Photographing Geisha: What Makes Them Most Uncomfortable



There are three situations that make geisha and maiko in Kyoto feel really uncomfortable when they are being photographed, and all three are connected to the fact that the women feel trapped when their photo is being taken. Unfortunately, these three situations seem to be ones that tourists and photographers enjoy the most.

The first is when geisha and maiko have to stop at an intersection for a red light, especially the corner of Shijo and Hanamikoji in Gion Kobu. While they are waiting for the light to turn green, they have nowhere to go and no way to avoid being photographed.

This is especially true during big events like Hassaku (August 1), Shigyoshiki (January 7), and even erikae and omisedashi. Thirty seconds can seem like an excruciatingly long time when there are twenty or thirty cameras pointed at you and you can't do anything but stare straight ahead, look down, or laugh nervously and hope people will leave you alone.

I wrote about this extensively in the post "The Geisha Teruhina and the Photo I Didn't Take," a time when not taking advantage of a geiko's inability to move helped me a great deal in making a nice portrait of her later on.

The second is when a geiko or maiko stops to greet and chat for a moment with a shop owner, an okasan, or someone else connected to their jobs. No one likes to have strangers listening in on a private conversation, especially when that stranger has a camera and is maniacally squeezing the shutter to get as many shots of you as they can.

I have experienced this situation firsthand, not as a photographer, but as the person a geiko or maiko stops to talk to about something. I feel anxious having someone moving around behind me or just off to the side where I can see them out of the corner of my eye, and I know that these strangers aren't the lease bit interested in my photograph.

How must the geiko and maiko feel, knowing that there's someone behind them or next to them or behind the person they are talking to, taking photo after photo after photo of them? In these instances, I always feel bad for the woman I'm talking with even though I know it's not my fault, and I always cut my conversations short. Then I just feel annoyed and resentful.

The third situation is when a maiko or geiko is in a taxi in front of an ochaya or okiya and is waiting for other maiko and geiko to join them. Tourists swarm around the idling taxi, making the woman inside feel more like an animal on display in a zoo than a human being. Again, since the taxi is not moving, all the young woman can do is look ahead or look down and hope the people go away.

Like most situations in life, it helps to walk a mile in another person's shoes to understand them. Although I have never actually put on a maiko's okobo or a geiko's zori, I have done my best to try to understand how they feel when they are being photographed. I hope any visitors to Kyoto out there reading this will do the same.