These Powerful Photographs Capture the Intimacy of a Female Friendship

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Aya© Francesca Allen

Francesca Allen’s new book Aya documents the startlingly intense month she spent in Tokyo photographing a new friend, musician Aya Gloomy

It was during a trip to Tokyo in 2016 that London-based photographer Francesca Allen was first introduced to musician Aya Gloomy, through mutual friends. “I went and met her at a cat temple called Gotokuji,” Allen says. They took some photographs in the area, and hung out, and went for drinks at Aya’s record label in Harajuku – and it wasn’t until the photographer was back in London and thinking about new projects that she realised how positive, if brief, an encounter it had been. “I spent such a short time with Aya, but those were some of my favourite pictures from my trip. So I went back a year after, and spent a whole month with her.”

This month-long immersion in Tokyo life – a relentless, riotous stimulation of the senses – is the subject of her new book, Aya, which is published by Libraryman and launches today at London’s Tenderbooks. But far from a familiar portrait of the Japanese capital – all cherry blossoms and glittering lights – the resulting series is a powerful and tender portrait of a female friendship, one which started softly and grew steadily in a way that is only possible between people who spend almost every waking moment together for weeks at a time. It’s precisely the kind of connection Allen’s intimate, trusting eye is so adept at capturing – all-consuming, all-day every-day. It’s an innately female experience.

And yet, the series resists tired tropes about intimate female relationships, which skip the power built slowly over hours, days and weeks together. Which was a conscious choice, Allen explains. “I feel like photography is so exploitative, and as a photographer you have such a responsibility to the person you’re representing. Ultimately, you are asking for something from them,” she explains. “I wanted to show intimacy without using nudity as a tool. I love shooting nudes, but it’s only necessary when it’s necessary – that alone doesn’t equate to closeness.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of her stay, Allen’s return to London was something of a shock to her shattered senses. She put it off until the very last minute. “Aya texted me the night before I left and said ‘I want to see you again before you go’ – this was at midnight, maybe one in the morning. I was packing, my flight was at seven, so she and her boyfriend came and picked me up at four in the morning. Her boyfriend drove us through Tokyo at night, and we stopped off at a gas station and got some snacks and sat in the car and talked. There are a couple of songs that really make me think of that car ride – God Only Knows by Young Fathers, for example – but I can’t even listen to it anymore because it makes me really sad. She came onto the platform with me to wait the train, crying and crying. It was so emotional. And then I rode the train as the sun was coming up.” It sounds like a dream, I suggest. “That’s exactly what it was like.”

Aya by Francesca Allen is out now, published by Libraryman.