Nathalie Daoust, a Canadian photographer, has long been itinerant. In the late 1990s she spent several months in New York crafting a collection of images from the artist-themed Carlton Arms Hotel, which were later turned into a book, "New York Hotel Story". Daoust has since travelled from the Swiss Alps to Brazil to Japan in search of evocative imagery. Her work ventures into the fascinating territory of sex, memory and gender stereotyping, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
Daoust’s latest project, "Hide & Sex", continues in this vein. She spent several months living in the Alpha In, one of Japan's biggest S&M “love hotels”, and photographed nearly 40 women in their private rooms, surrounded by their specialist equipment and dressed in the regalia that defines their trade. The result is a series of images that underline Daoust’s passion for the surreal and the sensual, and also shine a light into the darker shadows of femininity, fantasy and human sexuality in general.
Paul Sullivan caught up with Daoust in Berlin, where they discussed the intimacy of a photo-shoot, the drama of escape and the license a camera gives her to enter otherwise mysterious worlds.
More Intelligent Life: Who, or what first sparked your interest in photography?
Nathalie Daoust: I initially created an imaginary world with a friend and put her in the middle of it, a nude draped in a blanket, then photographed her in a fictive environment. We had so much fun doing this I then made more photos with other friends. I also liked this intimate moment shared with my friends while photographing them. Today it is more this than the photography itself that I appreciate. (See Nathalie’s mesmerising "Frozen In Time" series here.)
MIL: What aspects of the subject stimulated you at first–and are these themes still apparent in your work now?
ND: It was to create fantasy worlds, like I did when I was 15 or so with my friends. Over time I discovered that so many people have created their own surreal worlds and I was interested to find out why, and to learn more about these imaginary places and why people need to escape so much, just as I did. As mentioned, it’s more about the intimate moment of a photo-shoot that I like.
MIL: What academic studies have you undertaken, and what kind of influence have they had on your current approach?
ND: I think that most of it was self-taught, playing around and experimenting. I studied for three years at the Cegep du Vieux in Montreal [1994-97]. It’s a technical school that focuses on everything to do with photography but not much on the art side. But I had amazing teachers that understood that I wanted to do with the art side and they pretty much let me do what I wanted, as long as I worked hard.
MIL: What influences–photographic and non-photographic–have been most significant over the years?
ND: What counts for me most are my travels and meeting new people, seeing new worlds. For the past 13 years I have been travelling pretty much all over the world. Seeing new cultures inspires me so much, but I have to admit I am inspired by the dark or stranger side of things.
MIL: Your breakthrough was the Carlton Arms project. How did that opportunity come about and what made you execute it the way you did?
ND: I was visiting New York City and stayed there, at the Carlton Arms. I was so in love with the hotel and asked one of the owners to see more rooms. We started to talk and I guess I had such a light in my eyes from finding the place amazing that they invited me to decorate a room. After spending two months in New York decorating the room I went back to Montreal, and realised I didn’t want to be there. So I called the hotel and asked if I can come back for two months and take photos of each room. The two months turned into two years, and the photos became a travelling exhibition and a book.
MIL: Since then your work has been more concerned with women and sexuality: striptease dancers ("Tokyo Girls") Japanese S&M parlours ("Hide & Sex"), Brazilian brothels ("Street Kiss Brazil")–what prompted this direction for you?
ND: Actually the women part has always been my project, even when I was in high school. I didn’t photograph any boys there. But the more serious aspects came when I decided to confirm or change my preconceived notion of these women and those worlds. Most of the time what I was told or previously thought was different to what I experienced after spending time with these people.
MIL: What particular feminist/ female issues are you mostly concerned with, inside and outside of photography?
ND: I am interested in why these women do this. Is it good or bad? I wouldn’t say that I’m a feminist though. I am just trying to understand and respect their choices. In Japan people are not poor and almost never forced into this work, so why do it? In Brazil I photographed one of the poorest brothels in one of the worse areas of Rio de Janeiro. Were these women forced? How did they deal with the work? Each had their story. I guess my concern was to understand and share this with photography. At the same time I feel like I only use photography as an excuse to get into these worlds. I would not be able to be friends with all these women and get to know them on a personal level if it was not for my camera.
MIL: Women aside, you also seem drawn to sexual or sensual environments?
ND: I guess I am curious. All these fantasy worlds created for sex. How the women deal with them, whether they are bad or good, for them and for society–these are all questions I have asked myself. You need to get close to understand these worlds.
MIL: Your current exhibition, "Hide & Sex", looks specifically at S&M parlours and dominatrix culture in Japan. It's on the heels of your "Tokyo Girls" project–in what ways, if any, are the two projects linked?
ND: Both are working for the entertainment sex industry, but they are two completely different worlds and have almost nothing in common. Erotic dancers are girls that come to Tokyo for three months to make big bucks. They’re lost, new to a city, dreaming. "Hide & Sex" was about women that like to torture men for money. Money and sex are links but they are still two different worlds.
MIL: Was the establishment accessible for "Hide & Sex" or did you have to work hard to convince them?
ND: The hotel needed a lot of convincing. I first went there for my "Love Hotel" project. They said no twice, then they said okay, but only the rooms without girls. That was in 2002. The owner came with me to each room while I was doing some snapshots, and explained some quite interesting things about the hotel. After a few hours with him I asked if I could come back and do a project on the hotel and the girls that work there and he said okay. I guess he finally understood that I wanted to make something creative and not something damaging for his hotel. Since then we are good friends. And for the girls, this hotel is so famous that all of them wanted to be photographed in it. That part was easy.
MIL: You lived in the hotel a good while. Photographs aside, what were your main insights about S&M, women or Japan?
ND: I see it almost as a game. Mostly there is a great respect between everyone. Also I was expecting “hard” women since they were are all dominatrix, but they were all sweet and in a way submissive to the camera.
MIL: Were all of the women co-operative?
ND: 100%, maybe even more. Most of them brought me presents or asked other dominatrix to help. There was no rush, no stress, it was quite easy and they were all lovely. We have also become friends now. I saw them two weeks ago in Tokyo when we organised a thank-you party for them at the Hyatt. They all came to the opening of the exhibition, wearing pretty dresses and bearing flowers. They were so lovely…
MIL: Again there is a dreamlike quality to the images. Was this to get across the fantasy element of what the women were doing?
ND: Yes, the whole place is a surreal world. Nothing to do with reality.
MIL: What did you shoot on and can you describe for us the development or processing technique?
ND: I used a Nikon f3 35mm and shot on Kodak film (black and white and colour) and then I developed everything in the colour darkroom, including the black and white images. Colour darkrooms are now difficult to find and the Senac darkroom in Sao Paulo is sponsoring me, so I get to spend three months there and concentrate only on the manipulation of the image, trying new techniques until I get the feeling of what I saw and felt during the shoot.
MIL: At this point in your career, what themes and topics are most important to you?
ND: Places of escapement or living in an imaginary world.
MIL: What new projects are you working on?
ND: The next project that I am doing is on a Chinese man that thinks he is Mao Ze Dong. It’s about mental escapism.
Photos: All by Nathalie Daoust for "Hide & Sex"