This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I met Monika Mogi a few years ago in LA while we were both nervously standing around at the Ardorous/Rookie group show in which we both had work. Her boyfriend had a car and some weed so we escaped the crowd and drove up to Griffith Park to relax. Since then, I've been watching Monika produce more work than any of my peers. She's only 22 years old and has shot lookbooks for a handful of huge brands, somehow never sacrificing her creative vision in the process.
Street casting her subjects herself, Monika has built a library of go-to amateur Japanese models. She's also the Tokyo correspondent for my magazine, the Editorial, and is continuously sending interesting photo stories my way—whether it be a backstage look at Jenny Fax or a photo essay on her Grandpa who can bend spoons with his mind. We've become very close over the past few years so I decided to pick her brain about her success and her Japanese experience.
Claire Milbrath: When I first met you it was at the Ardorous/Rookie exhibition in LA. How did you first make the connection to Petra Collins and the Ardorous?
Monika Mogi: When I was 16, I spent a lot of my time online after school and had a blog where I posted my zines and photos. I met Petra randomly through that, and then she started the Ardorous and asked if I would join. Since then we have done exhibitions and the book, Babe, will be released this summer.
Can you tell me about Babe? What kind of work do you have in it?
I am so excited to see Babe! It makes me so happy to be apart of something. Being involved with artists who understand each other feels great. The work I have in it is a mixture of old and new work.
You've done a lot of commercial work for such a young artist—X-Girl, AA, and UNIF, to name a few of your clients. How did that happen?
I think living in Tokyo has helped. I haven't done that many jobs overseas. I suppose hustling is part of working, but I hope that people just enjoy my work, or connect to it.
I'm interested in your background. I know your mother is Japanese and your father an American sailor, so you are literally a product of history. Does that come out in your work? What's your views on Japan/America?
It's hard to answer questions about family because it takes so long to explain. My mom grew up near an American military base in an industrial town in Kanagawa and she ended up marrying a sailor. My family lived in California when I was young, but my mom and I moved back to Japan when I was 12, and I've basically been here since. Growing up with a single mom who was always working gave me the freedom to be on my own in Tokyo… I think that comes out in my work.
Do you feel you make work that is about "being Japanese"?
I don't completely know the full Japanese experience. I have no nationalistic feelings about anywhere. I think it's a good thing. I have strong feelings for some places where I've lived, and I do love my experience of Japan. But I don't really feel anything when it comes to being Japanese or American in terms of my own identity. I will never be accepted as a full Japanese person in Japan because I am hafu and I talk with an accent.
You are on American Apparel's payroll as a photographer. Can you talk about your work for them and how it's changed with the recent company changes?
I started working for AA at the store when I was 17. The creative director hired me to be a photographer after I showed her my work. Working with AA has been really natural for me since they give me the freedom to shoot however and whomever I want. During shoots, it is just me and the model, and I usually shoot my friends. I was recently surprised with the media attention to the ad I shot, "Hello Ladies," which is on the back of the current issue of VICE. It's funny how some sources thought it was all planned out after company changes, but really it was just another day walking around the factory while I was visiting LA at the beginning of the year. It also isn't the first time an ad has been made that's dedicated to employees. I actually became fascinated by AA ads when I was 14 or so because I thought, Wow, that could be me. She is not afraid to show her tummy rolls! It's OK to not wear a bra? Looking at women that I could relate to rather than a Victoria's Secret Angel made me feel accepted and understood. Although the company is currently changing and the image may change as well, I will always try to take photos young women can relate to.
What's your take on the trending use of feminism in photography? Do you feel pressure to make work about being a female?
I've never felt any pressure to make work about being a female. I take photos because it is fun for me. I don't overthink it. The general awareness of feminism is important, and to define myself as a feminist is important.
We once talked about the anxiety that comes from living in Tokyo. Can you talk a bit about that?
After the big earthquake, I couldn't sleep at night because I would always imagine another one happening. I'm over that anxiety now, but living in a big city in general is exhausting. I like to take a train to the beach and countryside.
It seems like you are always shooting fashion, is there a different direction you'd like to take with your work?
Yes! I am planning on shooting more documentary. I plan to temporarily work as an Ama san ( 海女 ), a free-diving fisherwoman, which has been in Japanese history for over 2,000 years. It is interesting to me because they have a real perspective of how the ocean is changing and a profound respect for nature.