A guide to the New East

Tokyo masks

Pepa Hristova on her portraits from the world’s greatest metropolis

Bulgarian-born photographer Pepa Hristova has always drawn inspiration for her work from issues of identity. Her travels in Japan for this series brought home to her the importance of questions surrounding work, sexuality and leisure, and the way that old and new coexist in a modern metropolis. 

People’s search for identity is always my main subject. It has intrigued me since, as a Bulgarian living in Germany, I lost my identity and had to search for it. I believe I am trying to find myself in these portraits. No matter what kind of picture you take, you are always present; how you look at things and when you press the shoot button are very subjective.

Tokyo is the biggest metropolis in the world. It is like a gigantic machine: everything feels very disciplined and well-connected. Even the people seem to “work” with order and mechanical precision — and they work constantly. If you meet up with a Japanese man for dinner, you may find that he returns to his office straight after, even if it is midnight, even on a weekend. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m tired, I really need to go home,” as would be the norm at home in Germany. At the same time, it is hard to tell what the Japanese are really thinking as they often wear a mask of politeness.

I discovered Japan’s old tradition of roleplaying that allows you to assume another identity like the geisha culture or the No- theatre, where every hand-carved mask belongs to a different character. There are also modern phenomena such as the worlds of manga or anime. Some Japanese teenagers emulate their favourite characters; they live like them as though it were real life. Some even have plastic surgery to look like their cartoon heroes. This parallel existence enables the “big working machine” to let off some steam from time to time.

I have been walking the city looking for unique moments, something out of the ordinary and special. I have been looking for faces that express how much you can lose yourself in a city that is so organised. I try to see people detached from their everyday lives. For my portraits, I shined a torch in people’s faces. The artificial light makes people appear even more isolated from their environment. Just for a moment, they appear to be on some sort of stage.

I went to the meido cafés in Electronic Town Akihabara, a part of Tokyo, where many young women work wearing school or servants’ uniforms. They follow the principle “17 forever”, behaving intentionally in a submissive and childish way and preparing dishes and drinks clumsily which they then serve on their knees. They also paint little hearts with ketchup on the plates and address the predominantly male clientele as “My Lord”. For an additional charge, the meidos offer their customers foot massages, too. There are hundreds of meido cafés in Tokyo; they are an integral part of Japanese society. I intended to take pictures of these girls while they were not “performing”. This was a great challenge, since they just always appear sweet and cute, with their kitty-voices and twinkling eyes. I wasn’t sure if they actually still manage anymore to distinguish their parallel existence.

Although I took pictures all over the city, the name “Electronic Town” could be applied to all these images. The word “town” reminds me of something old; it reminds me of people who are steeped in rituals. Whereas the word “electronic” you associate with technology, robots and everything working properly until it falls apart. These contrasts normally do not go together, but people in Tokyo combine them both.

Credit: Pepa Hristova
Interview: Anne-Dore Krohn and Marcus Jauer

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