On a spring afternoon two years ago, freelance photographer Maki Umaba encountered an unusual scene on a train — all the passengers on the car except herself were dozing. Some might have just closed their eyes, but others were sleeping soundly.
At that time Umaba was searching for “the most comfortable settings” for the subjects of her photography. When she saw those passengers peacefully napping in the warm sun, it occurred to her that sleep provides the ultimate comfort zone.
Since then, the 28-year-old has taken photos of more than 40 sleeping people, mainly her family, friends and acquaintances.
Selected works of those slumbering people are being shown at Shibuya’s Egg Gallery till Saturday. The exhibition’s title, “Nude,” refers not to their lack of clothes but to their “true selves” captured on film.
Umaba usually takes her photos at her models’ homes. She visits in the evening and asks them to sleep as they usually do. She stands at their bedsides and patiently waits until they fall asleep. Since they are being watched, she says, it often takes them hours to drift off.
Not wanting to disturb them, Umaba presses the shutter button sparingly and doesn’t use a flash. Consequently, she spends hours just watching the sleepers, waiting for the perfect moment. She says, however, that she never gets bored.
“Their faces sometimes look totally different when asleep,” Umaba says. “Taking photos of sleeping people gives me a secret pleasure, as if I were reading their personal diaries.”
In sleep, people shed the “social masks” that they unconsciously wear during the daytime, she says.
For instance, Umaba took photos of a friend who is usually very shy and timid. Once she fell asleep, a very strong-willed and rather stubborn expression appeared on her face, something Umaba had never seen before.
The next morning, Umaba asked the friend what kind of child she had been. She confessed that she was an unyielding, strong-willed kid, but her personality completely changed after she experienced trouble with friends over her stubbornness.
Photographing people sleeping not only amuses Umaba but sometimes makes her feel lonely. Sleep is a solitary activity, she notes, that can never be shared with others.
“When their eyeballs are rolling back, I know they are having a dream, but we can never see it together. Their body is lying close to me, but their mind is somewhere I can never go,” she says.
After this project is over, Umaba wants to take photos of people who have just woken up, she says.
“When they wake up, their spirit may still be wandering in a dream,” she says. “I want to display the photos with a few words explaining what they were doing in their dreams.”