Chloé Jafé

I give you my life

Essay by Emma Lewis

The women in Chloé Jafé’s I give you my life described to her their motivations for getting their tattoos and they’re mostly about love and strength – being in love, falling out of love; feeling strong, needing to feel strong. “I want to live like the man I’m in love with,” says Anna, “I don’t regret anything. In one word, I think they’re really cool!” June got hers at forty because the man she was with had them and “looking at my naked body without any tattoos made me feel weak.” Yuko was thirty-eight, divorced, and she saw them as a way to mark her independence and “discourage certain guys from approaching me […] For the remainder of my life I’ve decided I want to live independently.”

The men to whom these women refer are members of the Yakuza, the international crime syndicate that originated in Japan some four centuries ago and today has around 100,000 members. You’ll have seen these men in photographs: with distinctive tattoos that extend from the neckline down to knees and wrists, they are as photogenic as they are intriguing. Not surprisingly, the organisation and the subculture that surrounds it also make compelling subject matter for film – the Yakuza genre is almost as old as cinema itself.

Despite this pop-culture representation, women’s association with the Yakuza seldom features in any meaningful way. In part this is because, historically, and unlike some other criminal organisations, very little has been known about what their lives are like – though recent memoirs by wives and daughters have gone some way towards lifting the veil. The acclaimed Yakuza Moon by the daughter of an oyabun (family boss), Shoko Tendo – the first autobiography of it is kind to be translated, in 2007, to English – even inspired a glamorous, if wildly inaccurate, movie series.

In 2014, the criminologist Rie Alkemade addressed this lacuna in knowledge with the publication of her study on the wives and girlfriends of the Yakuza, Outsiders Amongst Outsidersto which she refers in her essay for I give you my life. In her research she found that, with few exceptions, the idea of a Yakuza ‘lady gangster’ is a fiction: their role takes place behind closed doors, managing finances and acting as peacekeepers and mother figures. The term she uses is ‘glue’. To the wives and girlfriends, this work is integral to the running of the clan. But to the men, it is peripheral – and so too are the women.

Throughout I give you my life, Jafé highlights this disconnect between how the women perceive themselves and how they are perceived by men. Interested less in the gangster stereotype than the day-to-day life of the clan (who live together under one roof), she shows us scenes to which we are privileged to be privy, but which remain opaque. A group of men, seated and serious. A mealtime, the women in the kitchen. A group of men again, bowing to a man in the back seat of a car. Where mixed groups appear, the women appear to be – as indicated by body language or proximity – subservient. One exception is a photograph taken at the beach, where an ane-san (boss’s wife) is front and centre, tens of tattooed men standing behind her. The hierarchies between a wife and their husband’s subordinates can be complicated.

In this portrait, as in those of the tattooed women – intimate, nude studies and pairs or group shots taken at a traditional festival, where their designs can be seen creeping beyond their clothing – ‘subservient’ and ‘peripheral’ are hardly the first words that come to mind. These women appear self-possessed, independent, formidable even. As Alkemade points out, to tattoo their bodies takes courage not only because in conveying an allegiance to the Yakuza they place themselves outside of mainstream society, but also because the Yakuza men will never truly accept them as members. If her title Outsiders Amongst Outsiders highlights this limbo, then Jafé’s I give you my life begs the question: and for what?

In many ways, Jafé’s is a project about access – how the photographer found her way to her subject, and the dynamics that played out when she got there. When she arrived in Tokyo, she didn’t speak the language or have a fixer, only the determination to reach the women who orbited the world that she had watched in so many films and read about in Yakuza Moon. She also knew that because women aren’t permitted to invite guests into their home, she would have to go through the men.

Jafé began her journey in the city’s red-light district, where she met men who were low down in the syndicate’s ranks and to her, felt more dangerous than useful. There were introductions and tip-offs from friends and acquaintances – a tattoo artist, a hairdresser. She got a gig as a hostess in a bar, the only non-Japanese person to work there, but had her bag stolen, didn’t feel safe. Two years down the line, it was a chance meeting at a festival that led her to the oyabun. Gradually, Jafé was allowed access to his inner circle and then, only when she gained his trust, she was granted access to his wife.

In a project where gender disparity appears to be so acute, it is interesting to consider the ways in which the photographer’s relationships with the men and women differed. To access the upper echelons of a Yakuza clan is no mean feat, but you sense there was a vanity involved on the men’s part. Jafé must have amused them. She had to be charming, deferent, and harmless. Yet to the ane-san, this young, foreign, woman that her husband was taking to dinner wasn’t necessarily such a benign presence. Aware that the wives and girlfriends viewed her with suspicion, Jafé worked her way in carefully, making friends and navigating through a very particular set of social codes and cues. The portraits that result from this gradually built trust are sensitive, considered and, importantly, they feel collaborative. “You work on luck,” she says, reflecting on that chance meeting with the boss at the festival. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Chloé Jafé

Emma Lewis is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, where she organises exhibitions and displays and is responsible for researching acquisitions for Tate’s photography collection. Her book Isms: Understanding Photography was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Valeria Cherchi

Some of you killed Luisa

Essay by Emma Lewis

On 16 June 1992 a priest from the Sardinian region of Barbagia received an anonymous telephone call guiding him to a remote mountain road. There he found a package containing the following: a photograph of six-year-old Farouk Kassam, the upper part of the child’s ear, and a letter threatening his demise in horrific circumstances. Kassam, the son of hoteliers, had been held hostage for five months, in caves and other mountain hideouts. His kidnapping was by no means unusual: close to 200 people were held for ransom on the island between the 1960s and late 1990s. But his story precipitated an unusual wave of defiance against the ‘Anonima sarda’, the bandits who operate independently but in accordance with omertà, or code of silence. Hundreds of locals placed ‘Free Farouk’ signs in shop windows. White bedsheets were hung from balconies as a symbol of solidarity. Pope John Paul II appealed for the child’s release.

On 10 or 11 July – reports differ – Kassam was let go. Matteo Boe, one of Italy’s most wanted, was among those convicted of his abduction. Twelve years later, Luisa Manfredi, Boe’s fourteen-year-old daughter, was shot dead as she hung up washing outside her home. No one was ever charged for her murder though there remain several different theories as regards to the motive.

Most children, at some point or other, experience a fear of being taken from their parents. For Sardinian-born-and-raised Valeria Cherchi and her peers, this fear had a different gravitas. Cherchi was about the same age as Kassam when he disappeared, and has vivid memories of the white sheets that summer. She recalls, too, watching the news reports of Manfredi’s murder, and observing the contrast between the portrayal of her mother, Laura Manfredi’s, grief, compared to Boe’s. Over the years, Cherchi’s preoccupation with Sardinia’s kidnapping phenomenon intensified. Wishing to learn more about the history of her home island and – somewhat idealistically – ‘decode the complex structure of the kidnappings’, she began researching Barbagia’s small and closed communities in relation to omertà. Over time her focus narrowed to, as she describes it, ‘the desperation of two mothers: one unable to control the fate of her young kidnapped son, and the other unable to find justice for her murdered daughter.’ Both had pleaded for people – women especially – to speak out. One day, Manfredi walked into her town square and graffitied in broad daylight: ‘Qualcuno di voi hanno ucciso Luisa’: ‘Some of you killed Luisa’.

Part of the narrative around these events, of course, is that there is no reliable narrative. News reports from the time note the uncertainty surrounding the chronology on the 10 and 11 July. ‘Almost immediately after the boy’s release,’ described one New York Times article, ‘questions and discrepancies began to intrude.’ Details had to be ‘pieced together’ by the police, the victim and his family. According to Cherchi’s written accounts of her interactions with the Barbagia people, inconsistencies remain a key characteristic.

It is apt, then, that Some of you killed Luisa takes the form that it does: a combination – piecing together, if you will – of television and VHS stills; staged portraits; mise-en-scènes inspired by Cherchi’s own memories and those of the kidnapped; and reports of her investigation, including transcripts of oral testimony by kidnap survivors and those in the local community. The mood is unsettled, unsettling; the atmosphere enigmatic. This approach to conveying real-life events, prevalent in contemporary photography for a number of years now, is one that I think of as a kind of collaged approach to the documentary form: assembling a many-layered, multi-textured picture from disparate sources that may not otherwise be in close proximity. Regine Petersen’s Stars Fell on Alabama (2013), Jack Latham’s Sugar Paper Theories (2016), and Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation (2017) are a few acclaimed examples. Often executed over a long period of time, the photographer embedded in the community, a case could also be made for them operating as part of the cult revival of investigative and long-form journalism.

And yet like the collage elsewhere in art, literature, and documentary film, this approach remains deeply subjective. Archival material is, by definition, decontextualised; selected or omitted according to personal criteria. This is the narrator’s prerogative, to convey the story that they wish to tell, in the manner in which that they wish to tell it. It almost goes without saying, too, that bringing a story alive after the fact requires imaginative use of non-documentary material – be it archival, staged or otherwise.

If this collage form grants freedom – in treatment of content, and in style – it also highlights the photographer’s responsibility to their audience and subjects. Certain questions have to be asked. What does it mean, for example, for a photographer to state that they are ‘investigating’, especially where criminal activities are concerned? What is motivating the protagonists to speak out? Is this the only the way that they feel their voices will be heard, and if so, whom do they believe to be listening?

The most robust examples of such projects – and I include Cherchi’s, and the three aforementioned, in this – address these questions by making the photographer’s position clear. Asselin’s project is, without ambiguity, an exposé. Latham and Petersen, by contrast, each state that their primary interest is photography’s relationship to the events in question. Some of you killed Luisa is successful because Cherchi makes it clear that she is delving into a subject that has needled into consciousness for decades. The inclusion of stills from her own family’s home videos – a nod, she explains, to her pained awareness that her life continued, while Manfredi’s did not – is a particularly effective way of introducing her presence. Likewise her reports: by turns factual statements on the how, why and when, of her research, and poetic but lucid accounts of time spent with Barbagian communities, as she navigates the regional differences, and the secrecy. As an outsider, this is fascinating: mysterious without ever becoming nebulous. One gets the feeling of being guided through the dark, almost, as Cherchi shares what she knows about this unknowable place – and what she is only just beginning to piece together.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Valeria Cherchi

Emma Lewis is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, where she organises exhibitions and displays and is responsible for researching acquisitions for Tate’s photography collection. Her book Isms: Understanding Photography was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.