 1982 is usually translated, “We Can’t Be Anywhere—Teens in the Turbulent World.” Not the celebrities, not the bands, not the stars who would never admit to being stars. No, the young denizens of this gritty world, in all their confused and doomed and proud glory.

And for that, the book is all the richer.

And beautiful. It’s a large book, 8.25 inches by 11.25, with all its heavily chiaroscuro’d photos printed full-bleed in deep black and white. (Session Press published it; that’s all you need to know, to know you need the book.) Through 1980 to ’82, Hashiguchi traveled the world, first to Liverpool (he was a stone Beatles fan) and London, on to Nuremberg and West Berlin, then to New York City, and finally home to Tokyo. A long Wanderjahr, an artist chasing disaffected youth, warmly exploring these subcultural haunts, always with sympathy and a passionate eye.

And one who’s indubitably a powerful photographer in his own right. Hashiguchi is simply not the person with the camera in the right place to capture a time soon to be lost, he’s a real photographer making some great pictures. That is, the book is far more interesting than just a document of its time. Indeed, moving through the book, as it goes from country to country, I got a distinctive Ed van der Elsken Sweet Life vibe. I’m tempted to crack wise and say that Hashiguchi’s book could be called Sour Life, and for a lot of the photos in it, the title would fit, but hardly for all of them. Sure there are plenty of tough-looking skinheads, and in Berlin at least a few junkies with their dope paraphernalia, but there are also a pair of cheerful young women in Liverpool in their Wimpies uniforms … I know, how happy can you be working at a Wimpies?, but there they are.

Like van der Elsken, Hashiguchi’s book covers the wide world, and the photos are in a similar highly-contrasted black and white. There’s a lot of Daido Moriyama in the book, too, but there’s also Hashiguchi’s intention, which seems to be about 70% not to just take good pictures but to capture these youth worlds he’s clearly so fascinated by.

By my calculation, Hashiguchi would have been in his early 30s when he had this Wanderjahr, which raises the question of how much he observed what he’s shooting, and how much he participated in it. Probably a bit of both, and probably in similar proportions to the ways in which the book is a photobook of powerful shots as well as also a documentary.

Each chapter starts with a quote from a person in the different cities that tell us in a quick bite the essence of what Hashiguchi found with his groups of teenagers there. Liverpool: “I don’t have any money. I don’t have any work. It’s like I don’t even have a life.” Nuremberg: “I didn’t have anything to do, I was bored. Back then, the only thing around me was heroin.” And from the far less desperate Tokyo: “I want to have fun, too. Normal people have it so easy.” And just as each quote has a different tenor, so do the subjects and kinds of shots that follow. I find the New York City section particularly impressive. Hashiguchi looks to have hung out with young Latin toughs, and young African-American toughs, and the shots have a definite Mean Streets feel, just less Italian. More photos in this chapter are taken straight on, somebody clearly projecting their own force at the photographer. In other chapters Hashiguchi is taking a wider range of street shots, groups of kids hanging out, regular people walking along the street, and one beautiful shot of six boys gazing forth from a Liverpool roof. Still, I think he’s best when he’s focusing in. In the New York section the press of bodies fills the frame, giving it an added intensity. Which is interesting. I find the opening Liverpool section not quite edgy enough. London is tougher, Berlin perhaps toughest of all with its drug focus. And when he gets back to Tokyo, the shots, while all strong photographs, are mostly of kids being kids, getting together with friends, driving cute motorbikes, smiling a hell of a lot more than in England and Germany and the States.

Another photographer I see in “We Have No Place to Be” is Anders Petersen. Petersen, photo by photo, has taken more intense, telling, often downright upsetting shots, and in his more focused books such as “Café Lehmitz,” made works that deeply document a particular world in all its messy and tawdry vitality. Hashiguchi is more spread out, perhaps not quite the artist Petersen (or Daido) is, but then again, I can’t think of any book quite like “We Have No Place to Be.”

Indeed, the deeper I look into it, I realize it’s not really that much of a punk book at all, just a great collection black-and-white photos, not even all of them of disaffected youth. (I love two different kinds of shots in the Liverpool section, one of a bonfire, just a big splash of light in a wholly black background, and the other of the menu from the Golden Square restaurant. Ah, England, which I first went to as a poor twenty-four-year-old, eating, as I’m sure Hashiguchi did, at places like the Golden Square, such culinary delights as: Chop Suey Roll, Sausage Dinner, Curry and Chips, Chips and Peas, and that delightful British mashed pea goop just by itself for 14p!)

Which puts “We Have No Place to Be” firmly in the league of classic Japanese photobooks. The book bears long study, and great pictures keep turning up. There are intimations of Provoke, a couple energetic shots in the New York section almost as strong as two of my favorite photos from Shomei Tomatsu’s masterpiece, Oh Shinjuku (the young man furiously pounding a punching bag, the other the student in white before a perfect blurred background). “We Have No Place to Be” isn’t quite in the same poetic league as Tomatsu or Daido at their best (who is?), but Hashiguchi’s book is a more stirring historical document, as well as the work of a photographer worth rediscovering in his own right. Highly recommended.

We Have No Place to Be 1980-1982 by Joji Hashiguchi can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.

©Joji Hashiguchi, “We Have No Place to Be 1980-1982” Liverpool

©Joji Hashiguchi, “We Have No Place to Be 1980-1982” Tokyo
©Joji Hashiguchi, “We Have No Place to Be 1980-1982” New York