Nathalie Daoust Photographs the Women of an Infamous Japanese S&M Love Hotel

She recently spoke with me about how she obtained permission to photograph, despite the place's no-photo policy, and how she got used to men in underwear being walked on a leash, among other things.

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Jul 31 2014, 11:00am

All photos by Nathalie Daoust

Nathalie Daoust is a Canadian photographer based in Berlin who has worked around the world, from Brazil to Switzerland to Japan, investigating female sexuality. She recently photographed nearly 40 female workers and the thematic rooms at the Alpha-In, a famous S&M parlor in Tokyo. She recently spoke with me about how she got permission to photograph, despite the place's no-photo policy, and how she got used to men in underwear being walked on a leash, among other things.

VICE: How did you end up photographing at the Alpha-In?
Nathalie Daoust: I lived in an art hotel in New York City from 1997 to 1999—the Carlton Arms Hotel—where I completed my first photo project. Each room had a different theme and decoration done by a different artist. 

I met many Japanese tourists there who told me about love hotels. Like the Carlton Arms, love hotels have thematic rooms (teddy bear rooms, spaceship rooms, etc.). After my project in NYC was complete, I moved to Tokyo to document these love hotels. When I arrived, people kept telling me that the biggest and most interesting one was the Alpha-In. So I had to go.

Alpha-In has a no-photo policy. How did you get access?
I had to go back multiple times to persuade the owner. Luckily, he finally said yes and took a few hours to show me the rooms and tell me stories about the place. At the end of the tour, he said that I could come back to do a whole project on the Alpha-In. I kept this in mind, and in 2008 I asked if I could photograph the hotel and the women that work there. He agreed, and was so kind as to give me access to each room. (You can see the rooms in 3-D on my website.) The owner was quite happy with the project, and has since changed the no-film and no-photo policy. If he finds the proposed idea interesting, he will grant permission.

What was daily life there like?
I was at the hotel almost every day for four months, from morning till evening, but I didn’t sleep there. We are now working on a documentary film about the hotel, and the owner has offered me a room so that I can have the full experience of staying there for several months.  

As far as daily life goes, let’s say I quickly got used to the sound of whipping and people screaming. Even seeing women walking men like dogs on leashes in their underwear became a normal part of my day.

All of the women working were willing to take part?
I think that the fact that the hotel had a no-photo policy but that the owner was giving me carte blanche permission to photograph helped them trust me quickly. I was lucky, because the first women I asked said yes and then referred me to other girls who referred me to others. In the end I had more women than time to shoot them. 

Why did you focus on photographing the women alone or with one another as opposed to with clients?
I began by photographing the girls with their customers but quickly discovered that I wasn’t interested in the men and their stories. What fascinated me was the women and why they would do this kind of work—especially in Japan, where women are seen as such passive beauties. Also, each photo session lasted a few hours, and we spent half of this time talking and getting to know one another. When it was just the two of us, I learned much more about their private lives, why they did this, and how they felt about it. 

Against this stereotype as passive beauties, in your photographs we see the women in the role of dominatrix. What do you make of this clash of expected roles in Japanese S&M?
It’s quite strange in many ways. The women who decide to do this sort of work are very different from the stereotype, but at the same time this passiveness has been deeply ingrained in them since childhood.

While they are all very strong women, many of them greet their customer by bowing lower then them, putting their hands over their mouth, and laughing like a shy little school girl, then walk a few steps behind their customer to the room. The second the door is closed, the roles flip.

You’ve also photographed at an inexpensive brothel in Rio de Janeiro. What kinds of comparisons and insights did this experience bring to your work with the women at the Alpha-In?  
The women in Japan come from very different economic conditions than those in Brazil. Most of the women I interviewed in Tokyo explained it was purely for either money or passion. I am certain many are forced into such work in Japan, but among the women I met, it always felt it was of their own free will.

An example would be one of the dominatrices that had a day job as a dentist, but had problems finding a Japanese partner that was into S&M, so she decided to be a paid dominatrix at night to gain access to these men. She said it was an easy way to get sexually fulfilled. 

Where do the lines fall between fantasy and reality in an S&M parlor? What about in your photographs? 
The hotel is a place where people go to escape reality and the women are paid to help them fully escape. There is even a form that the customers receive upon arrival that asks what they want: whipping (hard, medium, gentle), verbal abuse (intense, gentle, none). This way they can get exactly what they desire and control the nuances of their escape.

I represent this mix of reality and fantasy by distorting the images in the darkroom. Bending the negative as I make prints until the image is warped represents this feeling between dreams (the out-of-focus element of the image) and reality (where the photo is sharp and clear).

How much is the camera a license to enter into this world to satisfy your own interest—beyond photographing—in what goes on behind the front door?
I am a very curious person, especially when it comes to things and places that I don’t really have access to. I am also a bit of a voyeur. So yes, the camera is a bit of an excuse to take part in a world that I would not otherwise have access to as a “vanilla,” the term the Japanese use for people that do not practice S&M.

How has photographing female sexuality extensively through different projects shaped your ideas about what it is and the forms it takes?
I think it helped me understand the larger picture. For example, from a young age I was told that women who prostitute themselves have no choice, or were abused as a child. But how many of the people making these comments actually know a prostitute? And who can say that one prostitute represents them all? I am not trying to say that it’s good or bad but that, like anything else, it’s not so simple. I am glad that I can say this from knowing many of these women on an intimate level.

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