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At the junction of photography and ethnography. A Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima on projects in Komi and Mariy El republics

A Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima went to Vorkuta this winter to shoot a project on herders’ children who live in a specialized boarding school. During winter the Nenets [an indigenous people in northern arctic Russia] can leave their children there where they wait out the coldest months, and at the same time study and explore the modern world. Before that Ikuru had come to Marij El republic several times in order to make a photo project on pagans, mode of Meadow Mari [a people in Mariy El] life and Povolzhye [Volga region] forests. Now Ikuru is searching for the topics for new series of projects. For this he came to Syktyvkar through Kirov where he started studying a komi people mode of life. A «7x7» reporter asked him several questions: why he lives and shoots projects in Russia.

Ikuru does not look like Japanese. He speaks fluent Russian, behaves uninhibited and even jokes in Russian. He does not think it is an achievement though. He believes it is more about a natural result of having been living on a post-Soviet space for seven years along.

Ikuru was born in Hitachinaka which is not far from Tokyo, but grow up in Chiba. When he was 19 he moved to States to study, because he did not like life in Japan so much. “There was not much freedom, people’s mind is communal. It is harder to express your opinion there, to be engaged in what you want. The law does not prohibit it, but the society itself alienate such people. I did not like it so much”, Ikuru said.

He had been studying journalism for four years in University of Missouri, however then he moved to Romania. It was cheaper there. A bit later he changed the country of living again, first he lived in Kazakhstan, and then in Kyrgyzstan. Four years ago he moved to Kazan where he continued his studies. But now he is exploring Russian small nations mode of life.

Photo by Kirill Sheyn

The Nenets in Vorkuta and the ambivalence of life

― I suggest starting our conversation with your last project which was about shooting Nenets children in Vorkuta. There is a specialized boarding school where herders can leave their children for winter. Why did you chose this topic?

― I find it interesting to visit different places. I’ve heard there were the Nenets, nomads in Vorkuta. I’ve been there twice, for the first time last winter. Then I found a boarding school where Nenets children live and study. I was told there was an interesting interior, a small tent inside the building, ornaments hanging. I was searching something new right to a tee, because lots of foreigners come to the North and shoot the Nenets with deer in tundra. This could be interesting, of course, but it was shot so many times [smiles]. Maybe to some extent this creates a stereotype about the Nenets ― here they are riding across the tundra… So beautiful, so exotic. But I thought why to shoot it again? Moreover, everything is changing now ― globalism, modernization. That’s why I wanted to work on the topic of people’s mode of life changes. But during my first visit I didn’t have a permission to shoot. So I went back for the second time [the permission was signed by Komi minister of education Vladimir Sharkov].

― Your snapshots from the boarding school are unusual. You use white background, but at the same time the things behind the background are also visible.

― These are staging portraits. I really used white background… It is a bit complicated to explain [Ikuru speaks fluent Russian, sometimes he makes pauses in the conversation to formulate a thought though]. When people hear about the Nenets, they imagine the Nenets living in the tundra, putting on deerskins, riding deer. Actually this is not entirely true yet. Their lifestyle is quite present-day. Nonetheless, they want to preserve their culture. They really live in the tundra like their ancestry. And this is split time, the time of change. There is a conflict between a traditional lifestyle and the modern one. This is the matter I wanted to show. To show the ambivalence of life. That’s why I have chosen white background and the child wearing casual clothes. And though the interior behind is modern, there are tents and ornaments. There are different realities layers. It was what I wanted to show on one photograph. And I also scanned children’s drawings. This also represents a conflict in a modern life ― they miss tundra, always draw tents, deer, and a helicopter at the same time. When they move from tundra to the boarding school, a helicopter comes flying. This is a very important event for them. They live in a boarding school, live a settled life, but they miss tundra.

― I realize you didn’t have enough time to observe them, but anyway… Is the fact that modern life became a part of their traditional way positive or is it a destructive force?

― I don’t want to judge. I just show what is going on there. This is a complicated question. Occasionally it is 40 degrees on Celsius in the tundra, so some people want to live in warm houses. After the boarding school you can chose whether to go back to the tundra or to go to an ordinary school. Most come back. I think it is good they have a choice. By means of this project I wanted to raise an issue. Journalism often simplify what is happening, gives a simplified answer if it is good or not. I don’t like it. I like when a journalist raises an issue to make the readers think about it. The world is complicated and controversial, indeed. So I’ve chosen this approach for my project.

― Have the boarding school staff seen your photos?

― Yes, there was a response. They didn’t say if it was good or bad [smiles]. These shots are just unusual. These are not negative photographs, they just don’t look like what they’ve seen before.

― Several photographs from this series were published by Japanese newsmagazine. How did they get there?

― They used to publish photographs more of a reportage style, but now the magazine is being changed. They were looking for something new. Japanese are interested in Northern peoples, they are searching for things in common. And that topic caught their attention.

― Were there any responses?

― The magazine staff said there were good responses but I haven’t checked that. My uncle who is 80 years old found it out. He looked through the article but didn’t get anything [laughs]. He asked me then: “Are you really interested in being engaged in THIS?”

― You have said you were going to publish an individual book with the shots from Vorkuta boarding school. What will it be like?

― I made this book by myself, I made it up in pages. The structure is the following: there is a photograph on the one side (portraits and objects depicted), and children’s drawings and archive photos on the other side. I went to Vienna and showed the book at the publishing office. They decided to print it there.

Mariy El ― there is silence

― One of the first major projects in Russia was a series called Mari Gods, about pagans who live in Mariy El. How did you find this topic?

― I live in Kazan, so Mariy El is quite close. The Mari are half-pagans, a Finno-Ugric people that lives in forests, close to nature. I went there, made friends with the locals. They are kind, open people. They told me a lot about paganism, witchcraft, these quite strange things. There I tried to find and depict little-known details and personal experiences.

― How did you find the characters? Judging by the photos they were easy to go on contact...

― I intentionally came during the holidays or the ceremony when they wore their costumes. Everyone knows each other in the villages, so it was not difficult to find contacts.

― There are not so many people on these shots. There are more objects. Why so?


― That’s such a topic. Pagans believe there is a spirit in a stone, a tree, or in some other objects. Like they are alive. That’s why objects are symbols. That’s why I shot different objects, even dead birds. I wanted to depict a place, there are almost no people. There is silence [smiles].

― This series was published by colta.ru website. How did it get there? [It is said in the description of the project: "During Russian Empire times they were baptized into Orthodoxy. However, many of them, especially the villagers, still observe the pagan rituals till nowadays. Mari villages surrounded by primeval forests look like Russian ones, but there you can feel an elusive, supernatural aura, as if ancient rituals and legends still exist. I was in Mari woods which is called Mariy Chodyra by the locals. I was listening to the wind rustling birch branches, and recalling the local stories about witchcraft, which were prompting fear. With the help of this project I wanted to capture an invisible side of Mari villages and forests, my feelings and experiences clouded by strange and mysterious local stories and rituals"].

― I just know the editor in person. Sergey Novikov [the photo director of colta.ru] published my photos from Central Asia three years ago. And then I showed him the photos from Mariy El, and he took them as well.

― How long did it take to shoot this series?

― I finished this project this January. I mostly shot in the villages of Morkinskiy, Mari-Turekskiy and Novotorjalovskiy rayons. There are both Russians and Tatars, but originally Meadow Mari live there. They preserved their traditions, most of them speak Mari language. I started to shot in Mariy El in autumn of 2013. Then I went there 10 or 12 times. Basically, in autumn and winter. I shot little during the summer, because the light is already different, that’s why I didn’t include that photographs in the final work.

― Recently the film Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari was released. Do the images used there differ from one you created?

― This film is rather an author's interpretation, a piece of art. Much has been invented. There was nothing fictional in my project. I may be recreated entourage a bit. But, in principle, I didn’t invent anything new. I tried to make the photographs match with the reality. I interviewed people, explored things, gathered information, and I wanted these things to be true-to-life.

There is a bit of Zen Buddhism in Oblomov

― While we were talking I realized you are no longer Japanese. You are Russian. Not only that you are thinking in Russian, you even joke in Russian.

― It’s just because I have been living in Russian speaking countries for seven years. And I always speak, read and write in Russian. There are few of Japanese people in Russian speaking countries, and they are in Moscow or in Saint Petersburg. But I’ve never met Japanese, and I go back home very rarely. Before I was even more reserved, I used to be an introvert. I became an extrovert in Russia. Now I communicate more, and in Russian language. Maybe, that’s why [he thinks and jokes in Russian]. And I’d been living in States for four years, and there I had a kind of complex because I didn’t speak English at all. It was hard for me to understand [the language], so I intentionally started to force myself thinking only in English, and stop thinking in Japanese. I no longer heard Japanese language, I listened to music only in English language. Then I moved to Romania, then to Russia, and I began to think rare in Japanese. I think in it only from time to time, but then I switch to Russian still. Of course, with an accent.

― But would you like to be Russian? I mean not to be born here, but to bind your life with Russia?

― I think it’s impossible to become completely Russian. And I don’t want to change my identity totally. I have an accent, but on the other hand, this reserves my identity. And my appearance is not Russian. But I like speaking and reading in Russian. However, I don’t want to forget my native Japanese language. I read in Japanese as well. But I don’t really like modern Japanese. It sounds not really nice to me, I can speak it properly though. This is a paradox. I like literary Japanese language, but the living language now is changing a lot. Japan is a country which was captured by capitalism, and people became very pragmatic. There are many projects there, and this system makes many people think about money. I am much confused of that. All these influence on the language, literature, art. That’s why I’m not confused of the fact I almost never hear modern Japanese. On the other hand, it’s interesting to read in it, I love reading.

― You have a book titled Oblomov [a famous book within Russia, written by Ivan Goncharov] in your backpack. Its main character is a lost man, a bummer, who didn’t realized his opportunities. Why Oblomov? Do you draw parallels to some extent?

― It’s accidentally. My friend, a photographer from Ekaterinburg, recommended me this book. He says if you want to understand Russian mentality, you should read this book. And I’ve been to Ulyanovsk, there I was told that the author of the book, Goncharov, had come from there. I’ve read the half of it so far.

― And what would you say? Are we, Russians, similar to Oblomov?

― People differ, still you have something in common though. Some people do look like him. Everything is too quickly in Japan nowadays, and people don’t stop it. The system makes them think only about their career and money. So, sometimes I ask myself: what for? I used to live in the same society in States where people also work fast, they are always busy. Journalism is a good example. People start from journalism in order to make something good for the society at first. And then they face so much competition, envy, money problems, so they start forgetting the first motives of their work. I mean they wanted to do something positive, but then it turns into something else. First they did some work for other people’s sake, and then somehow start doing it for their own one. In order to become successful, famous, to climb the career ladder. Then in the process they begin to fool others. I’ve shoten such an example, I’ve seen this kind of people. This is one of the reasons why I left journalism. I think generally it happens in all the spheres of life. But Oblomov just don’t want to be engaged with anything [laughs]. On the other hand, it sounds a bit like Zen Buddhism.

― Well, if there is philosophy in Buddhism, there is just laziness in that case.

― I don’t know. First, I haven’t finished it yet. Maybe there is some charm in Oblomov as well.

― How free and comfortable do you feel in different cities of Russia when you talk to people? How kind are they to you? Isn’t there any harsh attitude?

― Unfortunately, I think racism exists everywhere, in any country, in any city. It’s just the way people are. About Russia, the situation here is better than in other countries where I’ve been.

― Why?

― First, I’ve been to Eastern Europe and lived in States, where there are few Asians. Because appearance plays a very big role. While in Russia there are many Asians. In Povolzhye, in Moscow. No one is watching me specially as if I am someone alien or exotic. I like it. Of course, there is some political incorrectness in Russia, but it exists not only here. It often happens also in Eastern Europe. But on the other hand, people are quite open, and they may joke not politically correct enough but actually it’s somehow easier to be friends with them. There are notions of “gost’” [a guest] and “inostranets” [a foreigner] in Russia.


“I am a bit apolitical, but what’s happening makes me sad”

― If you came and said you were from Tajikistan there would be one attitude to you. You come and say you are from Japan, so the attitude to you is completely different.

― Yes, of course, I know that. Sometimes they torture me with a question if I came from Central Asia or China. But in this aspect Russia is more civilized than many other countries. Actually Tajiks are racists themselves. For example, there is racism in States. People there somehow think you always should speak English by default. Young people sometimes mock foreigners who speak bad English. Such things happen everywhere. It is a great advantage I am Japanese in Russia and in Post-Soviet space in general. On the other hand, it annoys me when people begin feeling better about me when I say I am Japanese. This is a kind of nonsense.

― Over the year and a half, after the events like Crimean one and all the rest, do you find it easier or harder to live here?

― I think it doesn’t play a big role. Of course it is a tragedy, but I live in Russia and realize that the attitude hasn’t changed.

― Many Russians say that the tension arises even within families, because there is a great polarization of views, either yes or no, either white or black. There is no dialogue in between, that’s why everyone start arguing when discussing these events. And there is a lot of tension. Do you feel this?

― I do, and it’s all very sad. But I think that politics is very similar to religion, and it’s very difficult to convince others of something. Moreover, it depends on those who you deal with. But I am a bit apolitical. And I have a conviction that you never know what’s really going on. Of course, I am a bit interested in it, but I’m not a Russian citizen still, the citizens themselves should be responsible for their problems. I’m not ready to join these things and participate in them. Of course, all this make me sad. On the other hand, I was living in States when they started bombing Iraq… That’s sad.


To take a camera away and think

― Are you an ambitious author? I mean do you mostly shoot for yourself in order to publish a book or is it important for you to send photos to World Press Photo and other contests?

― I think the most important thing is that you have time and even money to live and be engaged in the things you like. And nothing else is necessary. I am not particularly interested in recognition, I send my photographs to the contests often enough though. But it’s more important for me to do what I want and to be independent. I tried to earn my living by taking photos before, but after a while I realized that if you think about it too much the result suffers because of it, and you choose an opportunistic approach. This subconsciously influences on how you deal with your creativity. I’m not ready to separate myself completely from the society, of course. But it’s very important for me to keep a distance. I used to make more projects which were purchased, but there were less satisfaction in it, so the question “why” arose. Now I’m less in a hurry, I choose that topics when I can take my camera away and think. And I can be more honest to myself.

― If the things go really bad and you won’t have money, will you agree to shoot a wedding?

― No. I’m ready to work as a translator. I try to escape the way you mentioned. I might shoot once a month, but I don’t really want to.

― It’s clear if you are an ambitious photographer or nearly a journalist, you will shoot what you shoot and go to hotspots. Less ambitious guys from Syktyvkar, for example, work during the daytime by shooting reportages, and shoot weddings in the evenings. At the same time they work on their projects, because they have no other choice. However, it’s essential for some people not to shoot weddings.

― I just like to work on the translations more. And I’m not a photojournalist anymore, I changed profession and not engaged with that anymore. I want to develop myself, and I’m on my way to that.

― I try to understand why you so sympathize with Russia where they limit freedom to some extent. You lived in States and saw how modern art is developed there. And this is a mechanism to reduce xenophobia. I mean a person watches something new, gets used to it and begins to treat it easier. Here they almost declared war. They say all this is bad and we don’t need it.

― I used to deal more with so called western reportage. I shot in Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine. The locals never like being shot by a western photographer. I am not a photographer who shoots some tragical things. There is a problem which is difficult to be solved ― the amount of information received by viewers is limited. And the information received by a western viewer from a photo about Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe is always negative. What’s more, the photographer himself dramatizes everything a bit. On the other hand, Russians watch the same about Africa, and that is a problem. Here the question arises, what for a photographer should add similar stories for western Media? I realized it as a Japanese viewer. And actually everything is not so bad and even better than in the same States. The difference between my impression and my first experience was great. Actually I found out more positive things. Maybe this difference is the reason of my sympathy to Russia and Eastern Europe.

Photographer's website


Maxim Polyakov, Yaroslava Parkhacheva, «7х7»

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