A photographer shoots her mother's affair

Hideka Tonomura's 'mama love' was searing and shocking upon release. 14 years later, its images see the light of day again.

by Alex Merola
22 February 2022, 8:00am

Nan Goldin and Sally Mann redefined the stakes for documenting one’s own tribe, but since then, few have carved such a dramatic path into the territory of the photographer-subject relationship as Hideka Tonomura. The Japanese photographer’s book mama 恋 love, first released in 2008, holds strong claims to being one of the most revealing and significant photography debuts of the past 20 years. In fact, it’s so significant that a new, elegant edition courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery has come to be, one that stays true to what made the original first printing so great, the throbbing red cover an alarm bell for what lies beneath.

In 2007, Hideka photographed an impossible (and impossibly intimate) subject: her mother’s affair. “[She] had been living under my father’s control for a long time,” Hideka explains. “She had no freedom, not even the freedom to go to the hospital when she felt unwell. As a result, her illness progressed and her stomach cancer reached a terminal stage. After the surgery, she regained her strength, dyed her hair and changed her clothes… I think it was her way of finally facing her life, the life she had almost lost.” The affair was a protest of sorts against the way her husband treated her. “I wanted to shoot it, whatever the cost.”

a woman having an affair in bed

With fever-dream urgency, Hideka’s images — cinematically arranged across the book’s wide, landscape pages — sweep us into this dark entanglement. Not only do these images represent the evil Hideka’s mother faced, they place her sexual emancipation in the foreground. Railing against Japan’s highly-patriarchal photographic landscape — where women have frequently played submissive roles in their long-reserved seats before the viewfinder — Hideka shows the ways a Japanese woman is entitled to pleasure. Some of the most startling photographs here are those in which Hideka’s mother returns her daughter’s gaze. “This work is an accomplice,” Hideka states. “This was the first time I knew my motherʼs love.”

Raw though it is, Hideka’s book is never prurient, a fact underlined by its intercut scenes of her mother alone — lost in post-coital thoughts or out shopping — and, to a greater extent, the shift it takes two-thirds in. Printed on black paper, small, impressionistic film stills announce what Hideka refers to as her “closing credits”, revealing a cast of characters that includes not only Hideka’s mother but her immediate family. Hands are a recurring motif in this section; they belong to the women in Hideka’s life. And where the hands in her book They called me Yukari (narrating the photographer’s work as a hostess in Shinjuku) signal something illicit, here they feel curative, lending the book a coherence that prevents any risk of it being perceived as purely voyeuristic.

entangled legs in bed

Once you get past Hideka’s obvious willingness to confront taboos, you discover that her real subject is far messier: the mostly unconscious forces that determine our relationships. Hideka’s work, which is deeply informed by psychosexual principles, is about how we are all simultaneously viewers and participants, embedded within webs of emotional projection, need and familial enactment. “I wanted to create a space in which readers can question what a family really is again,” says Hideka. “After all, family is the first and smallest institution that a child experiences.”

Yet, as with many significant photobooks, mama 恋 love seems to be as much about the author’s relationship with photography as it is about her relationships to the real world. Hideka uses the camera as a tool to turn her life into a fiction or a “tragicomedy”, she says. It’s her talisman that frees her from the real.

a woman in bed with a man
a woman leans back in a chair
a woman on the floor of her kitchen
a woman on a couch with her head in her hand
a woman wearing a dark denim jacket looking over her shoulder
a woman in a hallway wearing a hair covering


All images © Hideka Tonomura