How to Photograph Geisha: The One Goal You Must Have


If you are reading this, you are obviously interested in photographing geisha and maiko in Kyoto. If so, I hope you will ask yourself a simple question: What is your goal? Why are you doing it? In just a few months, I will have been photographing geiko and maiko in Gion Kobu for ten years, and my goals have changed many times over the years, except one. In this first of many posts, I want to share my early goals with you in the hope that it will help you to think about and define your own goals. I hope my experiences will help you become better photographers whatever your subjects are.

When I first started, my goals were very humble. I just wanted to see a geiko or maiko, and if I did I wanted to get a photograph that was in focus. It took me a month or two just to accomplish this goal since I was completely ignorant of life in the hanamachi (geisha districts like Gion Kobu and Miyagawa-cho) and little more than a beginner as a photographer with a very basic film camera. Once I learned when and where I could see geiko and maiko and began to develop my skills and equipment as a street photographer, my goal changed. My new goal became to understand this beautiful and mysterious world by photographing the people in it.

In some ways, this was my happiest time photographing geiko and maiko. Everything was new and different to me, so I was constantly filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. I found myself in a secret world that not many knew about, and I had a camera with me to document it. I loved it. However, I was in this secret world without a guide, a map, or knowledge of the customs there. It was inevitable that I was going to make mistakes, and I did. I'll be writing about many of them in the coming weeks. Fortunately, I never did anything very rude. My mistakes were mistakes of simply not knowing any better, which of course does not excuse my actions. In fact, after my second or third mistake, I was really beating myself up mentally. The pain I felt at times bordered on real anguish. I couldn't bear the thought that by doing something I really loved I might be causing another person even slight discomfit. What's the point?

I gave myself a simple choice. I could either stop photographing geiko and maiko completely, or I could come up with a system where I could photograph them in such a respectful and non-threatening way that I would disturb them as little as possible, hopefully not at all. I wanted the geiko and maiko to be able to live with me coming into their world, but more importantly, I needed to be able to live with myself. I couldn't do that if I was going to be annoying them, even a little bit. Clearly, two published books and another one or two as-yet-unpublished books later, I found a way to do this, and it has been my main goal ever since. I developed a system of guidelines that would ensure I would not disturb any maiko or geiko beyond asking them what their name was and if they would pose for me for a few seconds, and I only did that if I thought they would be receptive to me.

It is these guidelines I will be sharing with you every Sunday for the foreseeable future. Some of them are common sense, but others involve the many unwritten rules that exist in the hanamachi, rules that any outsider will not know about and that I unfortunately see broken in photographs all too often.

Whatever your personal goal is in photographing geiko and maiko, I hope you will do it considerately and respectfully and disturb these extraordinary women as little as possible, hopefully not at all. I don't see how you can be successful as a photographer if you don't.

Next week we'll begin with some of the unwritten rules about photography that exist in the hanamachi. See you then.