Momo Okabe: “I truly wanted to destroy everything I had”

Japanese photographer Momo Okabe not only studies one of art history’s most important tropes—the bare female form—but in doing so investigates themes of gender dysphoria, identity and sexuality.

Japan –  

Momo Okabe’s photographs depict the bare situation. Be it the sexual act, a wasteland, or the wake of a tsunami, the images Okabe presents speak directly, without device. There is a vitality to her practice, so much so that she notes that the process of constructing her book Bible saved her, nominated for Kassel Photobook Award 2014 by Manik Katyal. Responsiveness, but measured, aware, consummate, marks the event of Okabe’s photos. How does the body keen to a touch? When the water runs, how does the land react? What is love in an age of bodily dissociation, and how to bring our union with flesh back? Momo Okabe’s eye finds the necessary elements of uncertain, contingent existence, which she carries with care for others to see, knowing that a breath will scatter them.

 
 

 Your work is extremely personal and the camera often seems to be an inseparable part of your own experiences. What does photography mean to you?   What drew you to photography from such a young age?

When I was in junior high school, my father caused a problem at work and my family had to struggle with him seriously. He became mentally ill gradually from stress and my family started to function no longer.  It was a tough time for me since I was still very young and I felt like I didn’t have any means to protect myself from society where people always tried to attack me as vicious enemies.  However, I discovered that everything looked perfect and beautiful when I looked at the world though a camera.  I felt as if I could accept and overcome the difficult experiences as far as I stayed in the world (observed through a camera).  Because of photography and because of the action of taking a photo, I don’t give up living.  I believe photography has helped me to cope with the difficult situations that happen in life.

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You use color in your work in a very distinct and beautiful way. Your colors seem emotional and surreal at the same time. How did you come across this style of photographing?

A. For me, scenery/the world looks just that way.  This color is made from my work in the darkroom at my house.  I believe it is very important that I stay there alone and go through this time consuming process of making my work.

  Your book Unseen/ Tsunami was a collaborative work with Kohey Kanno, where you both photographed your personal lives against the backdrop of the Fukoshima Tsunami. How did this collaboration come about and how did the tragedy of the tsunami affect how the work was created?

“Tsunami” was based on my personal experiences around the time the 3.11 tragedy occurred in Japan.  When it happened, I was working in an office in Tokyo, and I went to my co-worker’s place for evacuation.  We watched the TV program together and could not talk when we saw news from the

Sendai area where everything was burned. We were both confused and somehow awakened by this since we strongly realized that, without choice, we were now actually alive when many people were dying from this horrible disaster.  I noticed that both terror and desire of life aroused from inside of me, and both feelings were equally powerful to me.  A few days after the earthquake, I stayed home because of a risk of radiation outside, and I struggled with my uneasy feelings in my room.  I truly wanted to destroy everything I had.  I had physiologically stayed away from making “sex” in general and especially sexual contact with men and had a strong hated feeling about them for a long time.  But I decided to sleep with my co-worker who went through the same experience together that day, and we both became accomplices and agreed on taking pictures of this act.  I think when disaster happened, all Japanese people were very confused and we all became true to ourselves (as human beings).  When I talked to Kanno-san, my old classmate from the college, we shared the same feelings.  I don’t think we could report or document the tragedy of the disaster appropriately as photographers. All we could do is to show a feeling that we could not help from reality that we happened to still be alive.  “Tsunami” was the work that I made to express my own personal desire as a person.

Your first US monograph Dildo dealt with your intense relationship with two lovers who were dealing with issues of gender identity. Your book was also a limited hand made edition. What was the process of putting your work into a book? How important was it for you that your book be hand made and only into a small set.

“Dildo” was like my private diary with my partners at that time and it was very intimate, although it was not open to the world.  Since it was such a precious memory that I wanted to hold by myself as a secret, making “Dildo” by hand was important to me.  It had to be hand-made, not machine-produced.  If I had to make more than 50 copies,  I would have been incredibly exhausted.  50 copies is as much affection as I could give to “Dildo”.



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Your work has been widely acclaimed in Japan for over a decade (since being acclaimed by Nobuyoshi Araki in 1999 at the New Cosmos of Photography, it has received awards and special mentions in Japan in 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013). Now your books Dildo and Bible are receiving attention globally. How has the reception been to your work on a global platform, and how has that experience changed the way you think of your books?

 I have always taken pictures just for myself. It has been this way, and I will just make work when my memory/experience needs to become my work.  I will not change my working style.

 Your latest book Bible contains many previously unpublished photographs taken in Tokyo, Miyagi and India between 2008 and 2012. How did the edit of the book come about? Why did you choose to call it Bible?

I edited “Bible” by myself and put images almost perfectly chronologically.  All the images came from my personal experiences and “Bible” is a result of my life for the last few years.  I chose this title since I wanted to make it very special, final and definite for myself.  When I was making the book, I realized that this project was saving me just like the Bible, and I thought that this title suited to my book.

Your work has a three dimensional richness, which is both emotional as well as visual. Your use of color makes your work atmospherically beautiful even at its most raw and painful. How do you achieve this surreal color palette in your work?

When I take a picture and make a print of my work, I don’t intentionally do it.  I don’t like a “set-up” type of working style where everything needs to be prepared and directed in advance.  Pure feelings only reside at the moment of emotion.  I don’t think photography needs anything other than just to be beautiful.  No other explanation is required.   Therefore, I only print the colors the way I see the world as being.



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Deeply emotional and personal subjects are often difficult to show and exhibit. Have you faced any sort of resistance to your work and its raw and honest subject matter?

I had an arguments with an organizer before when I was invited for the exhibition.  I also had an experience that my book was removed from the shelves at bookstores.  It is my personal belief that I can do anything I want as long as I don’t hurt anybody.  So, I didn’t understand what was wrong with my work.  I don’t have any concrete statement to fight against this so, I hope someone will explain to me when my work was considered to be bad or wrong.

I was told before that my work was created just from my personal curiosity.  I was stunned by the fact that some people saw my work from such a narrow perspective.  I believe that if you look at the work with your prejudiced mind, it looks just evil.  On the other hand, if you open your mind and look at the work sincerely and purely, it appears just as beautiful as it is.  I think photography is simple and it honestly expresses one’s/other’s minds.  Therefore, I want to be honest when I take a picture.

When you are putting your work together, do you also imagine your audience? If so, what sort of audience do you want for your work?

I have always taken pictures just for myself. It has always been this way, and I will just make work when my memory/experience needs to become my work. I will not change my working style.

What do you hope to achieve with your books Dildo and Bible? How do you intend to take your work forward?

For Dildo, I took photos of my lovers, since I loved them very much and wanted to understand them better; it was about them, not about myself. For Bible, I took pictures of the people, places and things only when they really moved me. The portraits in Bible are people who had a very hard time before but stay strong and struggle to overcome their trauma and so on. I didn’t create Dildo or Bible to proclaim any political/social reform in society. For my next book, I want to make photography from my very strong emotion, and my next book must appear just like a family album.


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You photographed in India as well as in Japan when you were working on Bible. How did you come to photograph in India? And what was the story connecting your experiences in India to the rest of your experience for Bible? 

India appears to me just like a Shangri-La. I felt that everything was forgiven and life and death are very close to each other and both are welcomingly accepted. When I visited India, it certainly motivated and inspired my Bible project.

You mentioned that you chose the title Bible as you felt the project was saving you. How did you feel it was saving you, and was the experience of working on Bible cathartic for you?

I didn’t mean biblical when I mentioned “saved”. It happened internally as my absolute truth.

Do you feel that in some ways a lot of the world is not ready for work that is as honest and raw as you show it? Also, by creating such deeply intimate and personal work, do you wish to open up the world to being more aware and accepting of lives that don’t entirely conform to society?

My work reflects my thoughts and I took a lot of pictures relating to sex since I am most interested in sex and I find sex very mysterious. I must keep making work about sex till my wonder/quest for mystery is resolved. It is very understandable that everybody takes sex/sexuality in a different way. Therefore, I understand that not all people see what I am trying to achieve. That’s is OK. I just want to make work that is very true to myself.

 


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岡部さんの作品は、とても個人的な体験から制作されて、写真を撮る事があなたが体験をする日常の事と、とても密接な関係にあるようでね。写真をとることはどのような意味/意義があるのでしょうか?どうして、若いときから、写真を撮るという事に惹かれたのでしょうか?

私が中学生の時に父が仕事である事件を起こし、家族は大きな問題を抱える事となりました。父はストレスで次第に精神的に病み、その頃から家族は崩壊し始めました。子供の私にとって生きていく事はとてもハードでした。社会は敵ばかりで、その戦いに対する武器を私は持ち合わせてはいませんでした。けれどもカメラの中の世界はいつもとても綺麗でした。私はこの中の世界に居れば悲しい事も全て許せる気がしました。写真が存在する事によって、写真を撮るという行為によって私はなんとか生きるのを諦めていません。写真が私を助けてくれます。


 
 
岡部さんの作品の色使いは、とてもユニークで美しいと思います。おそらく、その色は、あなた自身の感情の表れであると共に、現実離れした世界を描いていると思います。どのようにして、このようなスタイルの作品/色使いに行き着いたのでしょうか?

私には景色がこのような色に見えるのです。自分でプリントしている事が大きいと思います。家に暗室を作りプリントをしているのですが、ひとりで暗室にこもり、この面倒な作業を行うのが私にとってはとても大事なのです。
 

菅野恒平さんとの共作で、ダシュウッド・ブックスから”unseen / tsunami”を制作されています。ここで、お二人は、津波や福島での惨事を背景に、個人的な生活を写した作品を提出されています。津波と、パーソナルな作品を、混合して制作されたのは、どうしてでしょうか?また、菅野さんとコラボレーションをされた経緯を教えてください。

これも震災当時に私が体験したとても個人的な出来事です。震災の当日、東京の会社で働いてた私は会社近くに住んでいた同僚の男性の家に避難しました。私達は炎に包まれている仙台の様子をテレビで見て言葉を失いました。私達は大変興奮していました。沢山の方が亡くなっている中で、私達は生きているという事を否応無く実感したからです。身体の内から湧き出てくるとてつもない恐怖と生への欲望は限りなく等しい物でした。震災の数日後、放射線の危険もあり私は自宅待機していましたが、そのどうしようもない感情を持て余していました。私は全てを壊したかったのです。私はずっと男性もセックスも生理的に受け付けられず嫌悪感を抱いていたのですが、同じ興奮を共有した彼と共犯的に写真を撮る事にしました。震災当時、全ての人が異常な現状と感情によって熱にうかされた状態でした。そして人間が最も人間らしい姿であった筈です。大学の同級生だった菅野君と再会して話し合った時に、同じ心境である事が分かりました。私達は震災の悲惨さを伝えられる訳はありません。私達に理解できるのは生き残ってしまった者のやり場の無い感情です。ただ唯一の人間としての欲求のみを単純に写真にしたのです。


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岡部さんは、以前、荒木経惟さんから、審査員特別賞にノミネートされたり、数々の日本の主要なフォト・コンテストで入賞を果たしています。セッションプレスからの、2冊の写真集、”dildo”と”bible”により、世界的に写真業界に名前を知られ、多くの賛辞を受けていますね。このような、変化は、今後の作品づくりや、写真集制作において影響を与えていますか?

私はこれまで自分の為だけに写真を撮っていました。自分が残したい思い出だけを写真にします。そのスタンスは変わる事は無いと思います。

最新作”bible”は、東京、宮城、インドで撮影され、未発表の作品が多く含まれた写真集です。編集する際に、気をつけた点や、工夫された点を教えてください。また、なぜ、バイブルと命名されたのでしょうか?

編集は全て自分で行っていますが、殆ど時系列に並んでいます。やはり自分の身に降りかかった事だけを写真にしているので、ここ数年の私の記憶を集めた結果です

バイブルというタイトルにしたのは、私の中で絶対的な物を作りたかったからです。そして、実際にこの本が私には救いとなったからです。


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岡部さんの作品は、感情と非現実的な世界を表現する3次元の深みを持っています。とても生々しく、痛々しく捉えられる描写の作品が含まれても、色の効果によって、美しく表現されています。このような、色の使い方は、どのような経緯を経て辿り着いたのでしょうか?

写真を撮る際やプリントする際に考えて意図的に制作はしません。セッティングして制作するのは打算的でかっこ悪いと思ってしまうからです…ピュアな物は瞬間的な感情のみに宿ると思います。写真は美しいだけで、それ以上の理由は必要無いと思います。だから、色も私が見えた色を何も考えずに忠実にプリントで再現しているだけです。

個人的な作品や、感情が強く出た作品は時として、展示されたり、出版される事が難しい事があると思います。いままでに、自分の作品を公に発表することにタブー視され、思い通りにいかないことはありましたか?作品内容をみた人の対応で、困惑した経験はありますか?

展示をする際に性器が写っていた為に主催者側ともめた事がありました。書店から本が撤去された事もありました。私は人を傷付けない限り、やってはいけない事なんて何も無いという考えなので、これらの現状はとても不思議でした。だからと言ってそれに対抗する思想も特に持ち合わせていないので、何故いけないのかを誰かに教えて貰いたいです。
また、あなたは興味本位だけで写真を撮っていると言われた事がありますそれだけ浅くしか考えられない人がいるというのが私には驚きでした。邪心を持った目で見れば全てそのように見えるし、純粋な心で見れば全てそのように見えるという結果なのかもしれません。写真という物はとても分かり易く正直です。私は写真にだけはいつも忠実でありたいと思いました。
 
作品や本を制作する際に、見てくれる人を考えますか?どんな、人たちに一番見て欲しいですか>

私はこれまで自分の為だけに写真を撮っていました。自分が残したい思い出だけを写真にします。そのスタンスは変わる事は無いと思います。


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どんなことを期待して、バイブルとディルドを制作したのですか? 今後は、どのような作品を制作する予定ですか?

Dildoでは自分ではなく相手の事を好きで理解したいから写真をとりました。一緒に居るという事実を残したいので、愛情表現として写真にしました。

バイブルでは自分が大きく感情を動かされた物だけを撮りました。それはもがきながらも一生懸命生きている人の姿です。
どちらの本も自分が社会に対して強く訴えたい主題という物はありません。
今後は写真らしい写真を撮りたいです。社会に影響を与えるような作品ではなく、家族のアルバムのような重く思い入れのある本が出来たら良いです。どうしてバイブルには、日本での写真と一緒に、インドの写真をふくめたのでしょうか?インドでの撮影をした時の経験を話して下さい。インドとバイブルの内容の関連性をお話し下さい。
インドは私が今迄探していた桃源郷のような国でした。生も死も近くに感じる事ができたのはインドだけでした。インドを訪れた経験は確実にバイブルの世界観を作るきっかけとなりました。
 
バイブルを制作されている際に、自分は救われたと話して下さいましたが、救われたとは、宗教上(キリスト教)のことでしょうか?A. バイブルは宗教ではなく自分の中での絶対的な物です。
 
 

あなたが制作する作品のような、誠実で生々しい生(性)の描写を、世の中の人は、未だに受け入れていないとおもいますか?あなたは、プライベートで親密な作品を制作することで、世の中の人に、生(性)に真っ正面から向かい合うことを望みますか?

 性というのは私の中で最も謎に満ちた物です。その謎を解きたくて写真を撮り続けています。しかし、人によって感じ方が違うのは当然の事だと思います。理解が出来ない人も居るというのは分かっています。ただ、私は自分のしている事は間違っていないという強い信念の元で作品作りをしています。



Photography Interview by Manik Katyal 
Research by Adira Thekkuveettil
Special Thanks to Miwa Susuda 

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