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Speak Easy by Sarai Mari
Photography Sarai Mari

An erotically charged series of male and female nudes

Featuring Clara Paget, Hikari Mori, Janice Dickinson, and more, photographer Sarai Mari’s new book is a celebration of the human body

Japanese photographer Sarai Mari has released her second book via Damiani Books, Speak Easy, continuing her focus on the naked body (her previous book Naked was a monograph of female nudes). Growing up in a small Japanese town where traditionally women were encouraged to be shy and quiet, Mari rebelled while others conformed. She left her village at 18, eventually venturing to New York in the hopes of finding a free-spirited community. For her latest project, Mari produces an erotically charged series of both male and female – mainly in black and white, her favourite medium. 

Speak Easy launches with an exhibition – running from 30 March to 15 April at the hpgrp Gallery in New York – and opening ceremony on 31 March from 6pm. Art directed by Miguel Polidano, with words by Xerxes Cook, the book was inspired by the gender roles men and women play within our culture. In a society obsessed with labels and categorisations, Mari hopes the previously defined terms will fall way. Featuring Clara Paget, Hikari Mori, Janice Dickinson, and more, photographer Sarai Mari’s new book is a celebration of the human body.

"I wanted to catch a moment beyond those feelings and prejudices" – Sarai Mari

Photojournalist-come-fashion photographer Sarai Mari shot model Lyndsey Scott for our January 2010 issue of Dazed and admits to being heavily influenced by Helmut Newton’s strong, sexual representations of women, of which motivate her in her mission to encourage confidence in young women.

Below we talked to Mari about her inspiration for Speak Easy, and how she delves behind the masks people present themselves with in our highly judgemental society.

You mention that since you were a child you have rebelled against these rules and societal definitions of 'woman' – tell us more.

Sarai Mari: I grew up on a small mountain which is a world heritage UNESCO site in Japan and every society there has codes of conduct for how people should behave. Traditionally women are supposed to be shy and quietly mannered, and people are scared of being isolated or left behind. They conformed to fit in and I tried to push against it. I was loud, behaved like a free-woman and drove a big motor-cycle when I was teenager, with bleach blonde hair – a bit crazy for my village people.

I moved out of my tiny village when I was 18-years-old and went to the second largest metropolitan city in Japan – Osaka – then I went to Los Angeles to study photography. I had to get out of the small society quickly to see the world and find people who had the same free-spirit as myself. I wanted to prove what I could do and do something different. This reflects my work deeply, I see people inside and out. There is so much background information I can get when I shoot the model, but I am dedicated to the moment I see before me and to photographing a unique side. 

How does your book "celebrate all definitions of gender and sexuality"?

Sarai Mari: Now is an easier world for gender. I wanted to express models’ personas in my book. There is nothing to divide men and women and LGBT people – this book is genderless and timeless.

As a society we are obsessed with defining, giving labels and gendering roles, objects and even colours – what is it about our culture that causes this need to categorise everything?

Sarai Mari: Everyone has too much prejudice over others. There are too many hate crimes. In the news I see the 'threat' immigrants pose to countries now, and it is clear we are still holding onto racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and more. I wanted to catch a moment beyond those feelings and prejudices.

The women you shoot often look powerful and defiant, do you feel an obligation to empower women in your photographs?

Sarai Mari: Yes very much so, but powerful women have a dark side also – I like the contrast. They can be fragile and sensitive. I like all strong women who push their lack of freedom to make them even stronger.

You talk about how "in our radically changing and highly judgmental society, people are often scared of being isolated or left behind." Are we using certain social media platforms as a mask?

Sarai Mari: Yes exactly. It’s a convenient way to let all the world know how fabulous you are, but there are too many layers of mask hiding the truth of yourself. Everyone knows that we are all faking it everyday, little by little, but one day it will become the truth and there will be no going back.

How did your work develop from Naked to Speak Easy

Sarai Mari: It has been five years since Naked came out and the whole world has changed, as have I. I have moved to New York and become a mother, gay marriage is no longer illegal, too much retouching on photos is now uncool, online dating has become common, having an IVF baby is now normal, then there was Brexit etc. My first book Naked showed powerful women to encourage confidence in what all girls can become. Speak Easy is for all genders and the focus is more on a moment of raw expression of the subject – the defined terms then fall away. 

What influence has Helmut Newton had on you? Do you also take inspiration from female photographers?

Sarai Mari: I am constantly influenced by Helmut Newton. His photography really pulls me in – that stripped-down moment with a strong female is so powerful. I also love Sarah Moon and Diane Arbus.

What does the title Speak Easy mean?

Sarai Mari: Something that is easy to say and hard to put into action. Loose lips sink ships… And it refers to the underground bars, illegal during the Prohibition, where people could talk freely about politics and other things that were taboos in the polite society above ground. 

Why do you shoot in black and white?

Sarai Mari: It’s a timeless message and leaves the focus on the simplicity of the photography as if through a photojournalism eye. I used to be a photojournalist for two years and I am simply in love with black and white.

Speak Easy exhibits at the hpgrp Gallery, New York on 30 March-15 April, open Tues-Sat 11-6pm. To find out more about the book click here, published by Damiani Books