“Axel, please tell her this is the most fun I have ever had on a photo shoot,” Safaa said as she looked over her camera at the geisha posing a few feet away. He translated her words into Japanese for the geiko Masaki, who was beaming back at us with a big smile.
It turned out to be one of coolest photo shoots I have been on in my nearly quarter-century of living and working in Kyoto. Interacting up close with geisha is a rare and special thing, and working with great photographers is always a treat. One of the best parts about my job is getting to meet so many interesting people from around the world and on this day I met one such person.
A Special Photo Shoot with Geisha in Kyoto
Safaa Kagan is a Los Angeles-based artist specializing in photographing traditional peoples worldwide. She is a bright-eyed, energetic woman who quickly puts people at ease. Born in Morocco, she has a Mediterranean passion and grace that fills the room.
She contacted us here at EYExplore with a special request to adapt our Behind The Mask geisha photography workshop in Kyoto. Instead of using traditional teahouses as locations, Safaa wanted to have a natural light shooting space with neutral backgrounds, which is her portrait style, as you can see on her website. She also wanted to photograph a total of geisha, instead of one as we usually do.
Working as a team, Axel, Lukasz and I set out to make the arrangements, including booking the geisha and finding a studio space. Our goal was to make sure Safaa had everything she needed so that she could focus on her creativity and photography during her limited time with the geisha.
A Symbol of Japanese Tradition
For those of you who don’t know, Geisha are highly trained traditional female Japanese entertainers. They are skilled in the traditional arts of playing classical Japanese music, dancing and reciting poetry. They wear special kimonos, stylized white makeup, and specific hairstyles. In Kyoto, there are two kinds geisha: a full-fledged geiko and a younger apprentice called a maiko. It takes about five years of training for a maiko to become a geiko. This is a dying art form that only exists in Kyoto, Tokyo, and a few other places in Japan.
EYExplore founder Axel, with his years of connections in Kyoto, arranged for four geisha to be photographed in pairs during two-hour photo sessions over two days. The geisha world is very guarded and secretive. Making these arrangements is not that easy. It is all about knowing the right people and gaining their trust.
Studio Preparations and Meeting the Geisha
Meanwhile, I found a studio space with natural light and Lukasz did his magic with the computer taking care of lots of small details. The studio was a good space with a high ceilings and big windows (both rare in Japan) as well as having strong air conditioning, which is important during the humid Kyoto summer. Safaa likes to work with natural light. She doesn’t want her pictures to look clinical, which she feels is the result of usual studio lighting.
On both days, Safaa spent time getting to know the geisha before the photo session started. She showed them some of her photos, which included portraits of traditional people from Ethiopia, Burma, Tibet, and North Africa. She then asked them questions about their lives, with either Axel or I translating.
We set up a series of poses with the geisha. All of the women had said that they had never done a proper photo shoot before, but they were at ease in front of the camera because of their training. Being a model is much more difficult than it looks.
Having Fun Under Pressure
We had limited time with the geisha, so we worked quickly. Safaa was wonderful with them. You can tell that she genuinely cares about her subjects. Both Axel and I helped out with changing the backdrops and reflectors while communicating with the geisha as well.
Safaa shoots quite efficiently. She knows what she wants and knows how to use her gear. She shoots mostly with an 85mm lens, but sometimes with a 50mm if the situation calls for it. She uses her camera like a painter uses her brush. It is the tool she uses to create her vision. Unlike a painter, a photographer needs to create their art in the real world. You have to see what you photograph.
That’s where people like us come into the picture. We helped Safaa create the vision she had in her mind. We took care of the logistics so she could concentrate on her art. And that is how it should work—prepare as much as you can and then let it flow in the moment while you are creating your art. The shooting time went very quickly on both days. At the end of the first day, Safaa’s family dropped by and her two young children became welcomed studio assistants.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience
I took the photos you see on this blog with my trusty Fujifilm X100T camera. While Axel was with us on the first day, he needed to be back in Tokyo on the second day, so it was just Safaa and I with the geisha in the studio on the second day.
It was a great experience for all of us. Safaa really enjoyed meeting the women and creating her art. We all worked very well together. I am glad to be part of a team that can make something like this happen. Kyoto is one of the few places in the world to meet and work with geisha, and I am excited to lead more geisha photography workshops here with EYExplore.