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Momo Okabe: realer than real

Momo Okabe’s body-shock images pull no punches. We discover a cult photographer transfixed by gender, identity and modern chaos

Taken from the Summer 2014 issue of Dazed: 

Only a few lucky collectors got their hands on Japanese photographer Momo Okabe’s first official US monograph, Dildo, when it was published last year. The handmade photobook, which was limited to just 55 copies and is now virtually impossible to get hold of, tells in painful detail the story of Okabe’s romantic journey with lovers Kaori and Yoko as they struggle with gender identity disorder.

 To the uninitiated, it’s a chaotic mess of genitals, sex and surgery. Photos of intimate operations, bandaged breasts and naked bodies are jammed in with the broken debris of everyday life. But the shock value of Okabe’s explicit images quickly melts away. What at first looks provocative soon seems sympathetic as the book builds up a heart-wrenching picture of alienation, sorrow and deep affection. Her unflinching honesty is completely compelling.

Recently, there’s been an explosion of interest in Japanese photobooks, such as with the intense visceral collages of Rinko Kawauchi and Lieko Shiga. Yet the hyper-sexual nature of Okabe’s work means she’s been overlooked by the mainstream. Miwa Susuda of her publisher, Session Press, thinks the world isn’t ready to appreciate her. “Many people are prejudiced and conservative,” she says. “They see labels and stereotypes rather than individuals. I had hesitations (about publishing Dildo) because the work is not for everyone, but I believe in the power of her photography and admire her full confidence in expressing sexual realities.” 

Okabe describes her photobooks as “psychological landscapes” put together from her own memories. She remembers the four years of infancy she spent abroad as a whirlwind of colour, isolation and confusion. “I spent my early years in France, where I couldn’t speak the language,” she says. “We travelled all over Europe by car. We went to museums where I didn’t know what I was looking at and watched TV programmes I didn’t understand. I couldn’t communicate with anybody so I started living in my own fantasy world. When I looked through the viewfinder of the camera, everything in front of me turned into something magical. I just wanted to live in the world realised through the camera lens. Actually, I still feel that way.”

“When I looked through the viewfinder of the camera, everything in front of me turned into something magical. I just wanted to live in the world realised through the camera lens. Actually, I still feel that way“– Momo Okabe

Her style is greatly influenced by experiences from her childhood, she says. “I often come back to one particular incident in Paris. On the way to the cinema to watch Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, I was hit by a car. I wasn’t hurt, but I was really freaked out and I couldn’t help feeling scared and shaky. But at the same time I felt fully alive while I was watching the movie in the dark. I vividly remember the rich colours and all the details of the plot. I feel now as if my memory of the movie is turning into my own childhood reality.”

 Working alone in a darkroom she built in her Tokyo apartment, Okabe allows the colours and chaos of her past to spill into her current work. It is clear that she has known great pain – the trauma in her work is palpable. But photography provides a sanctuary. “I take photos in order to change the sad reality into a happy ending through the camera,” she says. 

“It’s easy for me to live in a utopia that is made by me through my photography.” 

In the early 00s, while studying at Nihon University’s College of Art, Okabe met photographer Kohey Kanno in the colour-printing lab. “Ever since I met Okabe at art school I’ve had a crush on her very subjective photos,” he says from Brooklyn, where he now lives. “She creates a very close personal world and has a pure soul.” The pair collaborated on a zine called Ropeway that Kanno edited. Then, in 2012, they created Unseen/Tsunami, an astonishing photobook project that intersperses shots of their friends, loves and lives against the backdrop of the 2011 Fukushima tsunami. 

“I went to the northern part of Japan one month after the tsunami hit,” Okabe says when asked how the remarkable work came about. “Everything was destroyed by that tragedy, but I also felt energy arising out from the zero state. My intimate work was made around the same time I was taking photographs of the site, so I thought that there must be some connection between the two. I realised that my sexual experiences are just the same as the fear, despair and anger of facing death caused by the tsunami. It seemed so similar to the violent energy arising from the bottom of my body.” The unforgettable juxtaposition of sexual experience and tragic devastation makes for an incredibly emotional work.

A year later, Session Press published Dildo, which begins with images taken during Okabe’s three-year relationship with Kaori, a woman with gender identity disorder whom she met when she was 24 years old. After their break-up, it follows her relationship with a new lover, Yoko, eventually documenting their trip to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery during which Yoko has her uterus removed. Dildo is a potent record of sadness, joy and intimacy.

“I made Dildo because I truly loved my two boyfriends,” Okabe says. “I really wanted to cherish the time we spent together. I wanted to take photos just like everybody makes a family album. I wanted to preserve fun memories of dates with people I really love. So my work can be compared with a precious family album, just like everybody has at home.”

 Paris-based curator and writer Marc Feustel discovered Okabe’s work through Dildo. “The (nature of the) object, essentially a photo album of tipped-in photographs, gives the book a familiar, diaristic quality,” he says, “and yet Okabe’s experiences make this a highly unusual diary. The edit of the book is surprising, disconcerting even, as she shifts from the most anodine images of empty rooms, urban debris, portraits and skylines to graphic images that serve as evidence of a startlingly direct, unflinching gaze. Her greatest strength lies in her ability to use and weave together an extraordinarily diverse vocabulary of images in order to create a narrative. One which – much like her own identity – seems profoundly unresolved, but all the more compelling for it.”  

Okabe isn’t concerned with technical brilliance in her photos, and believes she doesn’t have a logical mind. For her, photography is pure expression, a way of recording feelings and other ephemeral qualities she doesn’t want to forget. Her rough and ready style creates an intimate connection. “I don’t consider myself to be an artist,” she says. “I just want to be very honest and sincere to the people I make my portraits of.”

Despite this attitude, Okabe’s work has been highly acclaimed, lauded by legendary Japanese photographers Nobuyoshi Araki and Masafumi Sanai in the New Cosmos of Photography 1999 and the Epson colour imaging prize in 2009 respectively. And despite remaining underground, her work creates a strong bond with its admirers. “Okabe’s photographs may seem sexually explicit and uncomfortable at first, yet they reflect her own fragile world and sexual sensitivity,” says New York-based collector Olga Yatskevich, the proud owner of a copy of Dildo. “Her photographs are deeply emotional and honest. Her work forces us to reassess our own sensitivity and opinion of the banal and relate to the wider concept of society.”

“I realised that my sexual experiences are the same as the fear, despair and anger caused by the tsunami. It was so similar to the violent energy arising from my body“ – Momo Okabe

Okabe’s second US monograph, Bible, has just been published by Session Press. “Bible compiles all my recent works, including many unpublished photographs taken in Tokyo, Miyagi and India between 2010 and 2013,” Okabe says. “I took photos in that period without any real reason for doing so. However, last summer I met a new man and things changed dramatically. He used to go crazy and commit crimes, but I didn’t think he was evil or bad inside.  Whenever I was with him, I felt tremendously sad but I could take a lot of beautiful photos. I felt that I could finally become free from my history. 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.”

The incredible power of Okabe’s work lies in this transformative property. In Bible she pushes the approach she developed in Dildo even further, pairing disparate images, at times making playful links, at others painful. Each photograph imbues another with new meaning. Her signature jewel-like colours bring softness and sentimentality to difficult subject matter. It’s a truly revelatory, affecting publication. Thankfully, Session Press has promised a larger print run this time so more of us can experience her work first-hand.

As Okabe’s reputation spreads outside Japan, younger artists are  becoming increasingly fascinated by her approach. “I admire her ability to capture the tenderness of the in-between, fleeting moments of one’s daily existence,” says the emerging San Francisco-based photographer Grace Gloria Denis. “As she contrasts the decay of natural terrain with the transformation of the human body, she unravels the ultimately entropic nature of both environmental and human landscape.” 

The Chinese-born, London-based artist Echo Morgan shares Okabe’s fascination with making work in response to her past. “Dildo awakened my internal emotions on the subject of sex and death,” she says. “I cherish the aloneness and honesty which expands between the pages. I share the close relationship the artist has with her lover’s body and her own. The desire to create an ideal body and the horror of facing the abandoned and scarred one left behind.” 

Among the moments of devastating sadness and alienation, there are glimmers of hope in her work. Shafts of light, big skies and rich hues provide relief from cruel reality. “I am positive about the future,” she says. “Life has a lot of struggle, but I try to believe that the future is not too bad.” Perhaps Okabe’s work can help transform prejudices and preconceptions. Her sensitive touch highlights the complexity of the individual human experience, reminding us that we’re all connected in our deepest emotions.