After falling out of love with photography, Okahara found himself haunted by memories of Koza, an old centre of Okinawa city, on the southern islands of Japan
Blurry snapshots of the city flash before the screen. “This is my reality,” says Kosuke Okahara, in the narration that overlays the sequence of still images. The sound of being submerged deep into the ocean follows this; so to do photographs of the bubbles that form and float to the surface above. “And this is an evasion from that reality,” Okahara continues.
So begins Okahara’s experimental film and accompanying photobook, Blue Affair. Both the film and book follow the same sequence of hazy black-and-white images, shot in Koza, an old center of Okinawa city, on the southern islands of Japan. Depicting strange encounters in dive bars late at night, crumbling hotel-rooms, and karaoke joints, the project feels like a wormhole into Okahara’s experiences in this dilapidated part of the city. These are the experiences that compelled him to return over three years; the memories that haunted his dreams, urging him to go back.
Kyoto-based Okahara first stumbled upon Koza, once a hotspot for nightlife, in 2017, while on assignment documenting protests against the presence of US troops on the island. Okahara made his name as a social documentary photographer, photographing the Arab Spring, the European migrant crisis, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and producing personal projects about the less-savory aspects of Japanese society, such as adolescent self-harm.
But after so many years of chasing the news cycle, churning out the same images as every other press photographer, Okahara was beginning to feel disillusioned by the medium. “It was almost like a theatre. Like we were being given the same script every day,” he says. “The interesting thing about photography for me was discovering something I don’t know. I felt like there was no discovery anymore… I thought I was done as a photographer.”
Then, one night, on his way back from photographing a protest in Okinawa, Okahara passed an old shopping arcade in Koza. None of the shops were open, apart from one bar. “It was kind of a creepy, scary vibe,” he remembers. He decided to stop by for a drink, and ended up getting along with a group of young people at the bar. He spent the entire night with them, drinking and talking until dawn.
Back in Kyoto, Okahara began dreaming of Koza. “I had the same dreams so many times,” he says, “I had to go back there”. For the first time in years, he felt an urge to “just make pictures”. He spent most of his time roaming the town’s sparse streets and seafronts, drinking almost every night, meeting new people and listening to their stories. Although Okinawa is known for its pristine beaches and tropical climate, it is also one of the poorest regions in Japan, and many of the people he met had tough life stories. “After so many years on assignments, my motivation had disappeared. But for the first time, I was enjoying taking pictures again,” he says. “The desire just to photograph, made this project feel free. Since I’ve done this work, my mind feels a bit more healthy.”
The resulting body of work is dedicated to the people of Koza, but it places Okahara at the center of the narrative. In both film and book format, it represents his experience of being in this strange yet regenerative space. Its title, Blue Affair, is a nod to the place’s identity, on an island, but also to Okahara’s feelings of being in Koza, which he compares to freediving. When you are at the bottom of the ocean, you are told to remain calm, almost like you are meditating, says Okahara. “Going deep into Koza was like diving to the bottom of the ocean. It’s tough, but you want to stay.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.