Nathalie Daoust has spent much of her professional life photographing prostitutes and sadomasochists. Her latest project involves shooting in hotel rooms with dominatrix who torture screaming, drooling men. The Canadian says she is drawn to the dark, inaccessible worlds of sexual desire and taboo. So I wonder what to expect - a tattooed, leather-clad vixen, perhaps?
Not a bit of it. The woman who greets me in the lobby of a Tokyo hotel is clean-cut, with the cerebral air of an art student. There is not even a nose-ring in sight. In conversation the 36-year-old is thoughtful and reflective about her work, much of which involves explorations of female sexuality. "I want to uncover the universal human desire to escape reality," she says. "I am interested in the extremes people go to escape, and who they pay for it."
That artistic drive has sent her to some unusual, even dangerous places. In Rio de Janeiro, Daoust based one three-month conceptual project around prostitutes working in a dilapidated brothel. She was fascinated by the women's fight for dignity in their grimy environment. "The taxi drivers did not even want to drop me off in the area," she recalls, smiling. "But I have never got into a situation I couldn't control."
Daoust is in Tokyo to direct a movie about the denizens of a notorious love hotel, the Alpha-In. A venue for hardcore fetishists, every room is kitted out with the specialist tools of the bondage trade: chains, whips; pulleys in the ceilings; the priciest room has a steel cage and an open toilet - you get the idea. But Daoust insists she is more interested in the clients who use the hotel than the eye-popping hardware. "The people I met were fantastic."
The women work for a call-out agency specialising in S&M and are paid about US$300 a session with their male clients, she says. Some are hired for their, um, unique skills, such as spitting or purging. "When I started photographing this world, I didn't understand it at all," she says. "I had preconceived notions about it - the sort of things my mother used to say: 'These people must be deranged', and so on. Why would people want to hurt each other? I wanted to know why they do it and respect their choices."
Some of the women have surprising motives, she discovers. "I know one who is a dentist and does it partly for pleasure." Some do it for money. Even the men, she says, are "super sweet", mostly submissive types. "They only want to please. Though they're probably different to dominant types."
The product of that empathy with her subjects is a stunning, surreal series of portraits, titled "Tokyo Hotel Story", in which 39 women are photographed surrounded by the paraphernalia of their trade. In leather and high heels, or thrust up for work, many of the women look defiant and powerful, some distance from the Japanese cliché of passive femininity.
The impact of looking at the photos is to feel immersed in a dream world where both sides act out an ultimately harmless fantasy. "What I understand now is that they have respect for each other," says Daoust. "It's more play than real hurting or pain."
Not everyone agreed the photos were harmless. After an exhibition at the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing in 2009, the Chinese customs burned more than US$3,000 worth of prints, apparently because they considered them obscene. "I got a note saying that if I tried to do this again I would be deported or something like that," recalls Daoust.
As a child in Montreal, she developed a love of fantasy and role paying, Daoust once said. After graduating, her breakout work was a photographic series of the Carlton Arms Hotel in New York. She first came to Tokyo in 1999 and quickly heard about the strange goings on at Alpha. "The fact that the owner didn't want me to photograph it increased my curiosity," she recalls. "I finally got permission in 2007."
Her movie, backed by a research grant of C$10,000 (HK$73,000) from Canada's Society for Development of Cultural Enterprises, will be her first experiment away from still pictures and her stubbornly analogue style. She works mainly with a Nikon 35mm camera and toils away for hours in a darkroom, transforming her ideas into striking images, a method that she thinks gives her a more tangible connection to her subjects.
The movie project also gives her a welcome chance to be back with the dominatrix for the first time since she moved to Berlin. Many of the women she now considers friends. "One girl told another and the word got around," she says. Soon she found it difficult to leave, drawn ever closer to her subjects, who she still finds fascinating. "They come with their little suitcase with their toys and costumes and a little form asking what you like: 'Do you like to get spanked?' 'Do you like to be spat on?' 'How hard', and so on."
Given her interest in human extremes, has there ever been a moment when she felt in over her head? No, she insists, certainly not in Japan. "People are too respectful and they are not forced into anything." But in Montreal, "a friend of a friend" was strangled in an S&M game gone horribly wrong. "She was a normal woman with a child." The incident triggered a court case to determine if it was murder.
Daoust cites an unspecified trauma - she refuses to discuss it - as the inspiration for her interest in sexual extremes. She calls the Tokyo hotel project cathartic, a form of "art therapy". But she says she may be emerging from this roughly 10-year period of her life. One reason is her decision to photograph a Mao Zedong lookalike.
In "Impersonating Mao", the balding doppelganger is seen walking the streets of Beijing in his iconic outfit. Daoust followed him around to key historical sites, where he wanted to be photographed.
The effect, heightened by darkroom effects that age the prints, is disorientating. The viewer feels transported back to an era when the Great Helmsman anchored state propaganda, yet he feels oddly intimate at the same time. It's a long way from the whips and pulleys of the Alpha-In, but Daoust says her themes - of fantasy and escape - are similar.
"I was intrigued by what extent he would go to escape his reality," she says. "In costume, Mao was authoritarian and stern; as himself, he was very gentle. He was very serious about what he does. He wouldn't even smoke one of my cigarettes; he would say, 'Mao never smoked this.' He wanted the same brand." The exhibition has yet to be shown in China.