Photographing Geisha: Are You Listening When They Speak?

The_Geisha_Fukunami_of_Miyagawa-cho-1
The_Geisha_Fukunami_of_Miyagawa-cho-1

If you ever encounter a geisha or maiko on the streets of one of Kyoto's five geisha districts, she will tell you if it is okay to take her photograph or not. However, she will communicate to you through body language, not speech. Your job as a photographer is to listen to her with your eyes and decide whether it is appropriate for you to take a photo or not. These are the visual signs I looked for when I was first photographing geiko and maiko in Gion Kobu and Miyagawa-cho, and I hope you will look for them, too.

The first thing you need to look for is how fast the maiko or geiko is walking. If she sees you and speeds up, she does not want to have her photograph taken. If she stays at her normal pace or even stops for you, it is okay to take a photo. With maiko this is particularly easy to spot because you can hear it as well as see it. The big wooden clogs (okobo) maiko wear make a very distinct sound, and the rhythm of their normal walking is like a steady heartbeat. When they are walking quickly to avoid photographers, the rhythm is faster and more frantic. I can actually be inside an ochaya and tell if a maiko on the street outside is being chased by photographers or not just by listening to the sound of her okobo.

The second thing you should look at is the geiko's face and eyes. I always tried to make eye contact with a geiko or maiko before I made a photograph. If I didn't know the young woman, they would usually not make eye contact with me. They would simply pretend I wasn't there. If they looked straight ahead as they approached me and went by me, I made a photograph. If they looked away from me or turned their head away from me, they were telling me they did not want to be photographed and I would not take a picture.

Of course, if you get too excited at just seeing a geiko or maiko, you won't be mindful enough to see the visual cues the woman is trying to give you. I think this happens to many tourists and photographers. I know it happened to me. In my early days, I usually saw only one maiko at a time, not two together and certainly not three. Then, on one of my first evenings in Miyagawa-cho, three maiko got out of a taxi down the street and started walking right toward me. I was so excited I almost started jumping up and down right there in the middle of the street. I recovered my composure enough to frame the photo just as I wanted, waited for the three maiko to approach the spot where the light was best, and quickly made a few photographs. I thought I had gotten the shot, but since I was still shooting film in those days, I had to wait until the next day to be sure.

When I got the film back, my heart sank. The photo was awful. Technically, it was quite good. I had the correct exposure, a fast enough shutter speed that the three maiko were sharp, and a pleasing composition. Two of the three maiko were talking to each other and laughing, completely oblivious to my presence. The problem was with the third maiko. The third maiko was very aware of my presence, and she clearly did not want to be photographed. How did I know? Instead of participating in the conversation with her laughing friends, who were walking to her right, this third maiko was looking off to her left. She had twisted her head so far to the left that it looked like she was trying to break her own neck. Why? So my camera could see as little of her face as possible. I was stunned that I had elicited such a reaction, especially since I had stayed several meters away from the three maiko and hadn't blocked their path at all. They went into an ochaya before they got close to me.

The next few times I was in Miyagawa-cho, I looked for this same maiko. Sure enough, every time I saw her she twisted her head away from me so I would capture as little of her face as possible if I tried to photograph her. Of course, I did not even attempt to photograph her again. This was another crisis moment for me. I was clearly making this maiko incredibly uncomfortable, which was the last thing I was trying to do. Even though I had just started going to Miyagawa-cho, I had begun to develop positive relationships with some of the geiko and maiko there. There was no reason for me to photograph a geiko or maiko who didn't want to be photographed, because there were some who didn't mind being photographed and some who actually enjoyed it.

This became another of my guidelines. I resolved that before I made a photograph of a geiko or maiko I didn't know, I would carefully study her body language to see if it would be acceptable for me to photograph her or not. If she clearly did not want to be photographed, I would not photograph her ever. And I would tell her that.

I started with the very camera-shy third maiko. The next time I saw her, I said in Japanese, "Excuse me, maiko-san, I understand that you don't like having your photo taken, so from now on, please don't worry. I will definitely not take your photograph. Really. Please don't worry." She did not answer me, but she did nod her head slightly before she went on her way. The next time I saw her, I actually put my hands in my pockets when she approached to make it totally clear that I wasn't going to photograph her. She still didn't trust me, though. Instead of twisting her head away from me, she was now glancing at me out of the corner of her eye to see if I was keeping my promise. Also, when she passed by, she looked back at me quickly to see if I was going to try to photograph her once she couldn't see me. My hands were still in my pockets.

We followed this same routine several times. I would stand with my hands in my pockets, and the maiko would check to see if I was keeping my word or not. I guess she finally realized I was serious, because I noticed a real change in her body language soon after. She no longer stiffened when she saw me, and she stopped looking back at me. She ignored me, and I stayed out of her way and kept my word never to photograph her again.

One thing that I don't think ever happened to me that I notice far too often in photos these days is a geiko or maiko grimacing or scowling in a photograph. Geiko and maiko are never supposed to show any form of negative emotion, so for them to openly show such displeasure or disdain when they are being photographed is a sad sight for me to see. They are not talking to the photographer in that case; they are silently screaming to be left alone. Unfortunately, the photographer isn't listening, or just doesn't care that they are turning a thing of beauty into something almost ugly because of their rude behavior.

These first few weeks I've been focusing on things you should not do if you want to take a successful photograph of a geiko or maiko. Next week I'll focus on some of the things you should do. See you then.