On Ura (implicit) / Omote (explicit)
Becky Yee, a native New Yorker and fashion, music, and culture photographer, sits down with NYC Gallery Girl to talk about her creative process, kendo, and being a Chinese American photographer living in Japan revealing the ura (the dark side/ the implicit) in all of us. Her solo exhibition More Than A Woman was featured as Critics Picks in ArtForum and Best in Show and Voice Choices in Village Voice and shown in 2009 and 2011 at the HPGRP Gallery in New York City.
It’s a mild spring evening in April, and we are sitting in a café in Tribeca. As we move to the quieter area downstairs, Becky Yee has already miraculously balanced and transported her latte and a large heavy-looking suitcase of her equipment downstairs. She is no stranger to balance or strength, having carried unwieldy equipment as a photo assistant for a leading Japanese fashion photographer in Tokyo. Even now, she continues to balance her career as a commercial fashion, music, and culture photographer while cultivating her own perspective in her personal projects. Yee has a unique talent for seeing and understanding people, enhanced by decades of training in kendo, a Japanese martial art. She describes enthusiastically, “What I love about kendo is that it’s really honest, it’s heart to heart communication, just me and you. It’s very, very soulful.”
True to this spirit, Yee confronts complicated (and often controversial) subjects about intimacy and communication in her own work as an artist. Her solo exhibition More Than A Woman, featured a single, Japanese computer engineer who collected “Dutch wives” (“Datchu-waifu”) or realistic life sized love or sex dolls. In On Photography, Susan Sontag states that “[i]n teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.”
Yee’s ethics of seeing comes across as she consciously avoids stigmatization, exploitation, or judgment in her efforts to convey the deeper hidden sides of Japanese culture. She is keenly aware that the subject can be misunderstood, particularly to viewers not sensitive to cultural contexts. One of the most important themes in her work is that of mutual respect , valuing the trust that the subject extends by allowing a stranger into one’s home and to have one’s private moments exposed through photography. She explains, “The Japanese concept of ura is private backside, omote is public frontside…I love to explore the space and difference between public perceptions and private emotions.”
But the reactions at the time that she shot the photographs 8 years ago were as complicated and delicate as the subject matter. Although Yee’s goal was to explore the issue of issues of intimacy in large urban areas and generate questions about the challenges of intimacy, some Japanese viewers were shocked that she would show “the ugly part of Japan.” She ultimately decided not to show her collection publicly until 8 years after the photographs were shot. She explains, “I thought I must be doing something right. And now when people see it, they can see it. Before they just reacted adversely to it.”
Even today, she explains “Sometimes people look at this show and can’t see this. Some people really understand what I am trying to do with this project. They understand that showing this is helping people recognize it is not only in this persons life but also a part of the world and even a part of themselves.”
Interview of Becky Yee
How did More Than A Woman come about?
This is the last project I did in Japan, I was obsessed with it but my commercial managers begged me not to show my pictures in Japan. Now that time has passed it’s more digestible for many people. When you’re making these projects, you’re picking up on some sense of what is ‘then and there’ but people can’t look at it because its too close to the time and they can’t accept it. Sometimes it takes 10-20 years for the general public to be able to understand what the artist was trying to show.
When was the first time that you showed it?
2009-2010, first shown in New York at HPGRP Gallery in the Meatpacking District. When the gallery moved to a larger space in Chelsea, the curator asked me to show it again because he liked the project and wanted to revisit it. HPGRP Gallery also published a book of the project that is available for sale at the gallery.
How did you develop this concept?
I was working with a video production company that was doing a feature on Dutch Wives. We were shooting at Datchu-waifu manufacturers in the suburbs of Tokyo. I was amazed at how real they looked and felt but then I started thinking why did this exist? Why do we have life-size sex dolls? There are so many real women out there. What is the purpose?
I started to do research, going into chat rooms and pretended to be a man to try to elicit some honest comments and get in their heads and what they are thinking and why. I found this one guy who was willing to talk to me we meet in person. He is quite famous in that world because he is proud of only living with datchu waifu and wants to have this sub culture more recognized in public and talk about it.
He appeared in a major internationally news syndicate company and the announcer was saying, “This guy’s crazy! He’s nuts!” And the guy didn’t understand English, so he was ignorant as to what the announcer was saying. I felt like it was an inaccurate portrayal of his life and you needed to have a deeper understanding of Japanese culture . Rather than immediately label him as a freak or crazy or ill, I just wanted to show his world how he sees it. He’s a functioning financially successful person in society, but why is he unable to form intimate relations with a human woman? Why does he feel more comfortable being completely himself and intimate with a datchu waifu?
I wanted to show a fuller picture. I felt like I had a deeper understanding and respect of the culture and in my photographs. Not by saying, good/bad, negative/positive, just showing the world from his point of view as best as I can. I talked to him a bunch of times before I could get him to agree to allow me to go to his house.
Tokyo is a city with 20 million people. For everyone to function in an overcrowded urban area they need to create space and be civil to each other. The trains in Tokyo are packed you need strong stomach muscles just to breathe. So people tend to create emotional space within them selves.
So when it comes to interpersonal relationships and intimacy, sometimes it’s very difficult to get close and really feel comfortable being themselves. This is not exclusive to Japan its also very prevalent in New Yorkers, too. They have difficulty to get emotionally close to people, they don’t know how to have an intimate private relationship with someone. With this datchu waifu, this man can be completely relaxed and himself, but he doesn’t feel that he can be the same with a living human being.
How long did you work with him?
I was talking to him for about 6 months. We had 2 days of shooting (15 hours each day) and the shoots were a year apart.
At what point did you get into photography?
Right when I moved to Japan. I tried [working at a investment bank], but I didn’t want to work in finance. Why not do something that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life? So I spent 3 months pounding the pavement, I didn’t know anyone and I finally got an introduction to a really good photographer. I showed my work, and he said, “I see you know nothing about photography, but I can see you have a lot of passion.” And he was looking for a photo assistant and he taught me everything I know about photography. I did this for 2-3 years, he’s now one of the most famous Japanese fashion photographers.
Did you start doing more of your own projects after that?
At first I worked as a fashion photographer because it was my background, but I never consider myself a fashion photographer but more of a cultural commentator. I am heavily influenced by Diane Arbus , I like peeling back the layers and show a subjects raw character and emotions but with a more polished aesthetic.
Do you consider yourself an artist? How do you balance between commercial work?
I fund my own projects and if I’m able to shoot a few campaign the year, I can take that money and spend it on my personal projects. I could have bought a car or invest in real estate, but I am very passionate about my world and how I see the world, and I really think I can help broaden other peoples view of the world.