Inspired by the works of Helmut Newton, Japanese photographer Sarai Mari grew up rebelling against her cultural norms and made the rules as she went along. Launching with an exhibition, her new photography book, Speak Easy, breaks down the layers, looking at the gender roles men and women play within society.
“This collection of images captures the essence of who my subjects are. By celebrating all definition of gender and sexuality, the previously defined terms fall way,” explains Mari. “They lose their meaning, and there is nothing left but the raw expression of the subject in the image.”
Featuring only Mari’s close friends and colleagues, her second book is a true celebration of the human body — and took five years to make. We talk to the fashion photographer about her newest series of images, studying in Los Angeles, and the intimacy of capturing her subjects.
Lisa Walden: Your new book Speak Easy disrupts gender norms and explores sexual identity. What was the inspiration behind its creation?
Sarai Mari: I’m inspired by people’s hidden side and I’m obsessed with peeking into the different moments revealed after the model’s mask comes off.
Lisa: Much of your work is inspired by Helmut Newton and his erotic representations of strong women. How has his work influenced your two books?
Sarai: I’m always influenced by Helmut Newton. His photography instantly appealed to me, those stripped-down moments with strong females really inspire me. It’s so powerful.
“It’s so important to have an intimate feeling between me and the models. Otherwise, it would become fake.”
Lisa: You said that you rebelled against rules and societal definitions since you were a child. How did your upbringing in a small Japanese town affect your work today?
Sarai: I grew up on a small mountain which is a world heritage UNESCO site in Japan and every society there has codes of conduct for how people should behave. Traditionally women are supposed to be shy and quietly mannered, and people are scared of being isolated or left behind, so they conform to fit in. But I tried to go against it. I was loud, behaved like a free woman and drove big motorcycles when I was teenager with bleach blonde hair. I was a bit crazy for my village people.
I moved out of my tiny village when I was eighteen years old. I went to Japan’s second capital city Osaka, then I went to Los Angeles to study photography. I had to get out the small society quickly to see the world and find people who had the same mind and free-spirit. I wanted to prove what I’m capable of and that I could do something different from others. It very much reflects my work.
Lisa: All the models you used in the book were either friends or people you met through work. Why was it that you wanted to use people that you knew personally?
Sarai: It’s so important to have an intimate feeling between me and the models. Otherwise, it would become fake.
Lisa: Your work refreshingly celebrates all definitions of gender and sexuality. Was this always your hope and vision for the book?
Sarai: Yes, and catching the raw expression of each subject.
‘Speak Easy’ by Sarai Mari is out now, published by DAMIANI.