Photographer Russel Wong’s latest homegrown exhibition Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto (co-presented with Kobe Shimbun) documents the legendary lensman’s chase to capture the elusive vanishing traditions of the geisha and Kyoto’s picturesque panoramic cityscape. He tells us about his meticulous efforts in assembling this vision.
Esquire: What sparked your involvement in the Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto exhibition?
Russel Wong: It came as a two-pronged approach. Life in Edo was conceptualised by JCC [Japan Creative Centre] that had a curator for the woodblock collection. At the same time, Kennie Ting [Asian Civilisation Museum’s museum director] saw my previous exhibition on [Kenzō Tange’s] architecture at the JCC. There I spoke about my project on documenting the geisha and geiko for about 12 years. This was 2019. Ting proposed to do this together [with the woodblocks] to have a contrast and also duality for the exhibition. One having woodblocks from old Edo.
And another having also with history, but shot with and done in the medium of photography at the present time which has a bit of old world and old soul to it using my photography. So, it came about that way. Plus, it’s the 55th year of the formal relationship between Singapore and Japan.
ESQ: Did you present your photos to them during the early stages of this exhibition?
Wong: I never presented them; I just spoke about it. I always kept this between my friends and me. Because I’ve been shooting for 13 years, I just knew I wanted to publish a book or have an exhibition. It was never planned as I shot. So, no one saw any of the work, because I kept it for myself as a personal project I’d embarked on. Ting tapped on it because I spoke about this and after the curator saw it, there was a link.
ESQ: How does this series place itself alongside your archival work?
Wong: It’s not just archival work, but more of the whole comprehensive life of the five gokagai or geisha districts, and the behind-the-scenes primary life that Kyoto revolves around the geisha lifestyle. It’s focused on this floating world, as they call it. And I’ve always been intrigued by its elusive access. Because I finally got it, I wasn’t going to give it up. It took me five years to get inside the ochayas or tea houses. As photographers, we want to shoot and create images. And if we’re given access to something special, we’ll keep shooting it. We don’t think about the business side. Rather, we keep on going because the content is so important, then you can formulate and curate it.
ESQ: Was time the hardest part of this whole experience, like having to persevere and be patient?
Wong: The hardest part was attaining access. The photography part was the least of my concern [because] that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 30 years. Thus, it was about access. It’s always how do I get in? It’s like shooting concerts—how do you get backstage? Once you’re there, it’s easy. With great photographers that have amazing projects, it’s always the access that they have. Because access is obviously limited. I had a rough idea, but without access, I couldn’t think about it.
For the initial five years, I was doing landscape photography in Kyoto. This allowed me to get to know the city and I wanted to show people where this story took place. In film, we call this establishing scenes. But I knew it was going to take a long time. Everyone warned me. Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh warned me. They and my Kyoto friends told me to be patient. You just have to wait for an invitation. So I knew I was in for the long haul. I did have a time frame—conservatively, it was between 10 and 15 years. My mindset was that I didn’t panic. I didn’t have a hard deadline. I finish when I finish. It’s organic that way.
ESQ: Did this project idea start from Memoirs of a Geisha or before?
Wong: The book was released years ago and people were always talking about it. But the key point was more than that narrative. There’s a lot of stories out there to be told and a fair amount of them was not accurate.
Furthermore, the geisha and geiko community doesn’t have a voice. They don’t have a PR company to back them and have a press conference; they just do their craft. But the public can just criticise and draft their own narratives that might not be accurate because they’ve never experienced [that kind of life] and they don’t know them personally. So I felt injustice for them in terms of people’s perception.
Then the more I delved [into the topic], the more I wanted to convey that in pictures. There’s a good saying: Pictures don’t lie. Neither do they tell the truth. Because it can be slanted too.
In a way, I was being an investigative photojournalist. People know me for shooting portrait shots. There’s not much of such documentation type. Hence, this one is a bit different from what I do. But on the other hand, it is very similar too because I’m always very involved with the story and narrative. I’m not just a hired photographer to shoot a pretty face. I’ve always been very interested in the content.
ESQ: How did the geishas and maikos feel when they knew you wanted to present a true portrayal of their profession?
Wong: It’s a two-fold, double-edged sword. On one hand, they want to keep it so tight and protected that you can’t enter unless you are a member and abide by the rules. But on the other hand, they also want you to know about their culture because they’re proud of their Japanese culture. They don’t like to share it sometimes. In fact, most of the time. I couldn’t make it too commercial until everyone knew about it. But I’m also proud that the kimonos and obi trade are still there. It’s that little high wire balance they are struggling with. They don’t like to expose the girl when she’s not fully made up and dressed up because the mystique will be gone. But for me, I want to show the real side. Like they are laughing and smiling. There’s some personality to that.
For example, that make-up shot of her having her neck painted. I wanted to show that is a woman. I wanted to humanise that. So very graciously I asked and tried to explain before each shoot I did. I came up with a brief and told them this was documentation, not just a foreign photographer going there to take pretty pictures. Instead, it was going to be documentation of this decade and what had happened in Kyoto. They understood that. That was a bit more academic. They also knew I shot big movie stars like Ken Watanabe and Jackie Chan. So that helped. But I never mentioned Sayuri, which is the Japanese title of Memoirs of a Geisha and the lead actress’s name.
One of the reasons this interested me is I’ve always like to give a voice to the people who are voiceless. Like an underdog. I would love to do it through my photos because you can’t refute it. Photos are there and that means things actually happened. I think that’s important. For the people who are weak and voiceless, they don’t have a platform, and they need to tell a story or bring an opinion across.
As a photographer or even a journalist, it’s kind of our duty in my opinion. I’m not a journalist, but [it helps] still through my photos. Subtly I try to show that.
ESQ: It’s not easy getting into the ochayas. How did you deal with the initial refusal or rejection?
Wong: It’s not even refusal. You don’t know who to talk to. Because these houses are all run by individual women. And there are five districts. So, my goal was to find the pathway to the lady that ran the house. But I didn’t know anyone in Kyoto. It’s akin to 10 degrees of separation maybe.
My strategy was to meet everyone. Every Japanese or non-Japanese I ran into, I would ask them, “Do you have a connection with the ochaya or any ochaya?” Everyone. The taxi driver that chauffeured me around, the ramen guy who made ramen for me, the udon shop man, you name it. I was quite relentless. It was just this probability. With more fishing lines you put out, you’re bound to catch one. This is how I saw it.
Simple as it might be, it took five years but it worked. And funnily enough, it was through food that I obtained my connections. Because the ochayas do not have a kitchen; all of them order food in. I knew a lot of people over the course of five years and some of them became friends. I’ve never underestimated how [someone] that you don’t even expect can help so much. It might be just even a ramen owner. I’d never undervalued anyone. At the same time, because they’re locals, they can tell me how they think, like how I can approach the different hanamachis [geisha districts].
One of them told me to make it like a competition. If they find out, you’re in one. The other one also wants you in the other one. So that’s what I did. Because word got out. The [community] is very small. When I do whatever at one side, the other knows too. So I got to be careful.
ESQ: Was there anything you found surprising or unexpected while you were shooting?
Wong: Men are involved in the [ceremonial] preparations, from handling the outfits to doing the hair and make-up. People think it was a woman’s thing. Yes, the head of the household is run by a woman but in all the formal ceremonies, the men would dress, put on make-up and set the hair for them. That I was surprised, I thought it was primarily operated by women. Men are also involved in tying the obi sash. Because the obi is a heavy piece of cloth, two guys have to do that. And when putting the wig on, there was one man who did it because his family made wigs with real hair. Also, that’s a guy painting the back of the geisha’s neck in the make-up photo shown at ACM.
Because I was able to go behind the curtain, it also surprised me when the girls started talking to me. These girls were about 16 years of age. When they didn’t have their make-up on, they were giggling and just like ordinary girls. I got to keep reminding myself that they are just human beings like us, as we kind of forget they are humans after all. Everything is so formal for them. They don’t exude any emotion, so to speak. But actually, when they are entertaining and talking to the patrons, at times, they are so gregarious to a point where sometimes it gets quite boisterous. That part you don’t see. What also surprised me was how animated and dynamic they were behind the painted veil. Behind the painted face, rather.
ESQ: The pictures that you shot for this exhibition are backed by natural light. Was the difficulty level higher compared to your previous work?
Wong: Because you’re going to see whatever’s there, you have to make the best of it. I couldn’t move the girl around. That’s why I wanted to be so true. Most of it, I will say 98 percent. There are only about three pictures in there that I used a small light. But this is because it was so dark inside and I needed to balance it out a bit. But you can’t tell that artificial light was used. Because I have a background in the film, I light it in a way that it looked so natural. So, I dare to enhance a bit but still have that credibility—the visual credibility that it’ll still look well. So, if some of them look posed, I know that because that’s how I frame it. I’m using my fashion and portraiture background to make a documentary image a bit sexier and stylish.
When you say documentary photos, you think of recording them. I’m bringing that fashion-type attitude and portraiture where I came from shooting for big magazines to the documentary to make it distinguishable and a bit different. I’m using my experience through the years on one project, which to me was unbelievable. I need to use every facet of what I know. So this project threaded everything. It is a dream project for me to use everything I know.
ESQ: Photography is technical but with technology so advanced now, have you dabbled and used digital functions?
Wong: Most of the shots were not touched up. It’s what you see. I come from a film background, so what I shoot is what it is. We never go in, touch up and change. Plus, don’t forget this is documentation. It’s very important as the documented document or visual picture, you cannot change it. If it’s changed, you have changed the whole essence and the whole credibility of it. It’s very important to keep integrity. So, if you see the lips, some parts bleed [with lipstick]. I want to leave it in there. Because that’s real. Of course, in fashion, you always touch it up. Here, I want to show this is what it was like. This is human. This is real. This is reality.
ESQ: So, you embrace such imperfections?
Wong: I have an issue with that word. Because there’s nothing perfect. I don’t think anything is perfect in this world. To me, the perfect thing is the imperfections. We are attuned to making everything look shiny. And therefore, everything looks the same. I don’t do it because it allows you to feel the skin. You’ll see the skin texture, although the photo is in monochrome. Because I want you to know that that’s a woman. That’s a true living human being and not just a white painted face that looks plastic. I find this texture very sexy when it comes to a woman’s skin because you can feel it.
Also, for Japanese women, the neck is the sexiest to Japanese, right? They want to feel and see the skin. It’s also a question of credibility. It gets dangerous because you’re misleading someone. It’s not just visuals, it’s also ethical to me. You want to tell people the truth. It’s the craftsmanship that’s lacking these days. People rely too much on a computer because they’re able to do it and a computer doesn’t do everything. Hence, get it right the first time, light it properly, compose it and you’re done.
ESQ: Is there a saying that you live by?
Wong: I don’t like to mislead someone or put out an image that will hurt someone. If I can do something to help someone, why not? Enhance someone’s image, why not? Give them a good feeling about themselves. There’s too much negativity around. But I think people are smart. People see so much but they know if it’s for real, they know it’s authentic. Because you can’t hide what’s real and sincere when you create art. When someone’s insincere, you can tell. It’s going to show in your art.
As for what I live by, I always tell the actors I work with that I’m on their side. If I’m not on your side, I’m going to hurt you. Because I don’t like you. I’m going to make your pictures look bad. But I’m only trained to take beautiful pictures. So I cannot make anyone look bad. I’m on the side of the talent, of the actor, of my subject, of the geiko, because I just want to be on their side to tell their stories. So that part of it. Where being on someone’s side is to help someone. That’s why they trust me. I just want to make a good photo. It’s that simple. People can tell if you have ulterior motives. People are sensitive. Like I said, you can’t hide in a photo. When I look at the photo, I can tell the intentions of a photographer. Because it’s kind of subliminal. All your values are on that piece of paper when you shoot. Every photo I create is actually a self-portrait; it’s a reflection of my values. That’s what art is all about. Your perspective. What do you stand for?
ESQ: And the most vital lesson you’ve learned from your career?
Wong: I treat everyone the same. Not just treat everyone the same but I also really listen. People don’t listen enough and acknowledge everyone. I never believe in transactional relationships. Because to me, that’s not a relationship. You give me something, I’ll give you something. Therefore, if you won’t give me something, I will treat you badly. My close friends will tell you that I speak to everyone. And I really speak to everyone, not just hi or bye, but hey, how’s your day? People these days don’t banter, you’ll notice that. Conversations are transactional instead. If I have to ask you a question, I will. For example, can I have a cup of coffee? And then they don’t follow up with where are you from? Because you got a different accent. And that’s how a conversation starts. It’s how I’m used to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs till 19 September 2021 at the Asian Civilisations Museum.