I was distracted by the box next to his chair. It was the end of a long week at the 2014 Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap and Japanese photographer Kosuke Okahara and I had taken the opportunity to share lunch. I had much to ask him but there lay the little box. I inquired as to what it was and he handed it to me.
Inside lay a small book covered in grey linen with the word IBASYO embossed lightly on the cloth cover. The opening text of the book revealed that it contained the story of six Japanese girls Okahara had photographed who cut themselves, an act called self-harming or self-injury.
‘Ibasyo’ is roughly translated as the physical and emotional place in which a person can exist. It is a location or a state of mind in which a person feels comfortable or at peace.
The text and the images in Ibasyo are equally moving. Okahara reflects on being in the room when Yuka was cutting herself.
“It was a strange moment for me,” he writes. “To take pictures of it. I wondered whether this was the right thing to do. It was the only way, however, I found to accompany her. Most of the people who cut themselves have traumatic experiences that denied their existence. I tried to recognize everything they did.”
Each image is about this recognition of existence. Simply being present. A few pages in I found myself thinking that this was a book worth owning, something I could return to. However, in the book’s closing essay I learned that I could not own this book. No one can. Never.
I was holding one of only six books in existence. Each was handmade by Okahara and each one is named after the girls he had photographed — Yuka, Kaori, Hiromi, Miri, Aina and Sayuri — and they were the ultimate owners of these books.
Instead of cash transaction, Okahara asks his audience to engage intimately, in a private, quiet space of their own. To reflect on the lives and experiences of these six girls so far away.
I was invited to write in the book, write to them, write my response to their story. Half of each book is left empty for this purpose and the first few blank pages of the copy I held had already been filled.
As I began to think about what I wanted to say to these women — to Sayuri whom I had seen sitting on the floor of her bedroom, expressionless, wrists ripped deep, to Kaori who had overdosed on pills and had to be taken to the hospital, to Miri who had emailed Kosuke and said, “I feel I can try to change myself” — I looked at the images again and again.
Hiromi’s scarred hand stretches out into a void. There is no one standing there but as the light falls on the edge of her wrist you sense that she is trying to reach out, maybe to herself.
Aina is a bodily form framed against the light of the computer screen. Is that a form on the bed as well? No. There is nobody there but you can imagine someone hiding under the sheet, crumpled, softly crushed. And then you see Aina in a public space, she’s a guitarist. She is standing head bowed against a wall, playing. A man walks past her, a blur, and suddenly she seems to have become a backdrop, an unnoticed presence on the street.
I read the text more closely. I thought about what ‘Self-harm’ meant in my life. Had I ever felt this type of despair? Why did these women choose to cut and harm themselves, when I had not. I was once younger and less confident, also. These women, who had agreed to reveal the most intimate part of their lives for the world to see, what did I think of them? Were they brave? Were they weak? Now that I had the opportunity to let them know that I had seen what they experienced, what could be the right thing to say?
I wrote a single page. It was difficult. I capped my pen and closed the book. I realized I had just become part of something quite unique, part of a chain of contact that Okahara was preserving for these women.
I later Googled “Ibasyo Kosuke Okahara” and learned that anyone in any country can request access to the books and Okahara is coordinating it such that they circulate from one to the next. As they travel, Okahara tracks them, using a dedicated blog and Facebook to connect the book-journey with a wider audience and facilitating requests for access to the book.
“All of the girls I photographed told me that they want to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. It can help them reevaluate themselves,” wrote Okahara on his blog. “Before they told me that, I could not have imagined that the pictures I took might be of any help.
“If the girls know,” Okahara continues, “that other people out there in the world care about them and their stories, then maybe this could be a small step for them to re-develop their self-esteem. In a way, this might sound a little patronizing, but I want the girls to feel that they are important.”
Okahara is striving toward something beautiful. Even though the images themselves had already been widely seen in the last few years, published in magazines and exhibited at photo festivals and galleries, he has given the work fresh meaning and life through this “Book-Journey Project.”
Photo industry veteran Stephen Mayes has said, “Photographers are no longer constrained as humble suppliers to platforms managed and controlled by others; thinking as publishers allows them to choose their themes, audiences and the means of expression and distribution. How we grasp the opportunities before us becomes partly a matter of problem solving and, more significantly, a challenge of imagination.”
Okahara has taken this challenge head on. By removing these six photobooks from the economy of the art world, by preventing their circulation through museums or galleries and instead taking them to ordinary individuals each with their own experience, Okahara has given viewers, reader and recipients agency in, and intimacy with, the work. Okahara honors each individuals’ unique perspective as they look at the story in their own solitary space, their own Ibayso.
A decade after he first began photographing this story, Okahara has come full circle. He has found a way to bring the world to the women who let him bring their stories to the world. And he continues to shoot. Even after the work has seen commercial success, and is now traveling in the form of these books, he hasn’t stopped taking pictures of the women. Some are better, some aren’t, some may be soon, some may take a turn for the worse. He is still there.