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For those that have ventured out into the underbelly of most places within South East Asia, the neon-lit streets, doorways half covered by drapes and confusingly enticing signs with low low prices are all familiar elements; typical indicators that you’ve found your way into the red light district or likewise sex-orientated establishments. But unless you actually know what the deal is behind the dust-stained frosted glass windows and cheap excuse for a door, then really, you don’t know. This was the case for photographer Zaza Bertrand, who has since explored all nooks and crannies within Japan’s notorious sex hotels – or “Rabuhos” – for her photo series aptly titled Japanese Whispers.

Some expected me to shoot them having sex, but that made me very uncomfortable and wasn’t interesting to me; I thought it was better to capture the tension just before it’s going to happen.

Hailing from Belgium, Bertrand’s efforts at documenting the intimate scenes behind the typically surreptitious industry stems from her fascination with the concept of said intimacy itself. And because of Japan’s deep tradition of seeing anything like a sex hotel as highly controversial, her photo-based documentary becomes even more stark from the emphasized acts of the featured “acquaintances;” It’s easy to think that the passion is heightened when you live in a place where public displays of affection are frowned upon. however what Bertrand discovered was quite the contrary. “Through my work I always focus on human interaction, physical contact and relationships, and I find it very interesting in Japan because the way they do that is very different. The things you can and cannot do are very complex, and there’s a certain resistance to relationships, a loss of intimacy in general” she tells Dazed Digital.

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As for that lingering curiosity of how she was even able to stand as a third-person to cover the moments of intimacy (or lack there of), she explains, “At first, I tried to approach people going into the hotels, but that was hard because people didn’t want to talk. Just before the heat of the moment isn’t the right time! Then I placed some adverts online and offered them the room for a maximum of three hours, all paid for. Some expected me to shoot them having sex, but that made me very uncomfortable and wasn’t interesting to me; I thought it was better to capture the tension just before it’s going to happen.” To read more from her interview with Dazed, click here, otherwise check out Bertrand’s compelling Japanese Whispers series from the gallery above.

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