Joe Keating

It isn't difficult to fall in love with Joe's photography especially if you are passionate about Japan, like I am... But it is not just for his beautiful way of capturing this special place nor his true designer talent and amazing all around creativity that I enjoy sharing conversations with Joe, but also because he is a genuinely lovely person and dear virtual friend. I hope you will enjoy reading this new feature as much as I did.

Joe Keating profile picture

Can you tell us a little about your journey and the story behind Half?

I’m a designer with over twenty years’ experience working with brands to create office interiors, restaurants, hotels and retail environments and I have worked in creative studios and architect offices in Kuala Lumpur, Nottingham, Tokyo and London. I loved being part of large creative agencies but after years in a creative director role, I eventually realised I was managing more, and designing less.. gradually drifting further and further away from actually doing the creative things that made me happy in the first place. So I left the London-commute and hectic agency life behind 5 years ago, in search of a more fulfilling life in Kyoto..

Half can be seen as a positive.. or as a negative. Half full or half empty.. depending on your outlook. In Japan, someone of mixed origin is said to be half.. and this would have once been spoken with a slightly reductive edge. Probably an attitude that is changing and I’ve always thought that the bringing together of two cultures, allowing each to influence the other, is entirely positive, my daughter is half-British and half-Japanese so I think about this idea a lot.

Half means having the best of both worlds. Half, is double. Half is actually a concept of balance.

Creatively for myself, Half is about creating a balance of projects in design and photography. My professional career has always been as a designer, but I have had a camera in hand since I was very small, and I think these overlapping creative pursuits definitely positively affect one another. My largely solo work at Half now affords me the flexibility to accommodate design projects with big brands as well as smaller, personal photography projects simultaneously and as a result, feel much happier in general.

Joe Keating autumn in Kyoto picture

What have been the highs and lows through living in Kyoto so far?

Alongside having more of my own time, the big highlight has been renovating our kyomachiya townhouse. We uncovered an unloved, traditional building bordering on collapse in the density of Nishijin, Kyoto’s traditional weaving district. Over one-hundred years old, these long, narrow-fronted buildings were known as eel-beds due to proportions of their footprint, this was not an attractive property to most, but I saw great potential in its layout. It was a challenging process but ultimately so rewarding. I carefully redesigned and remodelled the house, with local carpenters, sensitive to the character of the original structure while creating a modern space to live in comfortably. The house is a natural reflection of a half Japanese, half British family. We have our home at the front and studio at the rear, gently divided by a small internal garden.

Living in a different country is not always easy, lows can hit unexpectedly. Even as we talk, I’m still shaking off deep embarrassment and awkwardness from simply answering the doorbell last night. A neighbour came to deliver some paperwork and money for our local community group, since it is our turn to take care of some small neighbourhood tasks, but because I didn’t know the words for ‘community group’ and didn’t recognise him, I couldn’t grasp if I needed to sign something.. take the money.. or give him money..! I made the whole situation so difficult, the poor man was so uncomfortable and the more I tried to understand, the worse I made things! I considered myself an intelligent (mostly) adult who can handle most situations independently.. then I moved to Kyoto and now suddenly need help with the simplest things, it’s like I’ve become a child again.. I’m making constant (gradual) progress with language, but lows for me ar usually connected to those frequent, small situations where I didn’t correctly understand a question, couldn’t read something or couldn’t communicate what I wanted to say properly.

Joe Keating Geisha photography

In what ways does Japan influence your work or your way of living?

My design-life has been built across the two countries for so long now that I think Japan’s influence probably affects my intuition or my aesthetic eye subconsciously. I was fascinated through art college by the geometry and modularity of Japanese architecture. Beauty born of a system, designed around the human proportion, was always really interesting to me. I think that kind of structured precision is maybe somewhere in my approach to most work. I definitely enjoy a sense of order and calm in the things I create. I think Japanese concepts of composition and negative space have possibly found their way into my design and photography work but I wouldn’t try to pretend that is deliberate in any way.

Joe Keating detail photography

Do you have a working routine? What does a usual day look like for you?

I imagine my routine is pretty ordinary but I suppose it depends what I am working on. With my home and studio both now under one roof, I am sat my desk at 7am for morning coffee and a daily hour of Japanese study, I have a language class every Monday morning and that seemingly impossible quest for fluency continues. If I have a design project on, the rest of the day will be focused, working at my screen, perhaps with a few short breaks to pick little weeds from the moss of the tiny garden alongside my studio. I’ll usually finish fairly early, around 5, when I might go running along the river before dinner.

I apply the same focus to personal photography when not working on design projects and might spend the morning out with my camera, wandering the city for my ongoing street-photography book project, a Kyoto Zine project edition, or visiting a local weaving workshop to shoot for example, after which I might spend the rest of the day editing back at my desk with music perhaps or a podcast playing.

Joe Keating street photography

In my opinion, your photography is true and pure storytelling, what or who inspires you the most?

I’m very happy to hear you think this.. thank-you for saying so. I’ve not been especially strategic with photography, I never studied it, so have always pursued it in a very instinctive way. Storytelling is an important part of my work in design, so perhaps that has become a natural part of how I compose or share images, but this isn’t something I’ve thought about before. I find inspiration everywhere, it’s all around, always. I especially love the photography of Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier. I love watching people, observing patterns of activity in streets is something I enjoy and both of these photographers had such a beautiful way of seeing the world. I often look at their books. There is always a rotation of books neatly lined-up on my desk that I use as inspiration. Currently on the table are.. several graphic issues of IDEA magazine.. Masaho Anotani’s out-of-print book Deformed, because I saw his exhibition recently.. The Japanese Garden by Sophie Walker, I especially love the colour of the cover.. Virgil Abloh’s Nike ICONS.. a programme from the Miyako Odori, Gion’s spring dance that I went to last week.. Grayson Perry’s recent ceramic works.. Nigo’s Atelier.. Stanley Donwood’s book of Radiohead art.. a book of black and white photographs taken of Kyoto’s Buddhist “Marathon” Monks.. a KAWS exhibition catalogue.. among a few others..

I’m inspired by talented, creative friends. I love seeing people experiment in creative ways, I find it so uplifting when I feel motivated to try something different or look at something in a new way.

Joe Keating Zen Garden picture

How do you reconnect with yourself or with your practice when life gets too full or overwhelming?

It definitely happens. Regular running has helped me in the last couple of years. I never thought I would be able to run regularly, let alone enjoy it (!) but I do now and think it helps me to keep on top of things. I’ve had enough down-days to know that, for me, most things pass in time.. and it doesn’t really matter what I do.. so I try to be patient and just wait for things to move on around me. Usually I persevere with my normal routine.. and simply take photographs until I feel better! 

Joe Keating Buddhist monk picture

Do you have a favourite quote?

It’s not a quote but Sarah Morris had a sculpture with a title that I often think about. I can be too controlled or think too much about things sometimes. As a designer I do often need to consider ways to sell an idea, or help the client sell that idea through their own business, but that’s not always a good approach. Sarah Morris’ sculpture title is a reminder to me to be a more spontaneous and unexpected.. and sometimes just follow what feels right..

“What can be explained can also be predicted.”


Head over to Joe's instagram and website to discover more about him and his amazing work.

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