We’d like you to meet Hinayu, our new friend. She lives in Gion, Kyoto’s lantern-lit nightlife district, where she shines as a Maiko: a young apprentice geisha. We had the privilege to be in her company for a day before she vanished into the night. Catching a glimpse of her daily grind and being able to capture it on film was an eye-opening experience.
Early 2017, Lukasz and I decided it was time to create a brand-new photo adventure in Kyoto which revolves around the exotic and opaque geisha industry. Taking photos of a Maiko was the obvious choice, but unlike anything we had seen until then, we wanted to craft an EYExplore signature experience. Unsatisfied with brainlessly shooting kimono-clad girls with their white makeup on; we wanted to lift the veil on the girls’ real lives. Rather than a dull portrait photo session, we favored a documentary photography approach. We wanted the real deal, and we got it! We are now proud to provide Behind The Mask.
Hinayu was waiting for us at a tea house near Tofukuji temple. She was kneeling seiza-style: with her legs folded underneath her thighs—proper Japanese etiquette. At first, we were intimidated with such decorum, afraid that our uncouth manners would offend our host, but she quickly dispelled the awkward mood with her soft-spoken words and friendly smile. Lukasz’ girlfriend Chica, my wife Maki and my son Léon had joined us for the occasion, and together we savored some refreshments and casual chit-chat with Hinayu. Surprisingly it was the Japanese guests who were the most intrigued and eager to know more about our host. Questions came flying nonstop. We soon discovered more about her day-to-day life and her unusual career choice.
Daytime Photo Shoot
When it comes to documentary photography, in-depth knowledge of the subject is fundamental to create spontaneous pictures that confer emotion. After the breezy conversation, we knew Hinayu a bit better, what she does and why she does it. Now the first shoot of the day could start. The quiet grounds of a secluded temple near the Tofukuji was our choice for the daytime session. There, Hinayu put on a show for us. She was comfortable with being in front the camera, and posed with grace. She was keen on trying new shot ideas and even proposed a few compositions herself. On this day brief spring showers came and went. The sun would hide behind clouds for a spell and then emerge suddenly. Getting a spot on exposure with the altering light conditions of the day proved to be challenging, but we managed to get pleasing results. At the end of the afternoon, we parted with our model so that she could get dressed for her night shift. Meanwhile, we rested and reflected on the shoot.
Evening Photo Shoot
At dusk, we reconvened in front the boarding house where Hinayu dwells during her apprenticeship. It was hard to find, hidden in the maze-like alleys of the Gion district. We had to blaze a trail through the intricate network of narrow alleyways until we finally reached the washi-paper entrance. As soon as she flung open the door, we were blinded by her dazzling transformation. Like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, she was unrecognizable. We swiftly moved around the neighborhood to find eye-pleasing backdrops. We settled for atmospheric and uncluttered passages that can enhance our images without overshadowing Hinayu. Building upon the daytime experience, the evening session felt like a breeze. Hinayu gave her best, and we got the shots we wanted in no time.
The entire day we felt like reporters on a mission to document the life of an artisan whose craft is on the verge of oblivion. Meeting Hinayu and bonding with her so smoothly took us by surprise. We came up with new ideas on how to run such an adventure, and we are now confident we can pass this knowledge onto anyone equipped with a camera, even the latest smartphones would do the job. It’s an exhilarating and unique experience in the streets of Kyoto.