Mamehana of Gion Kobu as a Maiko


All my first photo sessions with maiko in Gion Kobu and Miyagawa-cho have been memorable, but this image and the first series of portraits I took of Mamehana stand out vividly because it was the only time I had to do nothing. I almost always begin a session by asking the maiko to perform her favorite dance for me. I did the same with Mamehana, and when we finished we moved out to the veranda of the teahouse for some natural light portraits.

One of the most difficult things to get across to a maiko at the beginning is that I want a photo of them as an individual, not of a "maiko."  Most of the time when maiko pose for photographs, they are not asked to reveal anything of their true selves. The photographer, whether a commercial photographer shooting an advertisement or a tourist who asks a maiko to stop on the street, usually wants a photo of the maiko as a symbol, not a human being. As a result, the maiko aren't asked to show any honest emotion. I want the exact opposite. I want any emotion, as long as it is what they are really feeling at that moment.

This request really catches the maiko off guard just because it is something they are rarely, if ever, asked to do. It's new and different and a little bit scary for them. Mamehana was no exception. I could tell she didn't really understand what I wanted to accomplish, but I started photographing her after giving her some basic instruction in posing for the camera.

Mamehana was a revelation. Instead of freezing up as many would do in this situation, the emotions flickered across her face from instant to instant, and there was nothing contrived. They were all honest and true. I decided to keep quiet. I'm usually talking to the maiko about something, but in this case I didn't want to distract Mamehana with what I was saying and unintentionally break the spell. When an emotion appeared on her face, I photographed it and waited for the one that followed a moment later. I don't know how long it lasted, but it was probably a couple of minutes. At the end I could tell Mamehana was getting a bit tired, so I told her to just relax and stop looking at the camera. I told her to look out the door that's to her right and forget about me.

She did, and I made this photo.

Afterwords we viewed the portraits together on the back of my camera, and she understood what I was going for. All maiko have to be quick learners, so it's rarely necessary to tell them anything more than twice. Now, four years later, Mamehana is a geiko, and I don't need to give her any direction anymore. When she's dancing and I begin to open my mouth to say something, she moves before I can utter a syllable. She knows what I'm going to say before I say it. It's a wonderful way to work!