Zaza Bertrand — Japanese Whispers

Text: Tom Nys


With her recent series “Japanese Whispers”, Zaza Bertrand continues on the photo-essayist path that she began during her studies. In 2011, she bid farewell to KASK, Ghent, with a series about the intimate worlds of young people in Panama City, Ghent and Tokyo; she then picked up this topic again for further work in Cairo. Her atmospheric images create a stunning, personal account of the places she visited, the people she met and the interpersonal relationships and cultural idiosyncrasies that she observed.

In Japan, Bertrand learned about the so-called love hotels. Lovers go to these rabuho – an abbreviation of rabu hoteru – for intimate encounters: something they are not always permitted at home. Love hotels are very familiar to contemporary Japanese culture: their gaudy facades are highly visible, everyone is aware of their function, many people make use of them… only, no one likes to talk about it. For a photographer with a socio-anthropological interest in topics such as intimacy, they are a gift.

But the taboo around them combined with such practicalities as the language barrier meant that working on “Japanese Whispers” was not a simple process. As a viewer, one might wonder if the awkwardness displayed by some of the models and the peculiar tension lurking in some of the images are evidence of these obstacles. Despite this, Bertrand succeeded in not only encouraging a considerable number of couples to participate and in portraying them in an intriguing yet respectful way, she also managed to evoke a mood that chimes perfectly with the subject and that at times seems cinematic. She zooms in on telling details – plastic flowers, an empty car in a dimly-lit car park – but she also presents wider shots that show the architecture of these unique places.

For Braakland, two large portraits from the series – a couple leaning against the wall of a room and a man in a bathroom setting – are presented behind flexible, transparent blue PVC curtains, which serve to underline the theatricality of the subject. Apparently, this cold, impersonal material is often found in and around love hotels and it is clearly visible in some of the prints from the series. The use of this physical obstruction highlights the secrecy that blankets the scenes that Bertrand captured.

© Zaza Bertrand
© Zaza Bertrand
© Zaza Bertrand