Ability not Disability
If just the title of this article — “Amputee Venus” — already has you feeling shocked or bewildered, keep on reading! With a touch of an open mind, you will have broadened your horizon by the end of it – I promise!
If there is any country in this world where uniformity is one of the main characteristics, then it is certainly Japan. Everything is about “harmony” here (in fact “harmony” is one of the nations prime interests, its “raison d’État”). That may be achieved by subordination, but also just by trying hard not to stick out, not to offend anyone by one’s looks or actions. A good example of that is the white-collar workers in the offices of Japanese companies – the so-called “sarariman” (サラリーマン) – with their extremely dark or black suits, white shirts and sober ties. A uniform couldn’t be more standardised.
As usual, one could also say the absolute opposite about the attire of Japanese – especially young Japanese are practically bound to shatter that image of uniformity and understatement. But once they are past a certain age or have gained a certain status in society, they inevitably fall in line with “traditions”.
Hence, it is still (generally speaking) safe so say, that inconspicuousness is one of the key elements in the appearance and attitude of average Japanese. Anything that might deviate from the standard is hidden (even pratically doomed to virtual “invisibility”), largely not accepted by public opinion. That puts especially those people under a lot of pressure and may even force them to self-denial, that have no choice but to deviate from “standards”. However, there is one group in Japan that has started an admirable campaign to “break free”, to give others in the same situation inspiration to feel positive about “being different”.
This article is about those who have, for whatever reason or cause, lost a limb or part of it and are forced to wear prostheses. Even beyond the mental and physical agony caused by the loss of a limb, people with this kind of disability suffer a multitude of limitations in their life – from most of which, they may feel, is no escape, as sharing the own insecurity and fears with others isn’t greatly supported. Even the hardship that results from city- and housing-planning that does not always consider the physical limitations of disabled people, can be nightmare – although cities like Tōkyō are working hard on this issue.
The campaign that tries to show the positive attitude of women that went through the hardship of an amputation and to inspire this attitude in others – as well as creating a higher level of acceptance for people with this very specific disability – is a dream come true for Fumio Usui who has been creating artificial limbs for the Tetsudō Kōsaikai (鉄道弘済会 / てつどうこうさいかい – a foundation that was initially created in the 1930s for disabled employees of railway companies – hence the “tetsudō / 鉄道 / てつどう”, which stands for “railways”).
In collaboration with Takao Ochi, a photographer who had specialised before in photo-documentation of the Paralympics, and eleven Japanese women living with artificial legs, the idea was born to show the world positive images of their lives. The result is a photo-book full of natural beauty, full of radiance and richness of life: Amputee Venus (切断ビーナス / せつだんビーナス). The book was first published in Japan in 2014. An international version, with an English jacket, has just become available.
One key element of the project is to provide a platform for the women to present themselves the way they want themselves to be seen – or in a situation that represents one of their “dreams come true”. Be it practising sports, being out for any kind of adventure they love or simply fulfilling their dream of a “life of fashion” – all things that other people may take for granted, but which persons with disabilities can also achieve, once they have shattered the borders of timidness or false shame.
Another project closely linked to the “Amputee Venus” is a running club called “Health Angels”, that Usui started to encourage people with artificial limbs to engage in sports and to experience the joy of an active life. He saw in his work how sports can have a positive influence on a person’s overall health and boost both self-esteem and a positive view of one’s body.
I recently attended two Amputee Venus events to see how this works. First, on February 8th, I joined an event at “Al’s Café” in Tōkyō’s Takadanobaba (高田馬場 / たかだのばば) that introduced the international version of “Amputee Venus” to a largely non-Japanese audience. Speaking were the photographer himself, the prosthetist and one of the female models. Hearing what they had to say and what motivated them to step forward shed a completely new light on the subject and made also me aware of the fact that there is still a lot to be done, before people with disabilities can enjoy the common respect they deserve.
Next, I headed to the “CP+2015”, the “Camera & Photo Imaging Show 2015” held from Thursday, Feb. 12 to Sunday, Feb. 15 in Yokohama. Here, the “Amputee Venuses”, teamed up with the Swedish camera maker “Hasselblad,” put on two fashion shows on Saturday, Feb. 14. This was an event which I couldn’t miss for various reasons (and not just because Yokohama is always worth a trip).
First of all, it was really most impressive to see the “Amputee Venuses” performing on Hasselblad’s own stage at the centre of the exhibition hall: They really stepped forward proudly.
And it was just as impressive to see the huge turnout and press coverage of the fashion shows – after all, that’s what the amputees seek in the first place: Publicity –to show everybody (and not just those personally concerned) that being forced to wear a prosthesis can be turned into an advantage, rather than a disadvantage and does not stand in the way of a fulfilled life.
While I watched the show I also tried to observe the audience and the huge number of photographers that all seemed to follow with great interest and enjoyment. It also gave me a chance to see the photographer of the “Amputee Venus”-book, Takao Ochi, in action. And that also made it clear why this collaboration is such a success: There is obviously a deep understanding and reliance between the “models” and Ochi-san.
(By the way: While there were six “Amputee Venuses” participating in the first fashion show of the day, the team was further strengthened by a seventh one for the second show.)
And for those who would like to see what else went on at the CP+2015, here are some more impressions from Yokohama:
First the exhibition halls “Yokohama Pacifico“:
And some impressions from the CP+2015 photo fair as such:
Japan Times, Febr 6, 2015
Amputee women in Japan proudly step forward
The New York Times, Febr 17, 2015
In Japan, Women Amputees Step Out of the Shadows (unfortunately no longer available)
“Amputee Venus”, the photobook
Wonderful, wacky Japan by Alice Gordenker
The photographer, Takao Ochi‘s English website
Tetsudō Kōsaikai (鉄道弘済会 / てつどうこうさいかい), the prothesist’s company’s website (Japanese only)