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Aya by Francesca Allen
AyaPhotography Francesca Allen

Francesca Allen’s new photo book explores Japanese womanhood and friendship

In her new book, titled Aya, the photographer documents her friendship with a Japanese artist

“One of my favourite things I’ve ever read speaks about girlishness and girlhood, not as an age, but an allegorical state of mind,” says photographer Francesca Allen introducing her upcoming book Aya. “Aya is someone who, for me, embodies this notion.”

For her first book, published by Libraryman, the London-based photographer explores the idea of womanhood – a theme she has been channelling throughout her entire career. This time, the concept of girlhood is expressed through the life of Aya Yanase, also known as Aya Gloomy, who is a Japanese musician Allen met during her first visit to Tokyo. The pair became inseparable and established a cross-cultural bond.

It only took a few hours spent together, and some photos taken at Aya’s label, Harajuku’s Big Love Records in 2016, for Allen to decide that she would return to Tokyo a year later to document her friend’s life. In the month she spent with Aya, the two did everything in each other’s company, like touring Tokyo and hanging out with friends, but not speaking the same language pushed them to use different ways to communicate. “We spent a lot of time in silence, or laughing at simpler things that perhaps neither of us would have found funny in any other circumstance,” Allen recalls of the time spent with Aya, before they eventually started shooting.

As the friendship between the two – who are only one year apart in age – develops through the photos, we get more insights on Aya’s life. Exploring Aya’s relationship with the outer world with portrait shots in the streets of Tokyo, the series then turns to more introspective, tender moments of Aya at home or in bed that hint at a newly found confidence in coming-of-age strength and fragility.

The idea of womanhood has been central to Allen’s work ever since she read Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman’s Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art, a collection of essays that deeply inspired her with its interpretation of girlhood as a metaphorical state of mind not necessarily dictated by a certain age limit. As Allen’s photography evolved from her breakthrough photo-series Girls! Girls! Girls! to a mature approach in her I Feel Sick/Hot Flush – a collaborative show hosted with fellow photographer and best friend Maisie Cousins – Aya feels like an adult body of work. If in her previous projects, Allen used vibrant colours to capture the people around her, in Aya, pastel tones and softer hues take over. “I would like to think it feels a little more grown up, a little quieter,” she says. “I’m trying not to rely on colour so much.”

“For me, it is very important to refute the role of power between the representer and the represented, and thus to portray the truth of the lives of others” – Francesca Allen 

This grown-up approach is also mirrored in Allen’s attempt to avoid having too much control over the images. Similarly to all her previous subjects, who were mostly close friends and family, she felt like she needed to get to know Aya in the same way for the project to be collaborative, something she deems crucial to documenting other people’s lives. “I see the position of a photographer as one of both great privilege and great responsibility and, for me,” she says, “it is very important to refute the role of power between the representer and the represented, and thus to portray the truth of the lives of others.”

As for her future photographic endeavours, womanhood is something Allen will continue to explore: she’s now working on a project about female friendships in collaboration with The British Journal of Photography. In the meanwhile, the photographer is busy with the launch of Aya in London, New York and Paris. 

Aya launches on September 4 at Tenderbooks, 6 Cecil Ct, WC2N 4HE, London, and is available for pre-order here.