Working within the Japanese tradition of sensitive, intimate photography, Momo Okabe confronts us with private and touching stories of her life and that of her ex-lovers. “I think loving somebody and making love is cruel and sad. I want to show what I feel to those who don’t have problems with keeping their relationships happy. I want to show what some people go through in life.”
Momo Okabe (1981) answers our questions during a nocturnal break; the Japanese artist works for a newspaper as a photo retoucher at night. “I get a beautiful view of Tokyo Bay from the 16th floor of our building,” she says. When looking at Okabe’s images, it comes as no surprise that she works after-hours; even in the sunny pictures taken of her life and that of her lovers, a darkness cannot be concealed. “If life was fun and easy, I’m sure I wouldn’t take a single photo. I need to capture my difficult and sad life. I take a picture to alleviate my pain. I use it for catharsis. It’s like a healing process. I can only keep on breathing and living without being affected by all the sadness I en- counter in life, because my photography seizes it all.”
The heartache started at an early age for Okabe, who lived in France during her childhood due to her father’s job. “My parents didn’t seem to get along very well after we moved to Europe. I couldn’t speak any foreign languages, so I wasn’t able to make any friends. For the first four years of my life, I didn’t say anything to anybody outside of my home.” The more Okabe kept silence, the more she withdrew herself into her own imaginative world. “I’ve kept carrying the darkness and loneliness I experienced during my childhood with me. Photography is a means to compensate for that pain.” She only discovered this outlet after her father gave her a camera while at high school. “I was so introverted that I only took photos of my family and the things around our home.” But it wasn’t long before others began to recognize and acknowledge the sincerity and urgency of Okabe’s images. “The first photo book I saw in my life was Sentimental Journey by Nobuyoshi Araki: my life started on the day I saw his work. I wanted to work just like him, so when I was 17 years old I decided to make a handmade book after taking a picture of myself while lying on my bed in my underwear. I submitted this self-portrait to a photo contest and Arakisan selected it for a special jury prize for the eighth New Cosmos of Photography Tokyo Exhibition.”
Okabe’s talent has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the art world, either. Her first publication, Dildo (2013), soon became a much sought-after collector’s item, and earlier this year she won the Paul Huf Award bestowed by the Amsterdam-based FOAM photography museum—despite the explicit imagery in her work. But receiving praise from a wide audience is not what Okabe is aiming for. “I don’t associate with people in the art and photography world. I’m not aware of how my work has been received. I assume that people find my work peculiar at first sight. And now that I’ve received this prize, some might reconsider their initial thoughts. They’ll possibly realize that my work is not just ‘weird’. But I don’t particularly care about any type of acknowledgment or response. It’s only important that I take a photo; that’s all that matters to me. I really don’t care about anything else.” This humble attitude is one of the reasons that Okabe does not consider herself an artist—not even after winning an award like this: “For me, taking a photograph is a process to save myself, and a means to stay alive. I really don’t have any desire to show anybody who I am or what I’ve done. I only take photos for myself. The real artists are those who make statements, who want to change the world with their work.” Even her piercing use of colour is not employed for artistic reasons. “I don’t represent anything with it. I just see this colour in the landscape—my world, as it is. For me, the world appears this way.”
Coming from some quarters, such humility would elicit a raised eyebrow, but we cannot help but believe Okabe is in earnest. When flipping through her photo books you can almost feel how she feels. Both Dildo and her second big publication, Bible (2014), tell the stories of her life. They’re highly personal family photo albums, diaries even: they give an intimate insight into the painful lives of a young woman and that of her struggling ex-lovers, whom she speaks fondly of. To Okabe, it’s not strange to give people such access to her private life—or that of the people that surround her; she just wants to show the hardships one can encounter in life. “When I make my books, I really don’t think about who will see them: I create them just for my own appreciation. I do, however, only take photos of the things actually happening in my life. There’s no fiction in my work. I want to keep my pictures, because I love the people who are in them. I understand that once an album is published it’s not private any more, and I hope it shows something that transcends the private,” Okabe explains.
She continues in a more confidential vein: “I really dislike the act of sex, to me it’s very shameful and ugly behaviour. I always feel dirty about myself and highly depressed when I have sex, I even blame myself for doing it. It destroys me. I feel that I’ve killed myself many times through sleeping with people, even though I’m actually still alive and I have not committed suicide—yet.” Okabe wonders if other people, especially the ones in her photos, share these notions. “They might want to kill themselves for being naked in front of my camera. They put up with a lot of pressure in society, but force themselves to laugh at what they face and endure. I think loving somebody and making love is cruel and sad. I want to show what I feel to all the regular lovers, to those who don’t have doubts or problems with keeping their relationships smooth and happy. I want to show what some people go through in life.”
To be more precise, Dildo focuses on Kaori and Yoko, two of Okabe’s big loves who were both biologically female, but struggling with their gendered identity. “As their partner, I understood their pain and sorrow.” Momo never cared if she was lesbian or bi-sexual. “Just like I hate sex, I hate men in general. I don’t like male genitalia and never looked at them affectionately. But when I used to attend events for sexual minorities, to support first Kaori and later Yoko, I took photos of genitalia there. I loathed it, but I kept on taking photos of these males. I don’t know why I did that.” For her follow-up book Bible, she laid out work she had made earlier in chronological order. “I noticed that all of my photography looked really dark and depressing. And then, I met a man by accident. Someone who couldn’t control himself due to a mental disorder, who often became violent and was arrested by the police several times due to his misconduct in public. Everybody was scared of him, but I wasn’t; I was attracted to his pureness as a person, plus I noticed that we were very similar. I realized that I was socially dysfunctional just like him. We’re both very upset about what’s happening in the world, and we’re heading down our self-destructive paths while clinging to and staying in our difficult lives.”
And so it goes, a new love was born for Okabe. Her latest photos are just as penetrating as her former work. “One day me and my ex-boyfriend decided to drive to the mountains. We couldn’t find a town all night, and we were just wandering around. There were no lights and no cars passed our vehicle, and I started to think that he might kill me in this dissolute place. But when I looked outside the car window, I saw a beautiful blue mountain under the moonlight, and all of a sudden I felt very peaceful. It was a really special landscape and night for me, and I didn’t mind being killed by him at all. I don’t know why, but whenever I was with him, I came across these beautiful scenes,” she reveals. “Bible is a story for people who were abandoned by the world. It’s the story of me, you and everybody like us. It is my personal belief that I can do anything I want and I’m free as long as I don’t hurt anybody else. Even though I was treated poorly and expelled by the world, the fact of my being here should not be denied or condemned.”