What Intimacy Looks Like To This Japanese Photographer (NSFW)

Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Dildo.
The scenes in Tokyo-born photographer Momo Okabe’s pictures are otherworldly and seductive. Documenting the most intimate parts of her life, and the lives of those around her, images of people and landscapes are layered with a kaleidoscopic, head-swirling mix of vivid pinks and rich, heady reds. “When I recall memories, or dream about the past, the images flash into my mind in bright colours, and I use these colours as tools to reconstruct a sense of the atmosphere of my experiences,” she explains.
One of Okabe’s first projects was called Dildo, which she describes as a “seven-year love story.” Spanning time spent with two lovers and two very different stories, she tells us where it all began. “I met Kaori when I was 24 years old, during the summer. We became close, and then we started a relationship. I didn’t really take any notice that she was a woman. We spent all of our time together. Since she was the closest person to me, I photographed her constantly.” After some time, Kaori no longer felt comfortable living in Japan and moved away; shortly after, Okabe met Yoko. “The opposite to Kaori, Yoko wanted to live as a man, and so I set off on a journey to Thailand with her to assist her after her sex change operation. It was like Kaori had been suffering from her sexuality, but Yoko was more cheerful and free. I have such sweet memories of her and that time together. It was a journey of great significance and I wanted to record it all.”
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In Dildo, we see tender portraits of Yoko post-op, and get a true sense of Okabe’s knack for honest and very human depictions of experiences of gender fluidity. “I don't have any preconceived ideas about what it means to be male or female. That distinction isn’t important to me,” she says. “I believe that everyone should be entitled to the same, regardless of gender. Matters of sex and the human body can be hard to understand, but that just makes me endlessly curious.”
Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Bible.
After breaking up with Yoko, Okabe finished Dildo, and followed it up with a sequel project entitled Bible. She met somebody new – a colleague suffering with mental illness and drug dependency – and with him she felt a further desire to take pictures of people existing outside the mainstream of society, including herself. The pictures, of surgical scars and bondage rope and moments of tenderness between lovers, are a searing journey into the heart of relationships, interwoven with images of landscapes and scenes of destruction in the wake of the magnitude 9 tsunami that hit the northeast coast of Japan in 2011. Here, she charts the trauma and seismic changes happening over a period of time to both bodies and land.
“I visited the disaster right after the tsunami and I was so overcome with emotion. I took refuge from this disaster with a colleague, and the experience prompted the beginning of a relationship. Emotions were stirred by oppressive facts.” A backdrop of collective trauma across Japan is coupled with small slices of the individual stories and private lives that were unfolding as this great event took place. “It’s like I’m making my own ongoing family album, and I believe it’s just as important to record the present age within that too. Personal events metamorphose into the universal as time goes on.”
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Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Bible.
Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Bible.
Growing up in Tokyo and moving to France during her childhood, Okabe discusses the impact that had on her social development. “I lived in France for four years and during that time nobody taught me French, so consequently I hardly said a single word the whole time I was there. Because of this experience, I created and retreated into my own world, and I don’t think I ever really left.”
Okabe is still sparing with her words these days, too. Every answer she gives is simple and matter-of-fact, which can be jarring given the immensely personal nature of the work, and the way it journeys so searchingly through themes of trauma, pain, sadness, isolation, gender transformation, mental illness, love and human connection. It’s for exactly this reason that photography became such an important tool of connection for her. “I’m not good at interacting with people, and I’m afraid of the outside world. Photography helps me to understand not only myself but the people around me too. I can organise reality through taking photos – I don’t have any other way to communicate with people. With my camera I can enter into my own space whenever I want, and this idea gives me courage.”
Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Bible.
Okabe arrived at photography after coming across the seminal photobook Sentimental Journey by the prolific Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki – a moving photographic document made of his own honeymoon. The pictures are poignant and affecting, detailing the intimacies of the first stretch of a couple embarking upon a life together. For Okabe, they showed her “the tremendous power of truth” for the first time and, looking back upon her own life, helped to unearth a self-reflective yearning. The only things she wanted to photograph were the things she knows intrinsically.
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“I take photographs only of things that have happened to me, and subjects related to me – my family, my friends, my lovers. My pictures are acts of love.” Unfolding in an organic, unplanned process, Okabe keeps her camera with her, and as long as she is connected with a person, she will continue to take their photograph. As poetic and expressionist as the images appear, Okabe insists they are rooted in the documentary tradition and that through her images she always seeks to depict the raw reality of experiences. “I find beauty in flesh and blood, sorrow and loneliness. As long as it’s the truth, I will always find it beautiful.”
Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Tote.
Okabe is now working towards a new chapter of images, with a project entitled Tote. “I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a woman and the sorrow of living as one,” she says. When asked to define that sorrow, she alludes to the inherent, bodily sorrow that a woman can possess. Echoing a long lineage of artists and writers before her, she is interested in the female (and female-identifying) body as a site of conflict, pain, sadness and rage. And she tells this through an intensely personal story. “In 2014 I was suspected of having cervical cancer, and I had an operation to have it removed. It had developed through a virus (HPV) transmitted by sexual intercourse. I felt robbed and broken by a male. And it was like I developed a deep anger that came right from my uterus. Intuition tells me this sorrow will continue to perpetuate, and that’s what I’m exploring in this new project.”
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Photographed by Momo Okabe.
From the series, Tote.
Starting with her own story and spreading outwards to absorb the sadness of those around her too, Okabe is working to express the complex web of emotions and identities that make up her life, within her images. “The people I love – many of them transgender or with mental disorders – are very similar to me, which means I am able to understand and translate their individual sorrows.”
Okabe is married now, yet she still struggles with feeling fundamentally alone, and says she has immured herself in her own world more than ever. “I used to always take photographs of the person I was with, but my husband doesn’t want to be the subject of any of my photography, and it’s left me puzzled. As a result, I’ve been taking pictures of trash piled up on roads, insects, and my friends getting undressed in front of the camera. It’s all new to me, and through these subjects I’m finding a mirror for the many different iterations of myself. I believe these photos are taking me to a new world entirely.”
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