A Conversation with Yurie Nagashima

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I first met Yurie Nagashima during my first trip to Tokyo in 2018. A talk she gave about her work left me deeply impressed and inspired. The following year, I had the opportunity to speak with her over coffee or during dinners, and we have stayed in touch since. Earlier this year, I approached Yurie and asked her if she would be available for an interview — in part to learn more about a book of hers that was just published in Japan. Our conversation, which which has been edited for length and clarity, was held on Skype in late March, and it focused on many aspects of her career, which not only involve photograph but also writing and criticism.

Jörg Colberg: Maybe we just start at the beginning. How did you get started with photography?

Yurie Nagashima: Oh, that’s almost 30 years ago now.

JC: You just picked up a camera?

YN: I went to art school because I wanted to be a film director. I didn’t get into the film department, so I was in the graphic design department. You know how hard it is to pass entrance exams for college here? The film department of my school was very new, like 3 years old, and before it was made, the graphic design department was where you could study movies and photography. So that’s the main reason why I applied for that department. I was also interested in editorial works and advertisements with photos. I liked looking at fashion magazines, and they always had beautiful photo stories and ads with cool photos with strong messages. I never have thought that I wanted to be a photographer, but I liked to take silly set-up photos with my friends in high school. In the first and second year at University, photography was the required subject. So that was when I got my own camera, a second-hand Nikon FE.

Self-Portrait (Father #13), 1993

JC: Do you remember why you didn’t want to be a photographer?

YN: Well, I just never thought about it. I was crazy about films and was fond of art, though. In art school, I was a bad student because I never followed the directions given by teachers. I just wanted to make something “cooler” than assignments, and that’s not quite the right attitude that a designer should have. One day, in class, my teacher looked at my assignment and said, “maybe you should be an artist” instead of scolding me. I was so happy to hear that, and he became my favorite teacher. I also took painting and sculpture classes. I really liked the teachers in the painting department. They were very interesting and free in mind.

I didn’t know what to do then, but I really wanted to make something to express myself. I thought I wasn’t that good at painting or drawing, so I guess I started using the camera instead.

JC: Did you start with the black and white photographs of your family? Was that at the beginning?

YN: No, I executed that work in my third year, so it had been 3 years since I started to practice B&W photography. There only was a black and white darkroom in my department, so all assignments were required in B&W at first.

I thought it’s strange how people instantly consider the female body as such for their sexual demands. Actually, I got hurt big time by that gaze. So I decided to do something by making works that can protest against the crazy ritual.

JC: You then took nude photographs of yourself and your family. Can you talk about how you got that idea? It’s such a radical idea, and it looks still so contemporary, even now.

YN: When I was a sophomore, my teacher gave us a big portrait assignment. He told us to take pictures of Japanese people, not foreign people. I don’t know why he cared, but he said so. It was homework for the summer break, but I had already bought a cheap ticket to Europe to spend the whole summer there. I was a backpacker. So, I went to talk to my teacher and said: it would be difficult to take pictures of Japanese people because I’m going to Europe. He said: Well, that’s your problem. I was like “Oh no!”, but I knew that he was being an asshole to me, so I couldn’t be defeated. On that trip I made many Japanese friends in Europe, and I also started to take self-portraits because I realized, okay, I’m Japanese, too.

It was pretty easy to use a tripod and shoot myself. They weren’t nudes at first. Later in the third year, I started taking nude self-portraits with different set-up situations. If you are a female art school student, many men would ask you to be a model for their artworks…. I tried it a couple of times, most of my friends did the same because it was supposedly “cool”. Soon I realized that it wasn’t fun because they wanted me to pose like a woman in their fantasy! They were just using my body, I knew they weren’t even looking at me. At that time, there was a big photographic wave called “hair-nude” photo¹ in Japan which made most of women realize that men basically are looking at us as sexual objects, period. As an art student, we are trained to look at the naked body without that gaze. Even when staring at a penis I didn’t feel anything because I just wanted to draw it well. So I thought it’s strange how people instantly consider the female body as such for their sexual demands. Actually, I got hurt big time by that gaze. So I decided to do something by making works that can protest against the crazy ritual. The self-portrait with my family was one of the ideas for that. I was seeking for ways to separate the naked female body from sexual context. One day, I thought “what if I do everything normal with my family but naked?”. Then, the visuals came to my mind instantly. The deeper I thought about it, the better I knew that it would work. Because family is the last place or relationship where you can see anything in connection with “sex”.

Tank Girl, 1993

JC: And then you found yourself being part of this Onna no ko Shashin wave of young female photographers. I think it was also related to those nice little snapshot cameras that everybody was using. You were turned into a “girly” photographer. How did you react to that at the time that the work was treated that way?

YN: If you read my book, you will realize how I wasn’t really grouped in Onna no ko shashin because I started my career a little too early for that. Also, I left Japan in December 1995, when it started to get really big and popular.

JC: …when you went to grad school, right?

YN: Yes. I was in the US. It wasn’t really the time of the internet so I shut off people from Japan. I rarely was in any magazine during that time.

When I won a prize in 1993, many magazines published my works with my interviews. Soon after, they picked up nude self-portraits of other female photographers and called us “self-nude” photographers. Then, quite many young women photo students and photographers followed us. This trend became bigger, but I don’t think that the media photo critics understood what we were doing.

Those female photographers made self-nudes under the influence of “hair nude” photos. I think mostly to against it. I assume that they were angry like myself because the male-dominant society used our bodies to make money. I understood it as a resistance. At least for me it was.

Two years later, Hiromix appeared, and things changed. Her character was different from mine, I guess I was too scary for the middle-aged male intelligentsia. Anyway, they literally fell in love with her. Kotaro Iizawa, a Japanese famous photo critic, called her and young female photographers Onna no ko shashin ka. It means girl photographers in Japanese. That term first appeared in the magazine called Studio Voice in March 1996. I think people started categorizing me in that genre after I got the Kimura Ihei Award in 2001 with Hiromix and Mika Ninagawa.

Torn Blankey, From the series About Home, 2015

JC: You went to grad school in California, didn’t you? How long did you spend there, two or three years?

YN: First, I went to Seattle for a year to study English, then to grad school for two years until 1999. In between, I came back to Japan for like half a year to get a new student visa.

JC: What was that experience of being in an American photography program like? How did this affect your photography and maybe your thinking about art?

YN: The biggest difference from Japanese education was that they trained me to explain what I was doing. In Japan, the myth of art still existed -– art requires no linguistic explanation by the artist herself because you can feel or see the virtue of it if the work is good enough. I mean, yeah, but no. Some students in my class still say so as the reason why they are interested in art. In a way, I believed it, too, until I studied at CalArts. There were so many arguments in critique classes there… It was really difficult for me because I didn’t speak English well enough. Also, I was from Japan, the nation of no arguments and questions. I even cried twice. So, it was hard. Now I think it was really good for me after all.

JC: So you have done a lot of education. You went to school for photography in the US. But you also later studied sociology?

YN: Very recently.

I wanted to change society for the better, for all of us, and that’s why I went back to school. In school I decided to write about Onna no ko shashin as my thesis, about how misinterpreted female culture was and the hidden discrimination in discourses which were made by a male-dominant society.

Full figured, yet not full-term, 2001

JC: Can you talk about why you did that?

YN: Soon after I won the Kimura Ihei Award, I got pregnant. Becoming a mother made me realize that gender equality was way too far from achieved here in Japan. I faced so much discrimination from many directions as a mom. For example, nobody really called my name in the mothers community. People called me “XX’s mom”. The city didn’t have enough nursery school, and they refused my application 3 times because they didn’t believe that I work full time as a “freelance photographer”. They said that I didn’t have enough paperwork to prove it. In elementary school, I couldn’t tell other parents what I do, so I pretended like I am just a “regular mom”. My ex-husband didn’t understand why he had to do a certain amount of house work, not for “me” but for “us”, neither did his father… and so on. It was like, people didn’t want me to be successful except as a mom. But I was, and it just wasn’t right that I had to hide it or to be ashamed of it instead of being happy about it. Then I remembered every single discrimination that I suffered from all my life; how I had to hide my good grades, how I had to abandon to play soccer in a team, how I had to pretend I know less than most of boys or can’t even carry my handbags… etc.

On the other hand, in my work relationships, several men asked me: “Why are you staying at home taking care of a baby? You are a genius. You have to work.” I understand that maybe it was a compliment or cheer-up words. But in my mind I was like “Okay, when are you coming to my house to take care of my baby so I can work?” They knew I was a single mother, so come on! I actually was put in a very complex situation, and I wanted to know why I suffered.

Untitled, From the book 5 comes after 6, 2008

Back then, nobody at my age had a baby in the work community. I guess that they knew they couldn’t work and have babies at the same time. Now some of them do, but my son seems the oldest. Many of my artist friends suffered just because they wanted to have a family. I wanted to change society for the better, for all of us, and that’s why I went back to school. In school I decided to write about Onna no ko shashin as my thesis, about how misinterpreted female culture was and the hidden discrimination in discourses which were made by a male-dominant society. I thought it was the work for me.

My book is about looking back at the history of discourses about a tide of female photography that occurred in the 90’s, in magazines and books in Japan, from 1990 up until 2014. I do discourse analysis, referencing the social constructionism’s approach.

JC: Do you have the feeling that it’s getting a little bit better in Japan?

YN: No.

JC: Not at all?

YN: No! Maybe a little. I think it’s not only in Japan but also all over the world.

Untitled 2000

JC: What are the reactions to in Japan regarding your book?

YN: I only read good reactions because that’s what my editor sends me. [laughs] I think it’s more difficult now to talk bad about feminism in public. So, bad reviews just don’t show up much, maybe? I am sure that there are certain social-media communities for people with a misogynistic mind where they are speaking ill of me and my book. I don’t look for it, though.

I got lots of newspapers and magazines interested in my book, and I did so many interviews already. It was also picked up in many book reviews, and they are mostly good ones.

JC: This might be a little superficial, but from what I know about Japan is that as a society if there’s a problem, you don’t really talk about it in public. Is that true?

YN: I think you can say that again.

Rice cake on fire, From the series About Home, 2015

JC: So with your book you are talking about it in public, right?

YN: I always talk about things with people. Some people gets scared or angry sometimes, but that’s who I am.

JC: Well, you’re an artist. That’s what you do.

YN: You think?

I like to ask questions. I like to look at the world with sarcasm and make fun of it. I also like to make people laugh – with whatever I do.

JC: I think so. Isn’t that what good art should do: to talk about things that people maybe don’t want to hear?

YN: I hope so. I guess that’s what interests me the most. People’s reaction followed by discussions.

I like to ask questions. I like to look at the world with sarcasm and make fun of it. I also like to make people laugh – with whatever I do. The book is pretty serious. But some of my girlfriends told me that it made them laugh, because all those crazy discourses were too funny after all. I totally understood, because I kind of thought the same. Their observations are not even close to the edge of what we think we are, and it’s like watching a corny soap opera.

Self-Portrait (Mermaid #01), 1994

JC: I guess in the world of photography, people will just say all this stuff and nobody calls them out. Very few people say “oh, this is really stupid.” Or discriminatory.

YN: Some respectable critiques wrote texts against these discourses, but those “voices” weren’t fascinating enough for most men. Also, many critiques didn’t even want to be involved because it was happening in the “women’s area”.

JC: Maybe it’s this idea that feminism somehow is something that women have to do or deal with, and it’s not for men. I wouldn’t agree with that at all.

YN: Right. Male society tends to think that women are opposite to them, that we can express different things from them. They have the knowledge and logical thought, so we can have body and emotion.

Myself, 1992

JC: I think in Japanese the language makes it even more complicated because there are differences in how women and men are speaking, isn’t that right? I’m learning Japanese now. So I have to learn not two languages but two parts. And I read in the book I use that you wouldn’t use this word or phrase if you’re a man. But you have to know what it means. This is so strange to me. I don’t know this from English or German. So the language separates men and women.

YN: You’re right. But I can use the male way of speaking, it just sounds offensive and bad as a lady. Or they feel really uncomfortable, or they think I’m a lesbian. Something like that.

One time, I had an argument with my dad, and I used the male way of speaking on purpose. Then, he became angrier because he thought it’s rude that I didn’t use female language. So I said to him that I just talked to him exactly how my younger brother usually does when they have an argument. I said, dad, you aren’t angry because of what I say, you just didn’t like it because I don’t behave like your daughter. It is called a gender discrimination.

The female way of talk doesn’t sound strong enough. It’s not designed to win. It’s the language to give it up for your owner: father, husband or son, any kind of male figure.

Yellow Wild Flower, From the series SWISS, 2007

JC: Your grandmother played a big role in your life as an artist and as a person, didn’t she?

YN: My grandmother passed away when I was 14. So I don’t know how much she could have affected me after that, but yes. I think she did.

JC: You’ve used her materials or photographs of flowers…

YN: She was my favorite member of the whole family. She was a crazy cool person.

JC: How was she crazy?

YN: She was raised in a very wealthy family. Her father was a Hikeshi, a Japanese fire fighter. Back in the days, Hikeshi had quite a lot of power in their community, and I heard that people called my great grandfather “boss”. He was organizing Matsuri, a Japanese festival in the area, he owned a Mikoshi and so on.

Our Bedroom (Night), From the series SWISS, 2007

So my grandmother was raised in special circumstances. She had a strong character, she was a tomboy and a bad loser. [laughs] I imagine that such a character for a woman was not supposed to be good in general, but she might have been welcomed by her father and his apprentices because they must have admired anyone who “had balls”. She was a young wife during the Second World War. She had my mother and uncle right after the war ended. I heard that she suffered so much because they had nothing to eat right after the war. I often wonder if she had decent adolescent memories. Women in her generation didn’t have many choices in their future, nor did they have chances to chase their dreams. She actually had the best education a woman could get back in that time in that part of Japan. She got married to my grandfather, but I heard that she was in love with someone else. He was also from an old family in the same city, but he only went to elementary school because he had to work for his family. To me, it’s kind of strange how she had a better education, but she couldn’t have a job outside. She ran away from their house twice. Hearing all those from my mom, I wonder if she was happy with her life. I mean, in the end, she might have been happy because of her children, us grandchildren and all, but I was too young to ask those things. My grandfather did OK. He worked hard, brought more than enough money home. Still, I have a feeling that she wanted to become something else if she could.

I started wondering about that after I saw the belongings that she left. I found them almost 20 years after she passed. I read her diaries and looked at things. I could see how time had suddenly stopped in them. Some of them were waiting to be finished. I could see that she also was desperate to make something to express herself. She wanted to become someone, not just a woman. This idea always makes me sad, but it also made me realize that we are alike. If she had been born in the 1970’s like me, she could have definitely become a photographer or whatever she liked. She makes me think like this.

I think you’re lucky if you’re an artist because I believe that art can help you to live your life. But you are luckier if you become a recognized artist because then, you can help other people to live their life.

JC: You made an exhibition with her belongings and your own work maybe two years ago?

YN: Yes, but only it was last year.

Poppy #2, From the series Past, Perfect, Progressive, 2019

JC: So it was like a joint exhibition that you gave her.

YN: The exhibition was held in her hometown. That’s why I chose to make that work.

Because Onna no ko shashin was treated as an amateur movement for a long time, I came up with those questions: what makes one a “professional”? How are some people recognized as talented and others are not? What is it that gives one authority as an artist, and how? My work is always about those questions, too. I think the criteria in the genre of Art is made by men just like most other criteria in our society. So, it mostly works better for men and what they do.

I like working with people in real life. I want them to have fun working with me and hopefully get more confident about themselves through making works. Photographers go to places and take pictures of someone’s life. To say, you’re borrowing those scenes from them. Of course, you are the one who makes all the choices, so if you make good choices that’s why you’re in a museum. But you always have to know that it’s not really just “your” work. It’s your work, but somebody always lets you make your work, and I think you shouldn’t really forget that. Otherwise you can be another famous “arrogant” great artist. I think you’re lucky if you’re an artist because I believe that art can help you to live your life. But you are luckier if you become a recognized artist because then, you can help other people to live their life.


¹ Japan’s obscenity laws state that the display of pubic hair or genitals is prohibited. In the early 1990s, a number of (male) Japanese photographers that included Noboyushi Araki and Kishin Shinoyama published books with photographs of (female) nudes that showed pubic hair, defying the law (part of the argument was that the pictures supposedly were art) and setting a precedent. These nudes were referred to as “hair nudes.”