Photographer Oleg Tolstoy is a storyteller inspired by the social dynamics of urban centers. As a follow up to his 2015 series Who’s Driving You?, which saw him photographing black cab and Uber drivers in London, he traveled to Tokyo for Who’s Driving Tokyo? The series is a candid look at the professional men and women who shuttle passengers across the bustling Japanese city.
Why Tokyo? “When I visited Tokyo 10 years ago I became fascinated by the taxi drivers there who wore snow-white gloves and suits,” Tolstoy tells My Modern Met. “It was like they were from another era, a more refined and stylized era.” Through the windshield, we see each driver—and occasionally a passenger—pensive and lost in their thoughts. White gloves in place, they patiently wait in silence.
Even more than their elegant old-world style, something else important separates Tokyo taxi drivers from their British counterparts. “I would say that London cabbies want to be heard and love to chat to their customers—they often yearn for conversation and to have a good old natter with their customers, whereas the personalities of Tokyo drivers seem very still and almost absent in comparison. I believe that this difference in personality comes across in my images, the Who’s Driving Tokyo? ones seem a bit distant compared to the London cab drivers.”
But, as Tolstoy, soon realized, this aloofness isn’t a personal choice, but a professional one. Culture dictates this formality, with the Japanese cab drivers never expecting a tip and aiming for excellence. “Drivers rated ‘yūryō untensha‘—excellent driver—have their own stands at major stations and special markings on their cabs. As people, we naturally crave connection, but even in this tiny enclosed space, the line between driver and passenger persists,” Tolstoy writes. “I was intrigued by these professionals who spend most of their days in silence, despite often being sat less than a meter from another human being.”
Over 11 nights, Tolstoy photographed cabs in the Shibuya and Shinjuku districts, waiting for the perfect lighting to take his images. While many photographers—or cab drivers themselves—make passengers the subject of their projects, Tolstoy revels in the opportunity to unravel the mystery of those behind the wheel. His candid photos allow us to study the human faces behind the profession, placing the taxi cab driver firmly in the foreground.