A vivid journey into Momo Okabe’s psychological landscape

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As a child, Okabe was shy and introverted. Imbued with pain and beauty, her photography illustrates her internal reality: “Perhaps taking photographs is an unconscious healing for my younger self,” she says

Over the last two decades, Momo Okabe has quietly become one of Japan’s most respected contemporary photographers. Imbued with both pain and beauty, her vivid images have been recognised locally and internationally for their transgressive and imaginative quality. 

Okabe identifies as asexual, and has explored this within her work. Her first sold-out title Dildo (2013) documents her romance with Kaori and Yoko as they grapple with gender identity disorder. A year later, Bible (2014) presented a more fluid record of the artist’s life and the LGBTQ community in Japan. Her most recent publication ILMATAR (2020) comprises images made between 2014 and 2019, rushing through scenes depicting love, lust, and grief. Its climax is raw, beautiful, and mythical all at once, ending with the birth of her first child conceived through IVF. 

From ILMATAR © Momo Okabe.

Okabe’s foray into photography began in the mid-90s at her local library, where she spotted a copy of Nobuyoshi Araki’s Sentimental Journey (1971). This was a pivotal moment in her life, one in which she realised that photography was art. “It was a world I had never encountered,” she says. “I was moved by the idea that my life and my own personal experiences could be made into art… I realised that if you shoot with intention, you can make anything into a photograph.”

In 1999, within a few years of picking up the camera, 18-year-old Okabe was awarded a special mention by Araki himself in Canon’s New Cosmos of Photography Award. “Part of the reason why I started making photographs was with the goal of meeting Araki,” says Okabe. “When I eventually did meet him, I thought, ‘where do I go from here?’”

From ILMATAR © Momo Okabe.
From ILMATAR © Momo Okabe.

Two decades on, the artist has been awarded numerous accolades for her photobooks in Japan, and in 2015 she scooped the prestigious Paul Huf Award. But, for a photographer who has achieved so much, Okabe is modest about her success. When we meet in early April –  at an exhibition of Japanese women photographers at Kyotographie festival in Japan – it transpires that her physical presence on the art-scene is rare.

Okabe speaks demurely, but openly, about her life and work; she is grateful, but also surprised by her success. For Okabe, photography is a solitary craft, and the images are made for no one other than herself. Aside from Araki, Okabe has no interest in other photographers – not in the sense that she doesn’t care about their work, but because for her, photography is an internal, psychological process. 

This perspective is perhaps connected to her upbringing. Born in Tokyo in 1981, Okabe was an introverted child, and when she was two years old her family relocated to Paris. Unable to understand the language, Okabe “barely spoke a single word for four years”. She remembers finding it difficult to communicate when she returned to Japan aged six. “I began to form my own internal world,” she says. “Eventually that became my main reality.” 

Part of Okabe’s practice is about visualising this “psychological landscape”. “It was probably easier for me to escape into that reality,” she reflects, “I’m not conscious of it, but perhaps taking photographs is an unconscious healing for my younger self.”

Momo Okabe is currently exhibiting ILMATAR as part of 10/10 Celebrating Contemporary Japanese Women Photographers at HOSOO Gallery – an exhibition at Kyotographie International photography festival, until 08 May 2022. 

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

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.