When I first began the Beutiful Magazine project, I wanted to enlarge the public’s opinion of beauty and take it outside the media-made box we’ve become accustomed to thinking inside of. I see a lot of content about size acceptance, race acceptance, age acceptance – and don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to see it. I LOVE that these things are being promoted and that people are starting to open their eyes and minds. But there is a much wider spectrum of judgement and discrimination out there that is being totally ignored, and I would like to bring this closer to the public and get people to think about the way that people with disease, deformities, disabilities, abnormalities, etc. are treated and depicted (or, not depicted AT ALL) by the media. I stumbled across some information about photographer Manabu Yamanaka on Tumblr and saw that he was photographing people who had deformities. I did some research and was really intrigued by his photos and what he had to say. I will warn that these images may be disturbing for some people, but it is all about getting out of your comfort zone and getting familiar with people who are different. We, as a society, need to learn how to stop viewing people from a point of correction – there is nothing wrong with anyone – but there is something wrong with the mechanism that tells us that anything outside of the “norm” is wrong and should be attacked/ignored/judged. Manabu Yamanaka is a Japanese photographer who focuses mainly on societal outcasts. In 2009, he released a monograph entitled Gyahtei which shows the six major series he has created during a period of 25 years, all with titles that originate from Buddhism. The series that caught my eye was Jyoudo; a collection of photographs portraying physically deformed human beings. In article from Japan Exposures, it is stated that Yamanaka doesn’t just bring his subjects into a studio – instead he chooses to immerse himself in the milieu of his subjects and their living conditions before ever setting up his camera. Yamanaka’s working methods, as well as the consistency of purpose and style he approaches his subjects with, clearly show that he doesn’t take his project lightly, nor is he interested in a quick hit of shock. In a 2005 interview, Yamanaka talked about his working process:
First of all, I decide on a subject for a project and then study and research the subject. And the next step is planning out picture composition [while] at the same time scouting, casting, and thinking about the other details. Finally, I start the new project if I convince myself that all of the above is in place. Usually it is not so easy, so I’m constantly making changes. I always find the appropriate way of shooting after I start. I believe that there is always a way through a difficult project.
Manabu Yamanaka’s photographs are often referred to as disturbing, or unnerving, but perhaps that faint praise says more about the viewer than it comments on the actual work, the subjects of the photos, or the photographer’s intentions. In the way that some people peek through their fingers at horror films, labeling Yamanaka’s work as disturbing seems a defense mechanism, a way of distancing oneself from the visceral realization that what separates the viewers’ reality from that of Yamanaka’s subjects is what the Japanese call 紙一重 (kami hitoe) — a fine line. That Yamanaka can bring us so uncomfortably close to confronting that which we take for granted, and our corporeality and mortality, in the reserved and respectful manner that he does, might be one reason why the photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki called Yamanaka the most “hardcore” of all Japanese photographers working today. Here is what Manabu Yamanaka had to say about his Jyoudo collection of images:
I’ve always thought that those in this world born with deformities, or who lose freedom of movement in accidents and mishaps, were living a life of continued suffering. Perhaps because of bad deeds in a previous life, or because they’re pathetically unfortunate. In a rest home I met a young girl. She was nothing but skin and bones, barely even breathing while she lie down. Why was she born like this, and what are we supposed to learn from it? To understand the meaning of her existence, I decided to photograph her. People who gradually become smaller as the body expends all its water, people whose bodies rot as their skin peels off and their figures turn red and swell, people whose heads gradually expand from water that has collected within, people with part of their feet or hands unusually large, and soon. I’ve met and photographed many people like that, living with afflictions that are not explainable, and for whom a cure is said to be hopeless. Yet even in that state, when I looked upon them without cringing, I saw how truly natural each one of their lives really were. I came to feel the presence of Bodhisattva within their bodies. These people were the “Incarnation of Bodhisattva,” the children of God.
I think that’s an absolutely beautiful way to put it. Amongst his other subjects are elderly photographed in the nude, street children and homeless people. His images are strong, powerful, (un)comforting and might sometimes be hard to digest. His latest body of work is a series of images that show unborn and deformed embryos. His work has been exhibited extensively throughout the world and has appeared in numerous publications. You can check out the rest of his envelope-pushing work on his website!