How Yurie Nagashima’s Self-Portraits Interrogate the Male Gaze

In her latest photobook, the Japanese photographer discusses self-portraiture as a radical feminist gesture.

I arrived in Japan in 1992, incredibly anxious about the fact that less than six months earlier I had shaved my head. I felt very butch, much too raw, and totally unprepared to navigate the sophisticated cultural and gender dynamics that I suddenly found myself engulfed by as a young American woman teaching English. Most of my colleagues in the Japanese English Teaching program run by the Ministry of Education had their eyes set on a career in diplomacy or business. Prior to my arrival, I had been tearing down drywall for a housing rehabilitation program, teaching neighborhood kids how to read, and volunteering at a photo gallery. At night, I waitressed at a coffeeshop-slash-bar, dressed in my thrift-store best. As a recent graduate of a liberal arts program with a penchant for semiotics, I was trained to analyze and critique the dominant social and power structures of the American culture wars—when suddenly I was working for a foreign government and tasked with representing my own.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

After teaching during the day, I would take respite in Tokyo nightlife, then awash in hip hop, punk, psychobilly, and the emerging Shibuya-kei pop music scene. I went to art galleries perched on the top floors of department stores. And I tried hard to read and understand the cultural signifiers of “lolicon” fashion and cosplay fantasy clubs, used-panty vending machines, and the increasingly inescapable “Hair Nude” trend of soft-core photographs of young women, scratched free of damning pubic hair. Somewhere, somehow, I ran into Yurie Nagashima’s Self-Portraits (1993)—a black-and-white series of herself and her family posing in the nude—a hilariously cutting rebuttal to the usual depiction of women (and families) in Japanese media. They were raw, unabashed, and pointedly critical of the power imbalance saddled upon Japanese women. I didn’t know much about Cindy Sherman then, and as it turns out, neither did she—but in the images Nagashima created in the early to mid-1990s, role playing as the various, absurd sexual fantasies rampant in Japanese pop culture, it was obvious to me that this was someone who had a bead on the skewed gender dynamics of Japanese art and media of the time. This was someone with something to say.

Several decades later, I consider myself lucky and gratified to reconnect with the full scope of Nagashima’s work. In a recent Skype conversation, she and I talked about her self-portraits, the long-standing dismissal of “women’s work,” cable releases, and changing the nature of aesthetic criteria.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

Lesley Martin: I understand that this collection of self-portraits was originally made for your survey exhibition, And a Pinch of Irony with a Hint of Love, which took place at TOP [Tokyo Photographic Art Museum] in 2017. Was that the first time you put all of your self-portraits together?

Yurie Nagashima: Yes. Originally, there were over 600 images, so I showed them as a thirty-minute slideshow, not as prints. When you start working on a subject, you never know how far it will go. But when you look back, you start to find unintentional connections. I began to make self-portraits while I was traveling. Then I chose to use myself for nudes, too, because I just couldn’t ask my friends or anyone else. I felt guilty asking someone to be naked—not in an “arty” way but a controversial way. That’s the primary reason I started making self-portraits. Another good reason is that I had more control. I’m shy, and it’s hard for me to ask a favor without worrying about how the other person feels. Some time later, I realized that self-portraiture is an important genre of photography, especially in the context of feminism.

Martin: When did you come to realize that about self-portraiture? Was there a point in your life as a photographer when you realized that self-portraiture could be a powerful part of your work?

Nagashima: At first, I was angry at the Hair Nude boom, and thought, “Okay, there’s no way men can use and consume a female body for their own agenda.” Then I received the Parco Prize at Urbanart#2 in 1993 for the self-portraits, in which I appear in each image with my real family, I realized that the self-portrait as a technique implies more than just the subversion of the power relationship between men and women. It also says that my body belongs to no one but me. Aside from that, the series of self-portraits with my family was controversial. There were many discussions about it in magazines and papers. People always asked me how I persuaded my family to pose naked, but it just wasn’t a big deal.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

Martin: A few years after that prize, in 1995, you were featured in an exhibition alongside Catherine Opie. Is that what made you decide to study at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles]? And how did that impact your work and your sense of image making in relation to yourself and your body, and also to your family?

Nagashima: She suggested that I should go study there. She had graduated from CalArts but wasn’t actually teaching there, although her friend Kaucyila Brooke was. Brooke is a feminist artist and was my mentor. In Japan, you hardly have female professors in art school, but at CalArts I had her, Jo Ann Callis, Ellen Birrell, and Nathalie Bookchin.

Martin: I’m curious about your experience at an American university at that time, I imagine identity politics were a big topic of discussion. 

Nagashima: Yes. Both at school and in my daily life. I was studying with people from different backgrounds and nationalities, young and old with diverse ethnicities and gender, but the majority were Caucasian Americans. For me, it was difficult to make friends who were not Asian or Asian American. I always felt left behind because I couldn’t speak English well enough. I was shocked when my work was severely criticized by some students and a teacher in class because they thought that my work “increased Geisha fantasies.” I wanted to argue back, but I couldn’t accurately explain, not only the concept of the work but also the history of Japanese photography and society, in English. I didn’t understand what the white male’s geisha fantasy even was—because in Japan, such a fetish doesn’t exist. However, it triggered in me for the first time to think about how cultural differences effect the interpretation of artworks.

CalArts kind of broke my belief in art—that art can be understood without language. People can’t always understand what artists are trying to say just by looking at their works. I realized that executing a work and just hoping to be understood is too naïve. Some still say that one talks about her work because the work is not strong enough, but I disagree. Marginalized people always need to speak up about themselves. That I should really try to explain what I am doing, or my work would possibly be misunderstood or even misinterpreted by 180 degrees.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

Martin: So is that when you started to write seriously? In Japan, you’ve published an award-winning book of biographical stories from your childhood, Senaka no kioku [A memory of her back], and you’ve just published another book, about the Japanese photo movement in the ’90s and feminism, From Their Onnanoko-Shashin to Our Girly Photo.

Nagashima: I started writing seriously after I became a mother. That experience made me wonder if maybe I didn’t have to get “stuck” being a photographer. Carrying a baby and his diaper bag along with 35mm or 6-x-7 cameras seemed crazy to me. At that time, I was making photographic work dealing with my memory. I was working on that series from 2004 to 2005, but it didn’t turn out well. So I tried to write instead. That’s how I wrote the first book. Besides, I could write at home at night, while my son was sleeping. I wanted to make my own works somehow.

Martin: In an interview, you said that you believe in creating as a way of addressing society. I’m curious how you see self-portraiture as a way of doing so? 

Nagashima: About my self-portraits, it’s definitely a way of talking about how the gaze of male society works on the female body. However, the photos were a kind of joke, too. I was serious, but I often laughed alone during the shoots, because of the weird situation I was in. Imagine, a naked girl running back and forth, behind and in front of the camera! It looked pretty silly, and some of the photos are really funny, too. It’s like when you look at the porn magazines, sometimes you just start chuckling because of how unreal the poses or the situations look. Most of them would never happen in a real relationship, unless you are exposed to too many such images and start believing that’s what real women or sex looks like.

My self-portrait is a way of expressing my sarcasm, and I think that many women have had disappointing sex because of the images that the media keeps emitting. After my work started being recognized, I was offered the opportunity to model for some famous male photographers. I was aware that I shouldn’t really take those opportunities, because I knew it would somehow contradict my own work. In art school, for my undergrad degree, I acted and posed for my friends in their movies and photographs, and they made me frustrated with their poor depiction of female characters. It was always awfully stereotypical and boring.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

Martin: Do you believe that the self-portrait can be a radical feminist gesture?

Nagashima: Of course. It’s like the best, one of the best. The self-portrait means that you can take on both roles, as a model and as a photographer. When you have a camera on a tripod, you have the space in front of the camera and also the space behind the camera. It’s very symbolic. It’s a way of taking action against the historical roles of the male and female in photography.

Martin: Strangely, I hadn’t really thought about Cindy Sherman in relationship to your work until recently. Do you feel like there’s something in what she is doing or did that you’re interested in? 

Nagashima: I wasn’t really into photography when I first started out. I didn’t know about her until somebody wrote a review about my self-portraits and mentioned her work. So I looked her up, and realized that I had this one postcard of hers. She’s standing in a black dress, with long silver hair over her face, sort of like in a horror movie. That was the only image that I knew about her, but later I bought her book, Untitled Film Stills. I love that series.

Martin: There’s certainly a relationship, but I don’t feel like it’s about direct influence; rather it seems as though you were responding to similar issues—namely, how women get portrayed in the media. And how do you redirect that? Redirect it and change it. How do you shift from the male gaze to be able to control the gaze? 

Nagashima: I don’t know if I can “redirect” it, because such gender issues are huge and deeply embedded in society. However, I want to change it, or at least do something to try to change it. I am an artist, so the best I can do is keep making my work. I often think that my photos are records of my performance art; I could have ended up as a performance artist. A lot of times, I enjoyed the process more—acting a role and directing the scene at the same time—than what I got as a result. When I executed the early self-portraits, I believed that showing self-portraits as pin-ups in museums could be a great tactic against the Hair Nude boom back in the ’90s. I didn’t know if my work represented feminism or not, but I knew that I was an activist artist in some way.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

Martin: There are images in this collection that have been in museums; works that are clearly performative in this way. But as the sequence moves on, it seems to get more personal and diaristic. How do you draw the line between the personal and what you might call “your artwork.” Is there a line? 

Nagashima: I see it as a spectrum, and so there is no line. I think when you decide to capture that very moment in a photograph you are already, most likely, outside of “real life.” Because for that moment, you are looking at the world through the finder or on the screen. In that sense, I can say that the more “real” the image looks, the more you are faking it. Back in 1993, when I executed my early self portraits, I never thought that my photographs would ever be looked at by so many people other than my teachers and friends. The first picture in this book is from 1991; I was going on a backpacking trip. It’s in black and white because I was in a black-and-white printing class [laughs].

In this book, I sequenced the images chronologically, so you can see the change. There are often reasons behind my change in camera, lens, or style of shooting. For example, I started using compact-film cameras more, right after I had a child. My subject matter is often changed by my experiences and by the social changes I experienced. I became more aware of feminist issues after having a child, and then the earthquake in 2011 made me face domestic political issues. My personal interests also changed, and aging, too, is just another cause. When I was young, I thought my body was my own property so I could do whatever, but my son changed that idea completely. I think that my photographs—both set-ups and snap shots—are quite personal.

Martin: Right. All of this is part of your work.

Nagashima: It’s a part of my work and also my life. Being an artist is a big part of my life, it’s who I am now. In the beginning of my career, I thought of my life or my body as really simple—just a regular young woman growing up in Japan. When I started my self-portraits, I thought that the fact that I was nobody would work to my advantage. Because it’s very important for my work to be seen by women who have also struggled with the idea that they might be nobody, no matter how talented and capable, or having actually achieved so much. Even if she were a genius, nobody is going to come and do all the housework for this genius. Genius still has to be a domestic servant just because she is a “woman.” I hope that my work empowers those people and makes them understand that they are not alone.

Yurie Nagashima, from Self-Portraits (Dashwood Books, 2020)

Martin: Is there any connection in your work to the watakushi shōsetsu, or shishōsetsu—the “I-novel” or the subjective, autobiographic novel form, which is very much a part of Japanese literature? 

Nagashima: In some ways, all my photographs are a form of fiction. Because when you are actually just living your life, you don’t pull out the camera and stop the situation just to take a picture.

Martin: It’s a naturalistic type of fiction. Just as authors use their own experience to write about larger, more universal issues. 

Nagashima: It’s also a type of performance. Both my parents belonged to a high school drama club, so sometimes I think I can act because it’s in my blood. Maybe I should state that all of the photos in this book were taken by me. I don’t have a cable release because I thought it wouldn’t fit to my concept of the work.

Martin: Sometimes you see the camera—in mirrors, of course. But otherwise you’re hiding the act of photographing, using tripods and timers. Is this a decision that makes the images feel more like a “real picture”? 

Nagashima: I don’t want to say yes to the term “real picture,” but I know what you mean. My early self-portraits were a parody of Hair Nude photos, so I wanted my photographs to look similar to them. I also wanted the concept of those images not to be too obvious, so that the viewer could misunderstand—they could be confused about whether those images were actually a real Hair Nude or not, for example.

Martin: It looks very natural. You really feel in certain photographs that you’re meeting the eyes of someone photographing you. And especially as the work progresses, you realize it’s actually a strange thing to record these very normal, small moments. It’s interesting to me that fiction that deals with the banal, with the domestic, is very much an area that has traditionally been dismissed as “women’s work.” It happens in the 1920s in Japan with what became known as “women’s literature” [joryū bungaku]—a form that was characterized as sentimental, trivial, and beneath the attention of male writers. It’s very similar to how photographic work by women was dismissed in ’90s Japan—“Oh, these women with their small cameras, they’re just shooting their friends, their lives.” Dismissed as inconsequential. It happens again and again.

Nagashima: That’s one of the reasons why I’ve stuck to my methods and the subject matter. It’s not what’s supposed to be the subjects or techniques of “great art.” All of those criteria were created by men. So of course they didn’t care for my work. I feel like I have to build a whole new criteria for women in the art field. When they look at my work, they consider it “female work” based on their own criteria. Because they don’t have the words to understand what I’m doing. And they don’t have a clue about how to look at those works and what I am—they don’t know what we are doing. But I know! [Laughs]

This interview and images appear courtesy Yurie Nagashima and Dashwood Books and was originally published in Self Portraits: Yurie Nagashima (Dashwood Books, 2020).