A square book, bound in grey linen, arrived in my post about three years ago. Its title, Ibasyo, was lightly debossed on its cover, in a font size so small that it almost read like a whisper. Opening the book, I was greeted by powerful black-and-white photographs depicting how six Japanese adolescents used self-injury to cope with depression and anxiety. Images of them disappeared midway through the book, leaving behind pages—some blank, some filled with handwritten messages—in their wake.
In my hands then was one of the six handmade books crafted by photographer Kosuke Okahara. As part of his long-term documentary project about self-harm, the books were travelling around the world, circulating from one reader to the next. Readers could choose to respond to the story at the back of these books. When all the pages of the books were filled, they would be gifted to the six women Okahara had photographed.
Two of these books are now missing, while the rest have concluded their journeys. Taking these returned journals as inspiration, Okahara has recently published a book comprising his images and thoughts about the project as well as responses to his images. I spoke to him about the women he photographed, the journeys the six books have made and his new publication.
ESQ: What does ibasyo mean?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: In Japan,we use this word to refer to where one can feel comfortable or at ease, or where one can have inner peace. In the case of my project, all the girls had experiences that affected their self-esteem negatively, resulting in a lack of ibasyo.
ESQ : Can you tell us more about their experiences?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: Aina was bullied in school. I lost her contact but found her father’s phone number later. Her father used to be very open in our communication but the last time I called, he said: ‘Something happened and I don’t want to talk about it’. Maybe she has committed suicide.
Miri’s father was violent to her when she was a child. When she later went to college, he didn’t like that she went to one that is not prestigious. Her problems with her father led her to depression. She felt worthless and cutting became a way to punish herself.
Kaori grew up with domestic violence too. After she graduated from high school, she ran away from home and went to Tokyo. She started getting depressed however and could not work properly. She got fired and when she ran out of money, she looked for work. She was stuck in this cycle of working, falling into depression and getting fired for some time.
Sayuri was raped by her cousin when she was 10 or 11. By the time she became more aware of her sexuality, sex had become unimportant to her. She was sleeping with different boys and her cousin continued raping her till she was 19 or 20. When she was in high school, she fell in love with her teacher. They had a relationship but unfortunately, he was not serious about it and broke up with her when he had another girlfriend. That was when she started cutting herself.
Yuka was raped when she was in college. She was drinking with two friends—a boy and his girlfriend—when the girl suggested sex. She held down Yuka’s hands while the boy raped her. She was depressed after that. Self-mutilation gave her relief.
Hiromi lived with her dad after her parents divorced. He borrowed money from the yakuza and ended up in debt. Their lives became one of moving from house to house and running away from debt collectors. It was stressful. Hiromi started seeing a psychiatrist when she was in high school but did not take the medication properly. Instead, she would overdose on it just to be unconscious.
ESQ: You took on different roles in your interactions with these women. You were a friend, a photographer and sometimes a social worker. Have you ever been in situations where you felt conflicted?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: Yes, when I witnessed the girls cutting themselves. The first time I saw Yuka doing that, I panicked and told her not to do that. She replied: I’f you stop me, I will cut more when you leave’. These girls have been through experiences that denied their autonomy. Unless their actions endanger their lives, I told myself to photograph everything that happened in front of me. I wanted to use photography as a medium to acknowledge who these girls are and what they did.
ESQ:How did the fact that you are a man affect your interactions with them?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: We became good friends, but I didn’t fall in love with any of them. I was nervous most of the time. I knew they were struggling and there were serious moments, such as them overdosing on medicine and me having to call the ambulance. I didn’t have the capacity to fall in love. I remember the first time I met Yuka’s boyfriend. They were living together and Yuka’s boyfriend used to work at night. I had found it strange that Yuka’s boyfriend was nonchalant about me as a man going over to their home to photograph Yuka while he was out working. I later found out that it was because she would cut herself when he was not around. He had thought I would be able to help take care of her. That was unexpected, but it became a way for me to gain access to Yuka’s life.
ESQ: Tell me more about the six handmade books. How did the idea of circulating them from one reader to another come about?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: All the girls I photographed told me they wanted two things from the project. First, they wanted to raise awareness about self-harm. Second, they wanted to see themselves through the eyes of others, as that could help them re-evaluate themselves and their lives. Photographers working in documentary or photojournalism are often accused of being exploitative and taking advantage of the pain of others.
I think that’s true. Having said that, I still wanted to see if I could do anything to help the girls in their recovery. I therefore decided to make six books, one for each girl. The first half of each book comprised my images, whereas the second half was made up of blank pages. People could leave messages for the girls in these blank pages. It did not cost anything to borrow a book, except the postage to send it to the next participant.
The six books are not just photobooks. They also constituted an investigation into the kind of world that these girls live in. Participants played an active role as they were not simply passively receiving information but also expressing themselves in the books. Everyone who participated wrote touching messages for the girls. Some people pasted pictures while others drew. The fact that these books have travelled for three-and-a-half years in different places, and have been handled by hand by different people, shows. All these elements created hope around the story.
ESQ: How is your new publication different from these six handmade books?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: The main purpose of this new publication is to inform people about self-injury. I have included some messages that people have contributed in the six books. I have also written about the project. Much of my writing is in Japanese however. I have only two pages of English text. It is important for me to publish this new publication in Japan first because it is a story that was shot in Japan and is about an issue in the Japanese society. I am hoping to find funds to translate my Japanese text into English however.
ESQ: How have attitudes in Japan towards self-injury changed since you started this project 14 years ago?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: More people are open to talking about self-injury and depression now. There is still shame attached to being seen as a mentally ill person, but I would say that it has become more acceptable in the last 10 years.
ESQ: Has working on this project changed you?
KOSUKE OKAHARA: After working on this story, I feel that liking yourself and seeing value in yourself is important. It’s a survival skill in any society.
Interview by Ng Hui Hsien