Books / Reviews

'Oyako': Capturing the intimacy of parent-child bonds

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

The relationship between parent and child is a fundamental one, inspiring whole schools of thought on philosophy, art and music, and most acts of teenage rebellion.

Oyako: An Ode to Parents and Children, Photos by Bruce Osborn.
144 pages
SORA BOOKS, Photography.

It is also the theme that runs through “Oyako,” a new book by Bruce Osborn that brings together some of Osborn’s most inspired photography from the past four decades spent in Japan: extraordinary candid photos of (mostly adult) children with their parents.

“The series started in 1982,” says Osborn. “I was given the task to photograph Japanese punks for a magazine I was working with. It was while my wife was pregnant with our first child so I was thinking a lot about becoming a father. I realized I wanted to capture that relationship between parent and child, so I asked the punks I was photographing whether they’d be happy to have their pictures taken with their parents.”

One said yes, and that photograph — of punk rocker Shigeru Nakano, dressed in heavy denim, a leather jacket and sporting a full mohican haircut, his arm draped around his mother, smirking slightly — is the first in the book. It is followed by the same pair — Shigeru and his mother, Yae — photographed three more times, each a decade apart, showing an intimate evolution of their relationship as they age and establishing the form for the rest of the book.

“That was an amazing start to the project. There was a complete generational gap between the two; the mohican, the clothes and the fashion, it was all so different, but they had such a tight relationship,” says Osborn. “Seeing this punk musician on stage, he was quite outrageous, even intimidating at the time, but his mother just loved him. She would go to his concerts and hang out backstage with all the other musicians and celebrities.”

Though Osborn enjoyed that initial shoot, the concept didn’t evolve into a series. It wasn’t until some time later he was given the opportunity to put on an exhibition of his work.

“There was a group of 24 of us and we rented out an exhibition space for a year,” he says. “Each of us had the opportunity to put on a show for two weeks. I had my slot, but didn’t actually have an idea of what I was going to exhibit. That’s when I realized how much I liked the oyako (parent and child) idea and thought, ‘Yeah, maybe if I take that theme but shoot all kinds of different people this could be my way of looking at Japan and seeing the changes from one generation to the next.'”

Since that initial exhibition, Osborn has photographed more than 7,000 subjects for his Oyako Project.

Each photograph is captured in the same way, with the subjects standing in front of a plain background, lit from the right and shot in black and white. But that is where the similarities between photos end, as Osborn gives his subjects the freedom to choose everything else, from what they wear to how they’d like to pose.

“I just try to get my subjects loose and going.” says Osborn. “There’s always a rhythm to the shooting. Whether it’s talking or music or whatever, we always get into a rhythm, and it becomes synchronized. I don’t want people to hold back. You know, if they’re laughing, I want them to be laughing with their eyes and their mouth.”

“Oyako” takes the best of those 7,000 shoots and whittles it down to 88 of the most engaging photos. Together, the photos present a diverse view of Japanese society and its characters.

Along with photos from the initial punk series, there are photographs of an amateur sumo wrestler in his mawashi (loincloth) with his mother; an adult film actress — nude — with her pet shop-owning father; legendary butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno with his son, Yoshito, both in mid grimace-inducing dance; and, perhaps most charming of all, a grinning child between her two parents, each turned away from the camera, their skin covered in full-body sleeve tattoos.

Short excerpts — either quotes or biographies — accompany some of the photos, painting an even more detailed picture of the characters involved. If a picture says a thousand words, then the extra accompanying texts complete the story to great effect.

Ultimately, though, each photo captures the same thing: a snapshot of the intimate bond between a parent and child, something Osborn believes is of paramount importance when it comes to shaping the world.

“I really think this relationship between parent and child is the most basic relationship, and the first for a child,” he says. “There’s a responsibility in how we raise the next generation, and it has to be with a mind to improving the world.

“I hope the book gives people hope, but at a much more surface level I hope that people can see a new side of Japan and see that that relationship — between parent and child — is universal.”

“Oyako” is a striking collection of photos and succeeds in its mission: It’s a comprehensive ode to both parents and children.