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Momo Okabe’s Dildo
Photography Momo Okabe

The photographer breaking ground for Japanese ‘outsiders’

Explore Momo Okabe’s documentation of Japan’s transgender community through her now-infamous books Dildo and Bible

The first time I saw her work, I felt like somebody kicked me in the gut,” recalls director of San Francisco’s Pier24 Photography Christopher McCall on his introduction to Momo Okabe. He came to know the Japanese photographer through her debut photo book Dildo, published by Session Press, and of which only 55 copies were made, by hand. “It had the look and feel of a family album,” he recalls of the publication that details Okabe’s evolving relationships with two of her lovers, Kaori and Yoko, both who were struggling with gender identity disorder and, throughout the book, undergo gender reassignment surgery. Next came Bible, a personal documentation of Okabe’s everyday life, and ‘the alienation of the transgender community’ in Japan.

For anyone unfamiliar with either, Okabe’s work is jarring, whether you take that in a good way or a bad way. Her images are an honest documentation of those around her – the ‘outsiders’ of Japan. In an interview with Dazed last year, Okabe referred to her images as “psychological landscapes”, and reflected on her home country’s attitudes towards the subject matter of her work: “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.”

Through capturing those around her – friends, family, herself – Okabe approaches each with a sense of tenderness, emotion and sentimentality. “One of the strengths of the work is how it shines light on an aspect of our community that people choose to ignore, but does so with a tenderness that reflects the universal nature of life,” explains McCall. Currently on show at Amsterdam’s Foam Gallery after she took home the Foam Paul Huf Award earlier this year – awarded to a photography ‘talent’ under 35, and for which McCall sat on the jury for – below we speak with the director to dive deeper into the creative psyche of the Japanese visionary.

Earlier this year, Okabe won the Foam Paul Huf Award – what is is about Okabe’s work that sets her apart?

Christopher McCall: Momo Okabe is an exceptionally talented photographer. Her photographs have a clearly defined style and are emotionally riveting. The work has the rare combination of a challenging subject matter coupled with tender sentimentality.  The intimate nature of the work paired with her unique visual language set her apart from the other nominees. Rarely have I been so challenged when looking at photographs.

“It is a testament to her skill as an artist that she has created work that is shockingly honest, but allows the viewer to empathise with individuals they usually loathe or misunderstand” – Christopher McCall

Could you tell us about both bodies of work on display, Dildo and Bible?

Christopher McCall: It is important to know that I became familiar with both of these projects through the beautiful books published by Session Press. The book I first saw was Dildo, which had the look and feel of a family album and tells the story of Momo’s relationships with her two of her lovers as they struggle with gender identity disorder. The book ends with Yoko, Momo’s second partner, progressing through sex reassignment surgery. The book jumps between banal images of everyday life, broken industrial landscapes, and still lifes. These images are juxtaposed with the intimate, unflinching gaze of moments Momo shared with her partners. These images are brought together by Momo’s sophisticated use of a muted color palette, which further challenges the viewer’s interpretation of the work by creating a parallel to the faded images in family albums that we all grew up with. By presenting the book as spiral bound with tipped in photographs, the viewer is able to absorb this very important and unconventional work in an intimate and familiar way.

For me, Bible reads as more of a sentimental journey documenting Momo’s everyday life, and the alienation of the transgender community. The images remain challenging, intimate, and jump between post-tsunami scenes, graphic industrial details, and personal moments that are foreign to everyone outside the transgender community. The larger, graphic nature of the book renders the work more seemingly chaotic when compared to Dildo, especially when considering the closer, more graphic compositions are accentuated by the book’s relentless full bleed spreads. While there is still a level of tenderness, the overall feeling is one of chaos and alienation. Again, Momo is able to weave together these disparate scenes through a sophisticated use of color, and a highly developed ability to edit and sequence. What you are left with is a book packed with raw emotion, and a personal look into a community often ignored by society.

What is it, do you think, that drew Okabe to these 'outsiders'?

Christopher McCall: These are Momo’s friends, lovers, and family. She is documenting the world she knows with grace and intimacy. They are “outsiders” to the rest of the world.

How does she use the camera to tell these stories in such an honest and respectful way?

Christopher McCall: Momo falls within the long tradition of social documentary photography, but quickly sets herself apart by employing a sophisticated use of colour. She situates herself within the well-established traditions of Japanese photography where the boundaries and physicality of the medium pushed to their limits. Momo’s images are typically washed with one colour, accentuating the mood and tone of the photograph. This approach also allows for interesting visual juxtapositions that extend beyond subject matter alone. Colours are loaded with emotion, and Momo masterfully exploits this at every turn. She literally gets close to her subjects, which activates the entire frame, and gives the viewer a sense that they are part of the scene. Momo also has the ability to seamlessly weave in details of everyday life – distressed landscapes, tragic events, and surreal still lifes are integrated through the work, mimicking a cinematic effect familiar to most viewers. These images set the stage for the main characters, but also act as a symbol for their lives and struggles. Together, these elements form her unique visual language and allow her to share a challenging story with tenderness, honesty, and respect.

How does Japan usually perceive the people that Momo documents?

Christopher McCall: It is my understanding that the transgender community is looked down upon in Japan as it is in most parts of the world. It is important to remember this is not just subject matter to Momo – this is her life, and illuminating these issues for the greater community takes a great degree of strength. She is a talented photographer, but the subject of her work will cause more than a few to overlook her talent and message. It is a testament to her skill as an artist that she has created work that is shockingly honest, but allows the viewer to empathise with individuals they usually loathe or misunderstand.

Momo Okabe is on show at Amsterdam’s Foam Gallery until 1 November, 2015