After a six year hiatus, the Japanese photographer returns with a new photo book, which she describes as an ‘epic poem for the current era’
It’s been seven years since Japanese photographer Momo Okabe released a handmade book called Dildo as an edition of just 55. The images told the story of Okabe’s lovers, Kaori and Yoko, as they underwent a journey to explore their gender identities, with raw images of sex and surgery.
The following year, Okabe published Bible, which, at the time, featured recent work, documenting ‘the alienation of the transgender community’ in Japan, as well as unpublished photographs taken in Tokyo, Miyagi, and India between 2010 and 2013. Speaking with Dazed in 2014, Okabe said: “Bible is not a record of memories but a mental landscape that people can attain only after a long dark struggle in their past. It is an elegy for people who have experienced pain. When I finished compiling the work, I felt like I had been reborn. I felt I could finally become myself to the world appearing in front of me.”
After a long hiatus, Okabe has just released Irmatar, a journey which takes Okabe from the insemination to the birth of her daughter. Like Dildo and Bible, Irmatar, with all of its 147 pages and edition of 550, stays true to Okabe’s creative raison d'être, and opens a window onto the last six years of her life.
Describing her work as “psychological landscapes”, the colours bleed and illuminate like a mood ring – unpredicatable, they are full of pain but also beauty. She tells me over email: “The colours change greatly depending on my feelings at the time.” Her lens is also her eyes, capturing the moments that surround and consume her – she says, “I want to document everything that has happened to me.”
Below, Okabe speaks about what inspired the book, what to expect, and what she hopes people take from it.
“I wanted to create an epic poem of the current era” – Momo Okabe
It’s been six years since your last book release. How has your style and vision changed in that time?
Momo Okabe: There doesn’t seem to be any major changes. However, I feel that my brain structure has changed after giving birth, so maybe my ability to perceive colors has developed and the range of color gamut has expanded.
Can you expand on why the conception and birth of your baby gave you the reason to create your first new book in so long?
Momo Okabe: Since my last book was published, I have been going around to different ports and taking pictures of the trash on the beach. One day, there was a little girl playing by herself on the beach. When I pointed my camera at her, she smiled and waved at me. I realised that she was my daughter who would be born one day.
So I decided to have a child through a crazy fantasy.
For five years, I kept going to the ocean without knowing why, but after I got pregnant, a friend told me ‘the words for ocean mother are pronounced exactly the same in French, and that seawater and amniotic fluid have the same composition. Mothers have an ocean inside them.’ I finally understood what that meant, and I knew the story was complete.
In this long journey, I have come to know that this world is a very strange place where everything is possible and nothing is eternal. We are all just born and die, and life repeats itself in different forms.
Why did you want to document your insemination and birth?
Momo Okabe: Documentary is the starting point of my photography because I want to document everything that has happened to me.
What does the title Irmatar mean?
Momo Okabe: I was able to have a child through IVF and I thought it sounded like the virgin birth. I did some research and found out that there are stories about the virgin birth in all the myths of the world, and one of them, the Finnish epic poem ‘Kalevala’, caught my attention. Irmatar is a character in it, but she is an atmospheric virgin and gets pregnant when she descends to the sea and catches the wind.
Can you tell us about how you use colour and is there a symbolism behind these colours?
Momo Okabe: This is what the landscape looked like to me at the time, these colours. They don’t symbolise anything, but are the colours in my memory. I take photographs with film and print them out in my darkroom, and the colors change greatly depending on my feelings at the time.
This book was shot across six years, what else does it contain other than the insemination and childbirth? The first book was a family album, the second was like the bible, something absolutely inside me, and this time I wanted to create an epic poem of the current era.
I also photographed my friends because I think that some of the people who overlapped my life are already mine. When I point the camera at them, I found myself in it, and I have met and said goodbye to a lot of myself. However I feel that all the people I have met stay in my body forever and live together.
I wanted to record the story of my insignificant life as a woman, the story of a man, a woman, and people who are neither gender.
What do you hope people take from this book?
Momo Okabe: I’m taking pictures and making a book just for myself, so I don’t mind how people take it, I don’t mind how they see it. If it gives you something to hope for, then I’d be happy.
Irmatar is available now