In conversation with Japanese photographer on appreciating the value in the place she calls home, after living in New York City for six years
Sarai Mari background and art photography
Born in a rural village town in Nara, a small city in the Kansai region of Japan, Sarai Mari grew up in a location rich with natural beauty and history. She explains that growing up, she found her hometown small for the ambitions she had for herself and the life she intended to live. «My village had nothing. Not even a movie theatre. It was all nature». She explains that now she can appreciate the value in the place she calls home, after living in New York City for six years, at the time grappling with the dreams she wanted to fulfill, it didn’t live up to the places she longed to visit. Despite her longing to leave her hometown, the first thing she says is, «I am Japanese», signaling the pride she feels for a country renowned for craftsmanship and long-standing traditions of artistic practice. Mari’s career in art and photography began when she studied photography at Santa Monica College in Los Angeles and she has since worked across the globe, in Tokyo, London and New York, where she now resides with her husband and 10-year-old son. Her career has always dabbled within fashion photography, working for Coach, YSL, American Apparel and more. She reveals it is art photography that intrigues her the most and which she has allowed herself to make more space for in her life. «I just want to be connected with my cultures and the locals» she says. Speaking about the precarity of creatives during the pandemic, for whom many lost work which they relied on, including Mari, she explains that for someone who is so used to feeling connected to the world through her work, being inside during the lockdowns was something she had to confront.
An unexpected project – September 2020 NYC
September 2020 NYC was an unexpected project for Mari, in which she admits allowed her to return to her place of photography again. «Because we had to stay home, I realized that I hadn’t taken any pictures for a long time. I wanted and I knew I had to find some object, some subject to photograph with». The project itself was a free endeavor for Mari to pursue herself with no restrictions. «There’s no limitations, no deadlines, no art directing or anything like that», she says. Lockdown for many people provided a space to reconnect as we spent months confined at home, away from the routines of work, social lives, family, and friends. NYC was affected badly over the course of the pandemic. She says: «During the pandemic, it was like a ghost town everywhere, Times Square, Union Square, Soho. Even the Empire State Building – there’s a rooftop, it’s called the top of the rock, it’s always full of tourists and always lined up to get the tickets to go up and it’s empty. It was a ghost town and I feel like everyone left or locked ourselves in». In April 2020, it was reported that cases of Covid-19 in New York had reached more patients with the disease than in any other country in the world, aside from the United States. The disproportionate impact of the disease in the city was and is still largely due to the dense population of the city, coupled with a crippled healthcare system that was not prepared for a pandemic. Mari spoke about the sadness of knowing and being aware of so many lives being lost. «I felt like New York was dead and we were going to die as well. It was like everyone was down and didn’t have any hope».
New York – the evolution since the pandemic
New York is a melting pot of different nationalities, languages, and cultures in which they coexist in harmony in a place which in modern times, is becoming harder and harder to get by in. Mari says, «New York is tough». She went on to explain how during the height of the disease in the city, many people began to move away. People like herself, immigrants, who fled back to their home countries as well as others, who went upstate to get out of what felt like a living nightmare. «Everyone thought New York was not going to come back like in three years, five years but New York is back this year. I feel like they are tough, they are strong, and they do have the strength to come back». Mari also reflected on the way the city has evolved since before the pandemic, a time hard to even imagine again. The once empty streets back in the early days of 2020, seems surreal to imagine now as Mari says, «It was like a movie». In a statement about September 2020 NYC, she writes, «I had lived in NYC for almost six years at this point, but through this one project, I was able to see a new face of the city». In asking her about this, she smiles as she imagines a memory of how she remembers New York in summer 2020, following the Black Lives Matter protests which took to the streets after the death of George Floyd, she explains that the city began to find its feet again. She says, «People started to hang out and drink in the park, in the street; I’ve never seen so many people in the park, maybe Monday, even Tuesday, Wednesday. New Yorkers are busy, New Yorkers are always working, nobody hangs out in the park during the week». She continues, «it was full of people, full of trash everywhere, it was just like a new side to New York. People just hung out, doing sports, exercising, hanging out with kids; it was like a new way of life in New York».
Sarai Mari on creating the book, September 2020 NYC
Sarai Mari confesses that she feels lucky that her publisher, based in Japan, approached her about the premise of creating the book, September 2020 NYC. Following her previous books which she first published in 2011, she discloses that she was much a novice to street photography and if it wasn’t for the pandemic, it probably would have remained that way. She says, «if I didn’t have the pandemic, I wouldn’t even have found myself to come into street photography as a documentary style». We spoke about how she approached the project and what it meant to her to photograph a place she has after six years grown to call her home. She says, «It was really nice to take pictures of New York City with my foot, the whole month every day». September 2020 NYC encompasses the vastness of New York in which Mari explored the city to its depths to shoot and curate the book. Attending roller discos, break dancing events and observing the rush and stillness of New Yorkers as they regain their zest for life in the aftermath of the pandemic, Mari has captured a return to normality in New York.
In asking her what intrigues her to take a photo, she doesn’t have to think at all, declaring that she knows her subjects, what excites her and what does not. She delineates how as much as she enjoys taking photos of someone attractive, in a conventional sense, they also should have more than just their appearance on the outside. She says, «Something like in my radar, I have to catch that. Otherwise, beautiful girls are right here but if it’s empty, if I don’t see it in my eye, then I just don’t even take the picture. I have to feel it – I wanna take a picture of this person». She explains that often people will tell her what they think would make a good picture. For Mari, photography is a personal thing and indeed for her. The work resembles her own moment in which she has attached herself to a time, place, individual through the act of taking the photo and how for all of us who take photos, it is a personal exertion for what catches the eye. In an age where any of us can claim to be a photographer, through the lens of Instagram and with the ever-updating technology available to us all, I ask Mari, is everyone a photographer now? She says, «Everybody can be a professional photographer if they have a nice camera, good photoshop or something like that but being a real artist and photographer, you’ve got to have some vision, a concept and you’ve got to have set up a project in your lifetime».
Japanese Art photographer who has worked in New York, London, and Tokyo. Mari was born in Nara, Japan. She studied photography at Santa Monica College in Los Angeles when she was a teenager. After beginning her career as a photojournalist in New York, Mari moved back to Japan and transitioned to fashion photography. After a six years fashion photographer’s career in Tokyo, she relocated to London where she became a well-established fashion photographer, shooting for magazines such as i-D, Harper’s Bazaar UK and Dazed & Confused. in 2014, she moved back to New York to seek her American dream.