Geishas have Facebook too.
Before I spoke to French photographer Philippe Marinig, 55, traditional worlds like that of the geishas seemed static and removed from everyday modern society. The fact that they engage in social media struck me because I tended to forget the depth of the living, breathing existence of geishas today – that they, like me, roll over in bed in the morning to scroll their Facebook feeds.
Where do geishas fit into contemporary society? As an art form that extends into a way of life, it is difficult to understand how they can situate and sustain themselves in a time that has moved well beyond industrialisation. I sat down with Philippe to uncover how this culture remains relevant, and how Philippe’s experiences may let us contemplate our perspective of the world.
Philippe was introduced to photography as a young teenager when his father brought him to a friend’s darkroom. He has photographed for newspapers, advertisements, and magazines, mainly at his commercial studio in Capetown, South Africa where he spent 15 years, and produced several books and exhibitions along the way.
At this point in his career, Phillipe is focused on his personal work. The camera is the lens through which he acquaints himself with the world and its inhabitants. “It’s not only about photography. It’s to spend time with different people,” he said.
More specifically, the worlds that seem closed to the common eye are those that Philippe is drawn to – the South African wilderness, the world of sumos in Tokyo, and most recently, the geishas in Kyoto. Over the course of four years, starting in September 2011, he had gone to Kyoto a dozen times, collecting pictures of his experiences with the geishas.
It is part of Philippe’s working process to spend as much time as he needs to fully immerse himself in the environment of his subject. In South Africa, he had been to the bush 25 times to shoot wildlife. “I live in the moment and try to make my visual relationship with the subject different [from other photographers],” he said.
Similarly, for his project with the geishas, his persistence paid off when he managed to finally gain entry into the okiya or teahouse. To enjoy such a privilege, one must normally be a paying customer or be specially connected to the okiya.
Philippe, desiring to be neither, had the okiya door closed on him during his first six months in Kyoto. It was with the help of an okiya manager who is the daughter of a geisha, and a photographer acquaintance, that Philippe finally gained access into this elusive artistic world that also operates as a business. He would drink tea with these friends and build rapport with them despite not being able to speak Japanese.
“I think people mistake what the geisha world is. For me, I don’t know what the geisha really is,” Philippe revealed of his motivation behind his project. His admission of ignorance echoes through the Western consciousness; mass media has painted an image of the geisha that has been mediated through an American lens, particularly through Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, which was further sensationalised by the 2005 film starring Zhang Ziyi.
Philippe lamented how the narrative has wounded the Japanese, as the interview with a geisha that provided the basis for the novel was done in confidence, on the premise of academic study by American students. The novel took liberties in its presentation of the geisha, with a key moment being the mizuage or selling of virginity.
According to Philippe, “[The geishas] understand they have this reputation overseas, and they hurt in a way. This kind of reputation makes the geisha world more and more closed. It’s absolutely not what’s happening there.”
The geisha, or “art person”, originated from the Edo period (1603-1868) and is different from the women who operated in “pleasure quarters”. In the 18th century, the taikomochi or male geishas would entertain guests in brothels with music.
Later, the female geisha grew in popularity and became known as the geiko, or “art child”. Apprentices who typically enter their training at 15 years old are known as the maiko or “dancing child”. They are trained under strict conditions on deportment, make-up, dancing, wearing the kimono, conducting a tea ceremony, poetry and literature, musical instruments like the bamboo flute and taiko drums, and the art of conversation.
To identify a maiko, one needs to look out for the painted bottom lip, and the hana kanzashi, a floral ornament that signifies a maiko’s first year in training. At the back, a maiko’s obi (kimono belt) hangs nearly to the floor, while a geiko’s obi is folded into a square on her back. A maiko would reveal a strip of bare skin on the back of her neck, while the neck of a geiko is painted fully white. Lastly, the maiko’s wooden okobo (slippers) have high platforms compared to the geiko’s flat slippers.
This attention to detail is emblematic of Kyoto’s culture. Philippe recalls an evening he enjoyed at the okiya through the invitation of a CEO of a large Japanese corporation. The evening consisted of an intricately set-up dinner and a dance by a maiko. At the end of the evening, there was no bill. Rather, it was posted by mail to the host of the dinner, reflective of the thoughtful hospitability that Japanese are known for. Such an experience is rare and may even be once-in-a-lifetime, as Philippe described his, in gratefulness for having entered this exclusive world of artists and entertainers.
This hidden world is juxtaposed against the proliferation of the geisha images that have become synonymous with Kyoto. It is common for tourists to pay to don the maiko’s dress and be photographed in the streets of Kyoto by a professional photographer. This tourist attraction confused Philippe at first, as he was led to believe they were real maikos.
He was filled with embarrassment when he entered the okiya and shared the photos he had taken with a geisha. She corrected him of his misconception, informing him that his subjects were in fact, not real maikos. This left him feeling “ridiculous” and laughing to himself as he recounted this moment.
Though the trendiness of the maiko image persists in the touristic realm, the actual art form is on the verge of fading into history. Tourists’ consumption of the geisha culture in its watered down interpretation does not bolster the sustainability of its non-commercialised artistic form.
According to Philippe, there exist 150-160 maikos in Kyoto today, and the number of okiyas that have closed down or have been converted into restaurants is a testament to the potential unsustainability of this art form in the face of capitalism and technological modernity. Because of this, maikos are ‘borrowed’ from different okiyas to make up the numbers for dinners and events.
Because of its endangered condition, coupled with its exclusivity, Philippe has learnt to identify and appreciate this geisha art form in its full authenticity.
“I learnt a lot because I’m able to see what is fake and what is real,” he said. In what he describes as a turning point not only in his career, but also in his relationship with the world around him, he expresses how this process is not simply to take pictures, but to identify subjects in their most genuine nature, and to do justice to them in the nurturing of his own perception of them.
As such, his book, Secret Moments of Maikos, is above all else, a personal photo album documenting his journey with the maikos. He acknowledges the natural photogenic quality of his subject, but his work is starkly set apart from a photographer who is satisfied with the photos he shoots from the perspective of a foreigner. This type of shortcut often leads to clichéd, superficial representations. Instead, Philippe’s photos reveal how his relationship with the maikos allows their vulnerability to shine through. This type of trust can only, of course, be built through time.
Time is a luxury in our day. Smartphones and social media have made many of us accustomed to the instantaneous production and consumption of images.
To illustrate this idea, Philippe clarifies what he perceives as the difference between an image and photography. To him, an image is simply the object of the pursuit. Photography, on the other hand, is a process.
This process can be digitized, excluding the immediate reflexivity of reviewing and sharing the images he takes with his subjects. Instead, upon taking these photos, he retreats to his hotel room or studio and stores these in a disc. After weeks or even years, he processes these digital files in his dark room.
This conscious allowance for the rediscovery of past moments is fundamental to his process. “I can live the moment again and try to understand why I took this picture. I ask myself a lot of questions. It’s not only about taking the picture, sharing, and forgetting about it, you know?”
While this mindset, like the ancient art form of geishas, may clash with the pace of modern Westernised society, such dichotomies are worth contemplating.
Philippe’s method of photography has given him a “wake up call”; he suggests that we “look at this globalised world with different eyes” because “we think we know everything about tradition, but we don’t know anything.” To appreciate the depth and nuances of a culture far removed from ours both temporally and spatially, though, may not be enough to salvage it from ephemerality.
Could social media – the very opposing force – be the answer? Philippe is Facebook friends with many of the maikos he has crossed paths with and one of his recent display pictures shows him posing next to a maiko.
Compared to five or six years ago, the rules imposed on the maikos’ usage of social media have loosened and he briefly hints at the possibility of using social media as a marketing tool to boost the market for the geisha services. Simultaneously, some okiyas have been taken over by relatively more business-minded 30-something-year-old geikos. However, these means of increased commercialisation also pose the threat of decreasing the artistry and exclusivity of this world – a circular problem that plagues many other art forms.
This is an ongoing conversation and this article cannot but simply gesture towards the possibility of a solution (if there is one): How Philippe propels himself into unknown worlds is an attitude that should diffuse beyond the artist’s mind.
Perhaps it is simply through the desire to know that has culminated in the most fulfilling moment of Philippe’s project: Walking on the streets of Kyoto, the geikos and maikos would recognise Philippe because of his numerous returns; this recognition leaves him feeling, as far as words can reach, “extremely touched.”
They would stop to greet him – a rare sight for a Caucasian French man – and it is in this exquisite moment that people of two vastly different worlds speak the same language.
Departure would like to thank the good people at Gatehouse Publishing for the interview opportunity with Mr. Philippe Marinig.