Having a family portrait taken by Haruhiko Kawaguchi comes with an unusual condition: that he wraps your whole house in plastic, then vacuum seals you in an airtight bag.
“When I started the series, I asked some of my closest friends to test how long they could hold their breath, and I found it was around 15 seconds,” Kawaguchi said via a video call from Okinawa, Japan. “So I decided to make a ’10 second rule’ that I open the bag after 10 seconds whether (I took the picture) or not.”
Kawaguchi has custom-made huge sheets of plastic to cover entire homes, including trees and vehicles. Credit: Hal photographer
Beginning with intimate images of lovers trapped in sealable bags, which were once used to store futons, his photos have since grown. The latest installation in his series, titled “Flesh Love All”, sees the photographer enclosing couples or families and the places most important to them – usually their homes, along with trees, cars and motorbikes – in sheets of custom plastic.
“(The most recent photos) contain a message of connection with the outside world and express love for everything equally,” he said, adding, “We wrap everything in the background to represent the social connection that subjects have with the outside world, not just for themselves.
It can take two weeks to create the custom wraps and put together a single image, while the final photo shoot requires the help of around seven people. An assistant is always ready to open the bags – or cut them, in an emergency – if the photographer is unable to do so. It also keeps a portable oxygen tank handy, as well as a vaporizer to keep subjects cool during hot summer photo shoots.
For her previous series, “Flesh Love Returns,” Kawaguchi asked couples to be photographed in places that held meaning for them. Credit: Hal photographer
Kawaguchi admitted that some people “feel claustrophobic” looking at his photos. And he’s only too aware of the suffocating feeling of being locked in one of the airtight bags – because he’s tried it himself.
“When I was in the sack, I felt my life and death was completely controlled by others,” he said. “I could actually feel how my subjects entrusted their lives to me.”
When two become one
The series dates back to when Kawaguchi was a commercial photographer in his twenties. With little free time to produce his own work, he took his camera to concerts and nightclubs, where he often photographed young couples.
“I found couples to be very attractive as subjects because they were full of joy, anger, grief, and happiness,” he said. “Watching them, I also felt there was a relationship between the physical and emotional distance between two people.”
Finding volunteers among his friends (and friends of friends), Kawaguchi started “Flesh Love” as a way to “visualize intimacy and love” between couples, he said. The photographer worked with subjects to find positions that eliminated the spaces between their lubricated – and sometimes completely naked – bodies before vacuuming the air out of the bag.
The photographer said the piecing together of the couples is “like a puzzle”. Credit: Hal photographer
“I ask my subjects to repeat their poses over and over and then recreate the chosen ones from the bag,” he said, saying it was like “putting them together like a puzzle.”
Kawaguchi said he was inspired by Plato’s ‘Symposium’, in which the philosopher said men and women were once unique beings, with four arms, four legs and two faces, before the Greek god Zeus does not divide them in two.
“Packing subjects in a bag was just a by-product,” the photographer said. “The main purpose of my art is to transform two people who love each other into one being again.
“I still don’t know exactly what love is, but I don’t think it’s just about distance,” he added. “Surprisingly, sometimes I feel like the subjects don’t look very intimate, even though their bodies are completely close to each other. The reverse is also true.”
While his early photos used a simple studio backdrop, in “Fresh Love Returns”, Kawaguchi photographed couples in their homes and other interior settings. Another series titled “Zatsuran” saw him packing couples with their belongings, from musical instruments to bicycles, like “blister-packed dolls”, he said.
Having now packed entire homes, he hopes to go one step further, such as vacuum packing an entire park. He also hopes to explore “new artistic styles”, he added.
I’m also shooting a series called ‘Washing Machines,'” he said, “in which I put the subjects in the washing machines.”