The Tokyo Hotel Story

Text JF. Pierets    Photos Nathalie Daoust


Photographer Nathalie Daoust first broke onto the scene in 1997 while photographing the themed rooms of the Carlton Arms Hotel in New York. This project, her first solo exhibition, was published into a book, New York Hotel Story. Since then, Daoust has created several new conceptual projects that have taken her all over the world, from the love hotels of Tokyo, to a brothel in Brazil, a darkroom in Sydney and the dreamy landscape of the snow-capped Swiss Alps. Her objective as an artist is to push the boundaries of photography through experimental methods. While working with new mediums and discovering new techniques, Daoust explores the indefinable realm between truth, fantasy and the human desire to escape.


Nathalie Daoust’s latest project, Tokyo Hotel Story, continues her exploration of female sexuality and subversion of gender stereotypes. Spending several months in the Alpha-In, one of the biggest S&M “love hotels” in Japan, Daoust photographed 39 women of all ages in their private rooms, surrounded by the specialist equipment and dressed in the regalia that helps define their trade of Dominatrix. Her aim is to give a different insight into women as dominating beings, which conflicts with the Japanese image of femininity, in which women have become more passive beauties. Daoust believes that numerous challenges still exist in terms of confronting deep-rooted stereotypes of gender-roles, not only in Japan but also in the rest of the world. Her work helps her to delve beyond taboos while showing the universal human desire to create fantasy worlds that often oscillate between dream, reality and perversion. Tokyo Hotel Story is a series of photographs that underline Daoust’s passion for the surreal and the sensual, and that shines a light into the darker shadows, not only of femininity but of human sexuality in general.

Where did you get the idea for your fIrst hotel project? 
When I was younger and traveling all over in affordable hostels in Tokyo, I would think about how I always wanted to live in New York and when the people from the Carlton Arms asked me to decorate a room, I took the opportunity and went. The hotel is quite famous for artists so after spending a few months there I realized what a special place it was. I asked the owners if I could stay a little longer to photograph each room and make a project on the hotel. A few months turned into 2 years. I met artists from all over the world and the hotel quickly became my home, the staff my family. There was so much creativity roaming around that it was easy to get inspired.

There’s a big difference between the Carlton Arms and the Alpha-In in Tokyo. What triggered this step? 
They are both hotels where a fantasy world is created and I like dealing with places where people go to escape reality. I could say that the main part of my art is dealing with escapism and I am interested in documenting people that pursue that feeling.  The places they go to and people they pay in order to reach this getaway.  I always wondered if an environment like that gets real when you are a part of it. And it does. It becomes quite normal. In the Carlton Arms I talked to the people who work there, the tourists, the artists that decorated the rooms. Before that, a hotel was just a space to sleep overnight. After living there for two years I wanted to find other similar places like this. So when a Japanese tourist told me about the “Theme Love Hotels” in Japan, I decided I had to see it for myself and moved to Tokyo.

How did you convince the owners and the girls for shooting at the Alpha-In? 
I was in Japan doing a documentary on “love hotels” and one of them was the Alpha-In, the most famous S&M hotel in Japan. The owner was very kind and showed me each room and told me lots of stories – why people go there, who works there, the tools, toys, the family history of the hotel. His stories were so interesting and since I knew nothing about S&M, I wanted to learn more about it on a sociological level. Seven years later I went back to Japan and finally did this project. At first the owner didn’t want me to take photographs but after a lot of begging, I got the permission. As for the girls, as soon as the hotel said yes, they welcomed me with open arms.

What’s your opinion on S&M? 
When I first started this project I only had a stereotyped vision on the subject matter. Now I know that there’s a whole world behind those two initials. There are a number of reasons commonly given for why someone finds the practice of S&M enjoyable, and the answer is largely dependent on the individual. It looks like everybody in the scene knows each other in Tokyo. Like a little family they are expanding their borders of thinking, feeling and their sensuality. I often got the impression that it was some sort of religion.

You worked with dominatrices, what about the cliché saying Japanese women being submissive? 
I don’t like clichés but of course I have preconceived opinions, just like everybody else. I try to make a twist by thinking on a logical level, but deep down they stay there until my mind actually changes by experiencing it first hand. Then again, sometimes these clichés are true. Yes, the women in “Tokyo Hotel Story” are dominatrices and yes, they seem to be the opposite of passive Japanese beauties, but in daily life they are not. For example, I have seen women meeting their customers in front of the hotel. The dominatrice does her traditional bow and lets the man go first. She is extremely polite. Head down, laughing at his jokes – everything very traditional. But once the room is paid and the doors are closed, the roles change. She becomes powerful and takes control. That was an extraordinary experience. And although I was expecting hard dominatrices, they were the sweetest, most lovely women to work with. For me it was important to live and experience this first hand.




I’m always curious  about the dark side of things because it‘s often not as dark, as it seems to from the outside.’

Do you feel connected with those women?
I am going to Tokyo in two weeks to meet up with a few of them that have now become good friends.

Can you imagine being one of these girls?
Yes, but I can also imagine being a doctor. Most of the women I met wanted to make it clear that they are not prostitutes. That they were paid to dominate the client and not to have sexual intercourse. From what I have seen it was more of a performance than prostitution.

What attracts you to the world of sexworkers? 
It’s something that I’ve always been attracted to. It’s a world that most people only see from the outside. Therefore most of us form a stereotypical judgment on the subject matter. I was also interested to learn about this type of ‘fantasy’ places and why people need them. I didn’t have the intention of making a subjective assessment nor wanted to represent them as being good or bad. I just wanted to show how these girls lived, what they loved. For example, in “Tokyo Hotel Story” I didn’t want to present S&M in a sensational form of sex, but I looked behind the façade. Where does the action take place?  When you talk about a love hotel – specialized in S&M, filled with tools – who are the people who work there? Bottom-line, the main reason was to break my own preconceived notion of S&M and of the women working in that sort of environment. I entered the place with a certain idea, and left with the opposite feeling.

Do you always photograph women? 
The last project that I did was on a Chinese man who thinks he is Mao Ze Dong. The project was all about mental escapism. But yes, in general I like photographing women.

Are you a feminist? 
Not in my everyday life and only when I meet narrow minded people. I can’t help it but have to speak up when I hear a sexist comment. Some people might see that as being a feminist, I see it as opening up the mind of an ignorant person. When it comes to the women I am photographing, I’m just trying to understand and respect their choices. People in Japan are not poor. That means that most of the women are not forced into this work. In Brazil I photographed one of the poorest brothels in one of the worst areas of Rio de Janeiro. Were these women forced? How did they deal with the work? Each had their own story and my concern was to make people understand.

Do these subjects satisfy your dark side? 
I’m always curious about the dark side of things because it’s often not as dark, as it seems to from the outside. But I don’t try to provoke. I just want to share.

Why did you choose the medium photography to tell your stories? 
As a photographer, you easily get access to special places or situations that where previously hidden or never showcased. It’s a perfect tool to capture reality. Once in the darkroom you can interpret this reality and make a reflexion on what you felt the day you were there. Let’s say my camera gives me the confidence to do what I do and allows me to see all that I want to see. I’m quite shy and sometimes I feel like I only use photography as an excuse to get into these worlds. I would not be able to meet all these women and get to know them on a personal level if it was not for my camera. I am not a man and do not have the money to pay these women. There would be no other way to get to know them.

Are you a voyeur? 
Yes, yes, yes..

The photographs look extremely surreal. How do you explain that?  
Darkroom! I spend hours in the darkroom. When I photograph people there is often a feeling that is not visible on the actual image. So I manipulate it in the darkroom until this feeling is there. For the Tokyo project I even went all the way to Brazil to find a good colour darkroom. Darkrooms are slowly disappearing since the rise and shine of digital technology.

Where do you feel most at home?  
I adapt pretty easily to new life styles and take great pleasure out of it. Over the past 13 years I have been travelling all over the world and many of these public spaces became my home. For the moment my habitat lies in Berlin but when I live somewhere for a longer period, then that’s home.

What’s your next project? 
I’m going to make a film about the Alpha-In hotel.

The fairy godmother offers you three wishes. What do you wish for?  
Health.. that’s all there is to it.

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