Michiyo Yanagihara’s photography started with an earthquake. Although a large body of the London-based photographer’s work involves sleek and glossy fashion and editorial shoots, shooting for familiar publications like Dazed Beauty, GQ Japan, Nylon, and Metal Magazine, Michiyo picked up photography in the grim aftermath of the 11 March 2011 megathrust earthquake in Japan’s eastern region of Tōhoku, the largest recorded earthquake in the country’s history.
“At that time, I was working as an office clerk at a local production company. There were clients who were unable to contact us, including my friends from that area. They forecasted the next earthquake on TV, and my hometown was in the most affected area,” Michiyo tells It’s Nice That. “Until today, I still don’t have the words to express my feelings. However, I remember strongly thinking that I had to leave something. I decided to become a photographer, and start from there.” She then went to Tokyo to study photography as an assistant in 2012, eventually moving to London in 2015 to work as a freelancer. “Maybe I had a mental problem, I still can’t believe that decision I made,” she jokes.
Her ongoing and yet-to-be-titled personal project gave her a new dimension on top of the editorial work that she had been doing. “For editorial shoots, it’s important to consider the chemistry and good energy happening between the crew. It’s very important to work collaboratively,” Michiyo explains. “I also love having deep discussions with the makeup artist and hairstylist about new ideas. I think I’m very much into the human face.” During a shoot as an assistant with GQ Japan, Michiyo spent two weeks travelling by car across South America. “The tyres were punctured along the straight desert road that stretched for 300 kilometres, and there was no water, no bathroom,” she recounts. “It was an exciting shoot and I experienced a lot. Nature was too huge to fit in a photograph.”
Michiyo’s guiding phrase for her personal project is “not 100 per cent human,” trying to complete it as a photo book project in the next few years. In the project, her models are often fitted with prostheses, growing noses and hair on their fingers and breast. Other-worldly spirals obscure her subjects’ faces, and a soft-horned girl locks eyes with the viewer through a hand mirror. Jokingly, Michiyo says: “My personality is a little twisted, so maybe I don’t want to shoot things as they are. Is the experience earthquake-related? I don’t know.”
But digging deeper, Michiyo describes that the concept behind the project is spiritual and mythological, constantly dipping into the plethora of Japanese stories of gods, guardian spirits and ghosts that have been passed down, often retold by grandmothers. “All the ideas come from these stories,” she notes, listing stories like Yaoyorozu no Kami, the collective term for Shinto gods that “represent all things and phenomena in ancient Japan” and Tsukumogami, where gods and guardian spirits “dwell in tools that have been passed through many generations.” The prosthesis-laden body parts were inspired by these spirits that dwell inside the body, and the obscuring spiral is Michiyo’s interpretation of guardian spirits being separated if the hosts show no gratitude.
There is a sense of ghostly wickedness to the project, but Michiyo’s lighthearted personality balances the tone for a contemporary exploration of these themes. It also seems like she isn’t afraid to pursue exactly what she wants. “I’m shooting what I want to shoot right now,” she says, “I just want to also appreciate those who have participated in this project so far, and hope to make even more friends soon.”