“There’s not enough journalism about female friendships, they’re not given the same credit as romantic relationships, but I actually think they can be so much stronger,” says London-based photographer Francesca Allen, who spent a month in Tokyo last spring photographing the subject of her new book, Aya, a Japanese musician and now Allen’s good friend.
The pair first met in 2016, during Allen’s two week vacation to Japan. Allen, whose work often centres on womanhood and sexual freedom and is regularly featured in publications such as Ripose and The Fader, used part of her time on holiday to photograph Japanese girls. Looking across her selection of images, she felt so drawn to the photographs of Aya that the following year, she arranged to go back and make a book with her.
With the hurdle of a language barrier, photography and visual cues became the only way for the two to communicate. Allen laughs about how initial text messages got lost in translation, recalling how Aya realised only a few days into their month of collaboration that she was the main, and only, subject of Allen’s new book.
“If you don’t have a common language, you communicate in different ways,” Allen explains. “Aya and I probably don’t know that much about each others’ pasts, but we got to know each other on a different level.” The book traces the growing friendship between the two girls – only a year apart in age – and how it blossomed over the month that they spent together, from when Aya arrived to meet Allen on a red bicycle at a train station in the suburbs of Tokyo, to staying up late with each others’ friends and meeting Aya’s grandmother, who lives above her tiny apartment and sometimes throws down snacks from her balcony.
Nestled in the book are four handwritten notes, scrawled on top of floral drawings, referencing the change of season and the arrival of sakura (cherry blossoms) in Japan, a flower that is symbolic of renewal and the fleeting nature of life. In one note Aya writes about how she died her hair blue, the opposite of sakura, “that note describes the colour scheme of the book so appropriately,” says Allen.
In the other letters, Aya writes about the fleeting nature of spring, and her fondness of the day she spent working with, and getting to know, her new friend. The notes are not translated in the book, not only in fear of losing the essence of Aya’s colloquial language, but also to keep them as personal messages between friends.
In an apt nod to the short-lived and delicate nature of their friendship, the sakura doesn’t appear often in the book. “I almost thought I was going to miss the cherry blossoms, because it came so late that year,” says Allen “But it came in the last few days, and that felt like a full circle – everything slotted into place, and those are some of my favourite photographs I’ve taken.
The pair are still in touch, and Allen hopes to go back to Japan to visit Aya soon. “I think women make such a special bond together,” she says. “Losing that can be just as hard as a break up, if not worse.”