Lieko Shiga: Blind Dateby Sophie Barbasch
(T&M Projects, 2017)
Flipping through these photographs of couples on motorcycles in Thailand is like a ride in itself, the long horizontal pages forming a panorama of faces sliding past you. It’s unclear whether the environment is rural, suburban, or urban. Some of the photographs were taken during the day, but most were taken at night. Even the fragility of the paper suggests a fleeting moment. The viewer is decontextualized, suspended, as if also on a motorcycle rushing past.
In most of the images, a man is driving and a woman, often looking straight into the lens, is the passenger (in some, gender is ambiguous). As viewers, we are almost as close to them as they are to each other. Looking at each couple, I wonder what they are thinking and where they are going, whether they are in love. I find myself focusing on the women, since it is their faces we get the most access to. Although they are most often passengers and not drivers, they don’t seem passive; perhaps it is because they look unflinchingly at us, which lends them a certain power and animates both the frame and the connection between viewer and subject.
The title suggests that the subjects are on a blind date, but the real blind date is between the photographer or viewer and the subjects. Shiga has uprooted us, bringing us to a silent plane where we can’t hear the roar of any motorcycle but find ourselves transfixed in the eyes of a stranger. The women’s expressions are hard to pinpoint, at once vulnerable and inscrutable. Looking at the photographs is like lying next to someone and looking into their eyes. We are aware of knowing something while simultaneously sensing all of the things that are withheld, that remain unknown. In this way, the elusive relationship between vision and knowledge percolates beneath the surface of each image.
For Shiga, every photograph is like this: “The eye is unreasonably connected with desire and can become a curse for the other,” she writes. This suggests that photography, and seeing in general, is a hungry curiosity that is anything but neutral, and that her desire for her subjects is somehow ominous, even if it is purely photographic. Here, she references the often-dry conversation about objectification and makes it emotional, magical—photography is not simply a way to assert power but a curse, one that creates a connection between photographer and subject that is volatile and multi-directional. She writes, “Taking photos is not like shooting something: it’s like being shot. I am shot and the entire timeline of my existence is resurrected in the photograph.” As a viewer, I feel shot, too—by the gaze of these passengers. To be controlled by the subject is an unexpected surrender: these women are not merely objects of investigation, they are also investigating me.
Perhaps part of the reason the images disarm me is because it is so rare to see photographs of women where the subjects are open but not prone, searching but not beseeching, intriguing but not sexualized, revealing but not disempowered. I feel like I am face to face with a person, not a photograph. Not only is it about confronting a singular woman, but a woman who isn’t reduced in the ways we’re used to seeing. These women are not sad or sexy or lost—they are not flattened into muses. It doesn’t feel like they’re here just for us. It doesn’t feel like the photograph contains them. It is a subtly different experience, one that opens up a space of wonder—about the photographic exchange, about picturing women, and about what the camera can and can’t show.
This sense of immersive wonder is what first struck me about Shiga’s work when I saw it two years ago in MOMA’s Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015. Her lustrous, life-size panels about life in a small Japanese town (Rasen Kaigan, 2012) were hallucinatory, with their wild bursts of color and slick surfaces. In Blind Date, which she shot four years prior, she achieves the same result with pared-down means. She has removed the intense color and lighting, and yet I feel the same magnetism. In this earlier work, she is not relying upon surreal tropes to achieve her effect; instead, she intrigues us with simple black and white portraits, no explosions or otherworldly landscapes necessary. The simplicity is partly deceiving: although we believe, upon first glance, that these photographs are spontaneous, they were actually staged. In an artist’s statement that accompanies the book, Shiga details how she and her guide convinced couples to let them drive next to them to get each shot. In this sense, she plays with our expectation that street photography is unmediated. Implicit in her process is the idea that transcribing some sort of objective reality is an illusion. What matters more is her subjective reality, where even the things closest to us, in plain sight, retain their mystery.
SOPHIE BARBASCH is a photographer based in New York City.