Kohei Yoshiyuki is a Japanese photographer best known for The Park, his series of photos of people watching other people have sex in the public parks of 1970s Tokyo. It's that exact mix of hilarious, depressing and creepy you'd expect from pictures of other people hiding in bushes and touching themselves, and it's great.
The photos are currently being exhibited in Liverpool’s Open Eye gallery and are displayed in a darkened room. Once you arrive, you're given a torch to guide your way around the space and witness the peepers in their natural habitat – darkness. It’s a creepy but oddly intimate experience, and has the effect of adding another layer to the project – turning you into the voyeur as soon as you start perving on all the perverts.
That exhibition is running alongside some of Yoshiyuki's other famed work, The Hotel; a series of grainy stills from hidden-camera footage taken in one of Tokyo’s many “love hotels” – places used exclusively by prostitutes and their clients. I called up Kohei to find out what's so special about shooting people at their most vulnerable.
VICE: Hi Kohei, how did you first get into photographing voyeurs?
Kohei Yoshiyuki: I was walking in a park in Shinjuku late at night, when I came across a scene. A couple was having sex and I saw these people were watching them. That experience inspired me to try to capture these shocking and fascinating night scenes.
Was it common knowledge what was going on in the parks at the time?
I only knew by hearsay that this stuff was happening in Toyko's parks. A park is a place where we usually see children and their mothers relaxing during the day, but the same park can host a completely different world in the darkness. I found something amazing about that.
How long did you work on the project for?
I photographed the scenes of the couples and the men who were peeping on them from 1971 until 1973. Before shooting, I spent about a half a year trying to arrange the project.
If you knew where to go to find the voyeurs, how come it took so long to start?
What I needed to do first and foremost was to make the voyeurs believe that I was not a photographer, but just one of them. Otherwise I would have been severely beaten or had the film pulled out of my camera. During this period, I also spent time studying the techniques and the best equipment in order to capture these scenes in darkness. I used infrared films and infrared strobe, which was considered a sort of expert-level photography skill at the time.
Was it purely heterosexual couples in the voyeur scene?
I had an exhibition – Kohen (The Park) – at a gallery in Tokyo in 1979 with the photographs that I took in the early 1970s. After this solo exhibition, I decided to publish a book and I was looking to include some more images. It was around that time that I learned about the gay couples meeting in a park and, in that same year, I began to take photographs of them gathering at night.
Are they all taken in the same park?
I mainly shot at the Shinjuku Central Park, and partly at the Yoyogi Park. The gay scenes were taken in a park in Aoyama, a different area of Tokyo. All of the parks were next to the downtown area in the centre of Tokyo, though.
What was it about voyeurism that fascinated you so much?
My interest wasn't exactly in voyeurism itself. The scenes fascinated me as a whole – the couples having sex in the park, the people watching them or even touching them, as well as the background scenery and environment of the city. They were scenes that had never been photographed and I thought the subject would make an interesting series.
Why were the Japanese so into voyeurism in the 70s? Is it still popular now?
Back then, the parks were a vital part of the city. They were rare blind spots in the urban jungle where people could behave freely. The act of voyeurism, for the voyeurs, was a kind of game; they did it for the thrill. The risk is the fantasy.
Did you only come across male voyeurs?
Women can also enjoy voyeurism, but they're more realistic and don't take the risk of doing such absurd things. I don’t know if voyeurism is popular today, but we now live in a surveillance society and people feel more controlled, I guess.
Yeah. What was the weirdest thing you saw while working on The Park?
Thievery was always funny. There weren't only voyeurs in the park, but also robbers hiding in the darkness. One time I saw a woman totally absorbed in her love affair – she was kicking her bag away without noticing. A robber tried to steal her bag. I watched him approach her without realising he was being watched and surrounded by other men. When he finally did notice them, he ran away in fright. The more professional robbers would work in a group and try to block the voyeurs.
Were the parks seen as seedy places at the time?
All these scenes in my photographs are “weird”, as you said, but during shooting I felt like the couples and voyeurs were acting on a ridiculously innocent sense of desire. So I think the weirdness of the 70s was more primitive than the weirdness of the 80s, when the sex entertainment industry got more developed.
Right. You’re exhibiting The Park alongside another series, Love Hotel. What was it about the secret footage that appealed to you?
I liked the blurred and faintly outlined images from the monitor screen with the scanning lines. We can vaguely see the bodies of people who are sharing embraces. I thought this invisibility might appeal to the viewer’s imagination, rather than showing the actual scenes with clear images.
How did you get access to the videos?
I can’t give you a precise answer about the source of the videos. They were taken by the couples who stayed at a love hotel room and were to be used only by them so they could enjoy watching themselves having sex. The videos should have been erased automatically, but there were some videos that hadn't yet been erased at a love hotel that was going out of business.
What are you working on at the moment?
The town I’m living in now is neither a big city nor a rural area. There's nothing markedly attractive about this place; it has a strange atmosphere – like a crime scene. For example, when I'm in a small and quiet park with colourful playground equipment in a residential area, there's nobody there – no children playing. I’m interested in that kind of emptiness, which I feel has a hidden anxiety or an atmosphere of crisis. I’m not sure I can capture the feeling, but I’m trying to.
Sounds great, thanks Kohei!
All photos by Kohei Yoshiyuki, from the series The Park. Untitled, 1979. Gelatin Silver Print © Kohei Yoshiyuki, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.
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