Since 2009, Haruhiko "Photographer Hal" Kawaguchi has made a career out of asking couples he doesn't know to come home and get in the bag. Not many people could pull something like that off, but the Tokyo native is something special—his series Flesh Love and Zatsuran are globally lauded for their claustrophobic depictions of love. He's also (hysterically) sponsored by Condomania.
"When you embrace your lover," he tells me, "sometimes you wish to melt right into them. To realize this wish, I've been photographing couples in small, cramped spaces. Soon I reached the point of photographing couples in vacuum-sealed packs. As my work has become more and more intense, I've noticed that communication is indispensable."
VICE: Why do you go by the professional name Photographer Hal?
Haruhiko Kawaguchi: When I'm taking a picture, it's very important to me how the subject comes out. I take it just like a machine, and I'm conscious of A Space Odyssey as a mechanical symbol. I am HAL, not as a murder machine but as a computer, a pure machine.
So where do you find people willing to be vacuum-sealed inside plastic bags?
Nightclubs, bars, wherever, anytime. I always take a sample of Flesh Love to show couples I ask to model.
You just come out of nowhere as a complete stranger?
Everyone is surprised. Their reactions to my work are extreme. Some parties agree to model easily. Sometimes it does not work. No matter how hard I persuade, some couples are not interested.
But how do you convince a stranger to let you do this? If you didn't know your work it's pretty dangerous-looking.
I assert the significance and safety of shooting in good faith.
But you're asking them to maybe suffocate on the floor of your kitchen.
I just persuade the couples sincerely. When shooting, I have an assistant ready to open the bag if there is an emergency. And an oxygen sprayer and gel to cool people off if anyone starts feeling sick.
How long can people last inside those bags of yours?
In Zatsuran, 40 minutes. In Flesh Love, ten minutes. In total, about 400 couples have participated, and each shot takes around two hours.
Anyone ever been hurt doing this?
Never. In most cases, the only problems are when a model can't enter a bag because they're large-built. The bags are very specific to certain poses. Before taking a picture, everyone seems to feel scared. But when the photography is finished, everyone seems to be excited and enjoying themselves. I think that's similar to the way people enjoy a ride at an amusement park.
Do you pay them?
I give them a print.
Have you ever received criticism for this?
There are pros and cons. However, risk haunts a challenge.
Why are some of the couples naked, and why are some of them wearing costumes?
I have to respect how they like to be themselves. They bring a variety of their own costumes to the shooting location. Naked is one of several varieties.
How do the shoots work, exactly?
After the couple get in the vacuum pack, I suck the air out with a vacuum cleaner until there's none left. This gives me ten seconds to take the shot. In this extremely limited time, I can't release the shutter more than twice. I've been in there myself [_see the last image below_], and the fear I felt was overwhelming.
It kind of sounds horrible.
As the shooting continues over multiple takes, the pressure of the vacuum seal grows stronger. At the same time, the two bodies start to communicate, and whether through unevenness of limbs or the curve of joints, they begin to draw a shape of what they want to express. The two lovers draw closer until they finally transform into a single being. Looking at these vacuum-sealed packs of love, we can imagine a more peaceful world. For me, the vacuum pack is only a means to an end. The important thing is connecting to someone.
I can't decide if all this is more about intimacy or more about trust.
As you say, the couples seem to come together, to "stick" until they reach the limit. I'm seeking the possibility that they can stick more. To transcend togetherness.
Words by Toby McCasker. Follow him on Twitter.