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Alexandra Leese’s Yumi and the Moon
Photography Alexandra Leese

Alexandra Leese photographs a story about a beautiful girl from the moon

The photographer reimagines a centuries-old Japanese tale of a beautiful girl named Kaguya-Hime by mixing Buddhist teachings with her own, mystical vision of femininity

Taketori Monogatari is a centuries-old Japanese tale of a girl who came to Earth from the moon. The story goes that she was found as a tiny baby inside a glowing bamboo stem by an elderly bamboo cutter. He and his wife raised her as their own child and named her Kaguya-Hime, which translates to “Shining Princess”. Kaguya-Hime eventually became incredibly beautiful, attracting scores of princely suitors from faraway lands. But she longed for her home, the moon, and rejected all men. To avoid marrying, Kaguya-Hime asked them to complete impossible tasks she knew they would not be able to fulfil. In the end, she returns to the moon with a carriage of luminous beings.

The character’s independence and unearthly quality are what inspired Alexandra Leese, a Chinese-British photographer living in London, to turn the folktale into a visual story. She heard the story from Yumi Carter, whom she befriended while street-casting for a fashion campaign. Years later, they reconnected to create a series of portraits of Yumi and pictures of the Moon. To imbue the imagery with fantasy, Leese mixed various Japanese references with her own, mystical vision of femininity. 

Leese is publishing the images as a zine titled Yumi and the Moon, which is available to pre-order from Antenne Books now. As we exclusively debut images from the zine, we catch up with the photographer to talk about the significance of hair, opening up to inspiration in all shapes and forms, and how to create nude pictures that aren’t sexual.

How did the project come about?

Alexandra Leese: (Yumi) got in touch saying she really wanted to do a shoot. She was going through a period in her life where she wanted to cut off all her hair and wanted someone to document that. It almost felt like she was going through this rebirth and transition period in her life. At the same time, I've always had this obsession with the moon and I wanted to figure out a way to create it into my work. We met and talked about rebirth and femininity and how it all ties in and how the moon is often associated with those themes. (Yumi) is Japanese and also, her hairstyle is kind of based on the character herself, Kaguya-Hime. We put our heads together, put our cultures together, and created this story to make something modern and feminine and powerful, basically.

Did she always have such long hair? Does it have any particular significance?

Alexandra Leese: I’m not sure actually – I think so. I think a lot of people put a lot of their own identity into their hair and across cultures hair holds a lot of significance. Even within Asian cultures. Buddhist monks shave their hair because they want to get rid of any kind of identity or attachments to the material world. Some people feel like it cleanses themselves. I feel like a lot of people do that when they have a breakup! They change their hair. It's interesting that when you're going through something you feel an urge to drastically change and hair seems to be a thing people use.

Can you talk me through your creative process? How did you turn an old folktale into a visual story?

Alexandra Leese: I read up and found out it was a very beautiful traditional story. There’s the famous older version and then there is also the version that was made into an animation. There are differences in them in the way that Kaguya-Hime is represented. The animation, Ghibli's version, is maybe more about the human experience of her. She’s this independent, strong-headed girl. The female role was more modernised in the later version I guess.

I didn't overthink it. I took the main influences I liked from the story, which was her character and unearthly spirit, her strength, and wanted to translate that into something beautiful and powerful, but that also felt very feminine in maybe less of a traditional sense.

How do you address issues around nudity and the feminine body from a photographer's perspective?

Alexandra Leese: Being a female photographer anyway already gives a different perspective. I tackle it by making the women in my stories feel like they're in control of their body. 

How do you provide that sort of environment? Is there anything that helps convey that feeling of control?

Alexandra Leese: It's a lot in their energy and their posture. It's a lot of body language. It's something that you feel when you look at the picture: someone that owns the situation versus someone that feels a bit uncomfortable. It's about making sure you have conversations and giving them some power in the situation. I learned a lot in this process, in terms of the relationship between the photographer and the subject. The subjects lend you their bodies to create something that you envision and there is a huge trust there. I'm very grateful that she trusted me to do this. It's a big deal for someone who doesn't model professionally. I made sure there was a sense of collaboration.

Was there a reason behind the origami?

Alexandra Leese: The origami is obviously very Japanese, traditionally. In Japanese culture, it's a symbol of hope and healing. It tied to some of the messages of the tale: there is a lot in the story about overcoming challenges. The cranes in Japanese culture are the bird of happiness, big fortune. There is a lot of symbolism that tied into the story, not just the fact that it is Japanese.

You mentioned that you wanted to create photographs of the naked female body that didn’t fit within typical, sexualising representations. In the tale, there is a part when Kaguya-Hime is receiving advances from different men and she gives them difficult tasks. I found the rejection of male attention interesting.

Alexandra Leese: It's definitely something I picked up on as well. The fact that they become obsessed with her, largely based on her physical appearance, it reminds you of human’s ability to obsess over the superficial. Kaguya-Hime recognises that as well and rejects those characteristics.

I tried to make sure it didn't feel sexual although many people will relate the naked body to sexuality. It's an immediate correlation but it doesn't necessarily need to be so. It's just how our minds are trained. It was important for me to not take pictures that were sexual or felt traditionally sexual I guess.

I read you were a painter before getting into photography. How do other art forms influence your work? 

Alexandra Leese: It's very important to look outside your medium and immediate bubble for references. That's the only way that your mind can expand.

Where do you look for sources of inspiration?

Alexandra Leese: Like, everywhere! It might be something I read. A face that I've seen on the street. A painting and its colours. A sculpture. A landscape. It comes out of nowhere a lot of the time. Maybe some of the best ideas come when you're not really looking! Obviously a lot of the time we have to look because we're working to a brief. But yeah, a lot of my inspirations do just come to me in different ways. 

Yumi and the Moon is a limited edition of 300 copies, 300 x 450 mm uncoated paper with a softcover and includes 36 images in full bleed. It is available to pre-order as a limited-edition zine from Antenne Books