Take note of the cultural references and you’ll find both subtle and blatant meaning in Monika Mogi’s dream-like photography. Her work is a window into a world she would like to see change; she makes it her mission to slip in messages that not only tell sexism to go fuck itself, but prompt the west to take notice of the reality of life for most women in Japan. It was a year or so before Instagram burst onto the scene, propelling photo-sharing culture forward into what it is today, that a then-16-year-old Monika met Petra Collins via Blogspot. This online encounter resulted in the Tokyo-based then-teen sharing her photography as part of the Collins-led collective The Ardorous, through which Mogi saw her work published in print for the first time in an issue of Vice.
Now, at just 24 years old, she is dominating her field. In Japan Monika is one of the (unfortunately) very few female photographers/directors consistently being booked for work; one who is in control of both her output and the way she works. Via the far-reaching platforms she’s given access to, Mogi sets out to normalise feminism in a place where, according to her, most view it as extreme and conflicting with the norms of a society that they insist is too set in its ways to change. Whether her work appears in zines, features megastars like Kiko Mizuhara or is published in titles with circulation rates in the 100s of 1000s, Mogi’s work is consistent and the message always clear: her imagery channels femininity from the perspective of a forward-thinking 21st-century mindset, that also happens to be a female one. While in Barcelona earlier this summer to appear as a speaker at the city’s annual international design festival OFFF, Mogi met with us to talk about premiering her first short film at the festival, launching a team of girl skaters, and what she wants to bring over to Japan from America.
You met Petra Collins online when you were a teenager. She’s been instrumental in getting people to talk about how we perceive femininity and shedding light on censorship and sexualisation of the female body in the 21st century. What’s your take on it all?
What’s happening in the States with regards to censorship and Instagram, we (Japan) are not even there yet. America seems so progressive compared to where we live. Living in Tokyo… there are still women-only cars on trains! It’s very sexist there. I think I want to focus on bringing more conversation to Japan.
Alongside your art projects, you also have shot for big brands and fashion titles. How do you use fashion as a tool?
I mainly work as a fashion photographer in Japan, but honestly I’m not that interested in fashion. By shooting for mainstream fashion magazines, I get to put my ideas out there to a wider audience and really affect girls. I don’t think the editors realise, but I always intend for my shoots to convey a message. I don’t change the way I shoot depending on which magazine I’m shooting for.
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How do put messages into shoots? What elements of Japanese culture do you want to shed light on and comment on?
I did a fashion shoot recently which I called Fuck OL Culture, and I shot Yuka (Kiko Mizuhara’s sister) spitting in tea. There’s this term called “office lady” in Japan, which is abbreviated to “OL”. A lot of women in Japan work as office ladies. You know the terms “blue-collar” and “white-collar”? Well, office ladies are referred to as “pink-collar”. It’s fucked up. Here, listen to this (reading from the Wikipedia page she has up on her phone): “A female office worker in Japan who performs generally pink-collar tasks, such as serving tea, secretarial work…” Office ladies were introduced to boost male morale in the workplace – that’s about as sexist as you can get. The thing is, in Japan nobody talks about sexism. Sexist is just something that people are there and people think there’s no other way to be. What’s sad about OL culture is that there is no way to get promoted. It’s set up so that you enter a company, you work as an OL, and eventually you marry someone in the company and you become pregnant. There’s no maternity leave in Japan. Careers for women are set up to not be able to keep going.
I also recently shot a really famous celebrity in Japan holding her phone like this (holds phone at her chest) with her Instagram feed showing. I wanted to show that that’s not the real her. If an editor or manager knew the real concept, I don’t think they would be ok with it, so I don’t say anything. I’m trying to put as many messages out there as I can, because it’s really needed. There’s literally no girl photographers. There are about five that I can name that really work in Japan, but other than them, there really aren’t any women getting hired to work. When I was younger and I looked at magazines I never looked at the photographer’s name, it would just be a random guy’s name and I wouldn’t be that interested.
You spent some time in Europe and America. Was the idea that Japan is behind a factor in you deciding to spend some time abroad? Do yo identify with Japan?
I will never be accepted as a Japanese person in Japan. I’m half Japanese, my mum is Japanese, my dad is American. I went to school on a military base, not to a Japanese school. I didn’t leave because of the culture, because I didn’t start realising all these things when I was in high school. I started to feel it when I moved back to Japan when I was 20. I still feel very culture-shocked in America, though. I was in New York last week, I get very weird, I feel very lost. People are so different. In Tokyo everyone is in their own head. On the train it will be dead silent, nobody talks loudly. Japanese culture stops people from being able to stand out. There’s this language called Kago, which is like professional speak. I’m not good at talking like that, and it works in my favour because as a result I’m not treated as a Japanese photographer. I kind of get away with being… not rude… but if I was Japanese, I would have to be very polite. If I didn’t speak to an editor in a very particular way with a certain level of respect, I wouldn’t get work. But they treat foreigners differently, they have much more leeway.
You work is recognised as changing the way femininity is perceived. Do you feel like there is a need for diversity and alternative beauty/style in Japan?
If you look at a Japanese fashion magazine you’re not going to see any models that really stand out. This is a culture where we have idol groups like AKB48, they are 48 girls and they all have the exact same style.
I recently shot a skate video. X-Girl is a brand that was started in the ‘90s by Kim Gordon but it’s only available in Japan now. I’ve been shooting for the past two years with them. I’m kind of tired of just shooting fashion shoots that consist of nothing more than a model posing to make clothes look nice, it’s boring. I guess I don’t really get much fun out of taking a pretty photo anymore, it doesn’t do anything for me. But I found this amazing girl on Instagram called Little Nice Girl, she’s a skateboarder. She’s badass. I thought that X-Girl, given its history, was the perfect brand through which to set up a platform for skater girls. I talked to the company and I convinced them to start a skate team. I met these six girls and I hung out with them for two days. We shot this video like two months ago.
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What drew you to the project?
When I was twelve years old I used to skate every single day with a group of guys. I quit because as I hit puberty I’d see girls who would just hang out at the skatepark and all the guys liked those girls. I didn’t see any girl skateboarders around, I didn’t see anything to keep me going and to give me the confidence to feel cool. If I had known what these girls do, I wouldn’t have quit. These girls have no fear, they’re just free. They’re confident, they’ll wear whatever and they don’t care what other people think. They all look completely different, but they’re all really good friends and have this thing in common: skateboarding.
At OFFF you premiered you’re first ever short film… Why did you decide to move into narrative film-making? Tell us about the project?
I originally made it to show here at OFFF, seeing as they gave me this huge screen to play video on. I was like, “I want to make a film to premiere here!” Where else do you get the chance to show things like this!? The film is seven minutes of how I feel about Japanese society and expectations. It is about a girl who works in a convenience store. Convenience stores in Tokyo are not like they are in England, where each has its own vibe, in Tokyo they’re all so sterile and literally every one on every corner is the same. It would be absurd if you were to go in and say, “Oh hey, how’s it going?” to the cashier. They would look at you like you were crazy and think, “Why are you talking to me?” It’s robotic almost. That’s why I feel so culture-shocked when I go to America, because the taxi driver will ask you how your day is and will want to get to know you, and that doesn’t happen in Tokyo. People are very reserved and it would be strange… So with that short film, my best friend Saki played the main character. She’s a girl working at a convenience store and the days are just passing by and she wants to see some sort of connection. 
What was the biggest challenge?
I rented a convenience store to do it, I only had three days to shoot it. I felt like I needed more time. Video takes a lot more planning, way more than photography. The story kept changing! What I’ve learnt is that as your emotions change, the whole script changes too – on the spot! Even while filming a scene I’d be all, “Mmm, this doesn’t feel right anymore,” and so during lunch I’d re-write it and we’d shoot that as well, just in case. I actually approached making a film in the wrong way. I thought I needed a DP and a sound guy and all these people, and you do need that to have some level of quality, but I realise that from now on, I’m going to do the camera work as well. As a photographer, that’s what I missed.

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You were saying that people in Japan are a lot more reserved and subdued, does that make it harder to get models to open up to you when you’re shooting as well?
Well, the normal Japanese fashion model is robotic in a way. Perhaps they’ve shot with photographers before and they just have the “go-to” poses. I’ve never shot a huge editorial shoot overseas, I’ve shot for American magazines but always in Japan and the editor has never come. I’ve shot on my own. I shot Chim Pom for the cover for Art Review and it was just me, there was no editor there. I had the freedom to work as I work, and didn’t have to worry about time. In Japan, everything is scheduled out, there are like 20 people behind you during every shoot. That’s so unnatural and not fun. For me, I don’t see them, but obviously the model is being watched by all these people who are crossing their arms and treating the whole thing as a job, like “OK, we got the shot, NEXT!” It’s all very fast-paced. I’m hard on myself, I don’t want to take photos that are just “whatever”. That’s why I don’t think I’m interested in fashion photography. I would prefer everyone to leave the room. When I’m shooting, I want to put on music and make it fun. This is not rocket science. People treat it like a job, but it’s important for me and the model to have time to chill and get to know each other. I don’t see how you can take good photos just by walking in and being like, “Let’s start!” I don’t like working like that, it feels very forced.
You mentioned idol culture before. What are some of the pressures women in the media are subjected to in Japan that you think might shock people oversees?
Well, for example there was a very famous TV host called Becky, who I guess you could say was like the Japanese equivalent of Alexa Chung. Becky got caught having an affair with a married man who was in a rock band. He’s very famous as well. When the story came out and she got caught, she lost all of her contracts; she isn’t even on TV anymore. She’s just been banished from our culture, from the media. But the guy, nothing happened to him. Another example is when the media found out that one of the girls from the Japanese Idol group AKB48 had a boyfriend. One of the rules in their contract was that they couldn’t have boyfriends. She’s 19 years old! She’s a 19-year-old human, of course she’s going to have sex. But they make these rules so that they keep an innocent image for the fans. When she got caught, she went on TV and she shaved her head as if she was shaming herself, not in an empowering way. She shaved her head and then she apologised like, “I’m so sorry to everyone for what I’ve done.” And this was on national TV. She was a captain of the group and then she got demoted to the lowest rank. There wasn’t even a conversation, like, “Why is this OK?” – that was shocking to me. Seeing things like that really inspire me to take action and to always talk about it. I’m always talking about that and OL culture and everything. You have to just keep talking about it. People don’t talk about it enough in Japan.
Were these incidents shocking to the Japanese public? Did you notice people around you speaking out or commenting on the events?
I think that the shaving of the head was a bit shocking for people, but then you ask some Japanese people how they felt about it, and I’ve had responses like, “Well, it was part of the rules” and “She had it coming…” I’ve never seen anyone speaking out against that type of behaviour or protesting it. I think it will change eventually, through America and people overseas shining a light on that. Japanese people are obsessed with American culture. I always thought that that girl, Becky, should go to America and tell her story. I think people would be horrified. In America, if you get caught doing stuff like that, it usually makes you more famous! That’s why I do shoots like Fuck OL Culture. I think that kind of offended people in Japan because OL culture is so huge. I don’t want to offend or put down actual OLs though. It’s sad because no-one is not educated. They just accept that that is the way it is. Hopefully by putting a little bit of controversy in projects… That’s why I did it with Yuka Mizuhara, because she’s quite famous. I’m not interested in being famous at all myself. I don’t post selfies. For me, as a photographer, I like when I don’t know what the artist looks like and I can take the work for what it is. That’s how I feel about it. But I like the idea of fame. Kiko Mizuhara is super famous, and she actually has the ability to change Japan. That’s how I see it, and that’s why I love shooting with her. Trying to get these ideas out there. Fame should be used for that purpose.
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