Yurie Nagashima / onnanoko shashinka
“It is has been about a decade since the debut of the onnanoko shashinka, an immensely popular group of young Japanese female photographers whose work was largely characterized by simple subjects reflecting their everyday life, captured with a point-and-shoot aesthetic. Initially, the best known of the lot were the movement’s founder, Yuri Nagashima, and the teenager Hiromix, the latter having since achieved a measure of international recognition to complement the superstar status she enjoys in Japan.
The onnanoko shashinka (the term, coined by critic Kotaro Iizawa, is often translated into English as “girlie photographers”) quickly realized that the less clothing they wore in their self-portraits, the more support they received from the male-dominated photography establishment. In time, candid snapshots became bra-and-panties pictures, then nudes. Finally, with their own bodies no longer schoolgirl fresh, a number of thirtysomething onnanoko shashinka turned to younger models, effectively becoming the very type of photographers they had originally seemed to be rebelling against.”
I copied this text from an editorial to highlight a problem that, I think, is relevant to the art world, and to fandom, and to any space where women are acting and building and making work.
“effectively becoming the very type of photographers they had originally seemed to be rebelling against“
Sure, that’s what rebellion is. Stepping into the roles of your oppressor.
The picture above speaks about those roles, too. There’s: mother and child. Self and other. Power and powerless. These are the roles in this picture, and in the text of our culture and our history. But I think this photo shows this battleground as a space where the binary in those roles is irrelevant. Everyone is breathing the same air.
You know people say, “you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others?” I look at this photo and see someone trying to breathe the way they want to breathe. Someone for whom the Other is a parasite. Someone who already feels they’ve given too much of themselves. A villain. A self, breathing their own air. A rebel stepping into the role of power.
And because I see the photo that way I also see the unborn child as an uninvited guest, making its own way. Taking up space. An imposition on the female body. A fighter and a survivor, already.
There is conflict. Nobody has enough. But I don’t think there’s another choice. We try and make this about choice, like, “oh, you can choose to help others. She can choose to put that cigarette out.” Framing that as a choice–I think it shunts people back into the binary roles. Me vs. you.
They are breathing the SAME air. If the cigarette is easing the mother’s pain, then the child’s pain must also, to some extent, be eased.
Rebellion is stepping into the role of the oppressor. Subversion is destroying roles completely. Both are important. It’s a two step process. I’m talking about this natural binary that exists everywhere. "Me vs. you" and “all of us together” find their way into every kind of theory I encounter and I am more than a little fascinated by it. Maybe here it’s best described as agency feminism versus radical feminism, or first wave versus third wave, whatever the theorists are calling it. Stepping outside the photo, it’s also part of the conversation around the photo: did the onnanoko shashinka chose to sexualize their work, or did the culture coerce them? Both, certainly. "Me vs. you" exists and “all of us” exists. Both exist.
This article (and a lot of contemporary photographic criticism) also see self vs. other in Photographer versus Subject. I have a problem with that. When a photographer makes work with a subject, that’s not a parent/child relationship. It’s a co-parenting relationship. The WORK is the child. The photographer tells part of their story and the model tells part (usually, substantially less) of their story and the result is a story with a life of it’s own.
So here is what, I feel, is very important to say. Self portraiture can be executed with models who are not the self. Just as photographers like Cindy Sherman used themselves to create images of other characters, it is possible for artists to speak about themselves by depicting other bodies. When it was active, my photography practice was a self portraiture practice–even though I almost never photographed myself. I photographed other women. Sometimes I shot men, sometimes animals, and sometimes abstracts, because that felt like a more accurate representation of who I was and how I felt.
Despite being 5′10″ and–there’s no other word–stacked, I think of myself as small, young, spritely, pretty. I’ve felt that way as long as I can remember. I think there’s something very Lacanian in this; when we become aware of ourselves as individuals, we’re infants. Adults and the way they look are “not like me,” whereas other children (and even animals) feel like they have similar physicality, social roles and understanding of the world. Being in the body of an adult human is dysphoric. I don’t know how much of that is internalized from media and culture (which presents fashion and beauty models as huge-eyed, airbrushed infants) versus how much is just part of our neurologies imprinting on the self during childhood. I know there’s something that MOST PEOPLE find inherently repulsive and terrifying about the image of normal adult humans. The more different they are from the way we look (or looked, as children) the more terrifying we find adults. Gender presentation, fat, signs of aging, disability, and differences related to race all seem to trigger this. Meanwhile, most people seem to find children and babies inherently attractive, regardless of race or gender. There is some kind of instinctive and near-universal impetus to offer them empathy and support.
In other words, young people are beautiful to us. When photographers retouch for beauty, they enlarge eyes and forehead, clear and brighten skin, plump lips, soften wrinkles, and add rosiness to cheeks. Many cosmetic processes (application of make-up, surgery) simulate these youth-exaggerating effects. Questions about the realism of this are complicated by the fact that most of us store memories of our younger selves as “how I look.” In a world where women compete with images for acceptance and approval, media proliferation of the youthful female body in fashion and art photography has power. It constructs unrealistic beauty standards for our actual, physical bodies. But in a world where people are not in competition with fiction, where we all breathe the same air, self portraiture acts as a transhumanist tool for manifesting the bodies that we want ourselves in.