photographer sarai mari on letting it be... naked

Inspired by the role gender plays within society, Sarai Mari’s "Speak Easy" is a celebration of raw expression.

by Matthew Whitehouse
22 March 2017, 2:30pm

When the pineapple rings, Sarai Mari answers. Spiky on the outside, sweet on the inside. It's actually quite a nice metaphor for the Japanese photographer's work: aiming to peel back the protective skins that people (or, to be more accurate, society) construct around their hidden selves. She's made a career of it, in fact, first with the brilliant, Helmut Newton indebted Naked, a monograph of female nudes in 2011, and now with Speak Easy, her second book via publisher Damiani. An examination of the gender roles that men and women play within society, Speak Easy is an exercise in capturing a subject's essence; a celebration of raw expression with subjects from Clara Paget to Hikari Mori, Janice Dickinson to Naomi Shimada. As the New York-based photographer invites us into her world, we discuss her work and the very human need to be understood.

Tell us a little bit about your work in Speak Easy. What was it inspired by? How did you approach the people involved? And who were they?
I began shooting Speak Easy about five years ago, right after Naked came out. It was originally intended as a continuation, before I realized it should be for all the genders, as opposed to celebrating only the empowerment of women. I was inspired by people's hidden sides and obsessed by peering into the moment right after model's mask came off. All the models are my friends or people I instantly connected with and photographed right after an assignment. They're a mix of models, actresses, gay, bisexual, transgender, make-up artists, hair stylists… People who have a complex body or look.

Have you always been interested in the roles gender plays in society? In what way have you rebelled against that yourself?
In every society there are codes of conduct for how people should behave, in which traditionally women are supposed to be shy and quietly mannered, and people are scared of being isolated or left behind. So they conform to fit in. I grew up on small mountain which is a world heritage UNESCO site in Japan and I tried to rebel against it. I was loud and behaved like a free women. When I was teenager, I had bleached blonde hair and drove a big motorcycle, a bit crazy for my village people. But it was just for when I was a little. I moved out of my tiny village when I was 18 years old, went to Japan's second city Osaka, then to Los Angeles to study photography. I had to get out of small society quickly to see the world and find people who has the same mindset and free spirit. I wanted to prove what I could do, and that it could be something different from others. It reflects my work deeply.

For all the nudity in your work, would it be fair to say you're more interested in what lies beneath the skin, than what is projected outwards?
Yes, I'm interested in bringing a true moment out from the person. That's what I wanted to photograph. The special moments that we don't see often. I'm hooked on that. We want to look beautiful like a model but there is a secret side of every photograph. Maybe the secret side becomes more interesting in my photographs.

Do you have a favorite image from the book?
Yes. The pineapple.

If you could photograph anyone naked who would it be?
Someone who has a crazy side but will never ever show it until you melt her down.

Read: We spoke to Juergen Teller about why he's working with the next generation

Speak Easy is out now via Damiani. A two week show, containing images from the book, will take place at HPGRP Gallery in New York from March 30 - April 15.


Text Matthew Whitehouse

Sarai Mari
speak easy