Nina Poppe is a German photographer and curator who published Ama, one of the best photo books of 2011. The images tell the story of contemporary Japanese female pearl divers, aka ama. These women make their living by diving for abalone, a slimy sea snail that produces pearls. The Japanese tradition suggests that this practice may be two millennia old. Even today, an ama dives according to the old ways: without equipment, relying only on lung power. The Japanese believe that the majority of ama are women because of how their bodies differ from men: The fat on a female body is distributed differently than that on men, which ensures that they can stay warmer in colder water. Ama is an extinguishing profession; most of these women are around 60, some are over 80. Nina decided to photograph these women before it was too late, before no ama was diving into the blue anymore and the only one we would have remembered was Kissy Suzuki in James Bond's You Only Live Twice. So I decided to call Nina and talk about this.
VICE: How long did this book take to shoot and for what lengths of time were you staying with the ama?
Nina Poppe: In 2010 I went to Japan twice, first in May and then I went back in August and September. On my second travel I stayed on the Island of Ise-Shima with the ama for two weeks.
Was it a struggle getting them to accept you into their community? How did you cope with the language barrier?
The language was indeed a big problem. I donʻt speak any Japanese. I always had a little book with me, where I had some basic sentences written down. Who I am, what Iʻm doing, what I want from them... It felt really strange. It was a total loss of communication, as nobody could speak any English on that island. It was a feeling like someone cut my tongue. I was a total stranger with my blond hair and blue eyes. I could feel it everywhere, all the time, which was exhausting. Everybody stared at me, but in a friendly and curious way. Still, after two weeks I ran away from the island, as I had such a need for communication. The good thing about it is that all your senses are very concentrated when you canʻt communicate. Being a woman helped a lot, I think. The ama were very open and friendly with me. I think they didn't understand what I was doing there, but they took me on their boat and let me into their huts. It felt that the ama are very open toward other women, and they were maternal with me. I could have been their daughter.
At what age do these women start diving? How deep do they go, and for how long at a time?
Most of them start early, as a teenager. They dive up to 30 meters deep without equipment. They dive two times a day for exactly an hour and a half at fixed times. They are underwater for about 2 minutes, and do this up to 60 times in one diving session. The frequency makes it so hard.
But most of the women actively diving in your book are elderly. Why is that?
The tradition is becoming extinct because the young women donʻt want to do this. The job isnʻt attractive any longer since they don't earn as much as they did 40 years ago. Also, the ama profession doesn't match the perception of women in modern Japan.
The Bajau of southeast Asia are also renowned for their free diving abilities. They have physically adapted to their maritime environment, which has enabled them to see better underwater and dive for longer. They haven't grown gills or anything but still, it's fascinating. Are you aware of anything like this with the ama?
I guess the adaption is in having strong lungs, as they have done this practice for a long time. Also, they talk with a strong voice—from diving they can't hear as well anymore, and plus, while on the water they have to scream at each other to communicate. Besides this, for me, they felt somehow like sea creatures. They can't live without the sea and they have appropriated the underwater world.
You chose not to include any underwater photography, which is unexpected for a book on the abalone divers of Ise-Shima Island. What were your thoughts behind this decision? Did you take any underwater shots at all?
I have been underwater but I haven't shot any pictures there. I wanted the focus to be on the women and on the community and not on the job they do. It felt like it would have been too much of an attraction, maybe. Also, this way the underwater world is something that happens in your imagination, which I like. On the other hand, I included the underwater picture of Fosco Maraini from the 60s in my book. It is so unbelievably beautiful that I felt I don't want to even try to compete with it.
It also features no men, which I guess is justified. Ama literally means "women of the sea," and this book is a testament to their way of life, but what roles do men play in the community?
I wanted to create a world were men apparently have no role. I wanted the focus on the women. The ama profession is a female tradition for about 2,000 years. There are only a few men doing this nowadays. It seemed to be a matriarchy in the past, as the ama made so much money with the diving that they could live on their own. Also most of their men were fishermen and away from home most of the year. So they were kind of on their own.
The stamina for the age of these women is astounding. In a short documentary I watched, one woman in the village was 92 and still diving! How can they possibly withstand these strains at that age?
Iʻm not sure. I guess one thing is that they are integrated in in a strong community. I had to think about old people in our society, and some have no role anymore. They have nothing to do, and maybe that makes them old. I was really impressed by the fact that the old people are so much part of the community. Also, the activity and the good food probably keeps them healthy.
Tell me about the ama's isobue*, or "sea whistle." Is this something that they've practiced for centuries, or is it a more recent development? It kinda sounds a bit like high-pitched hyperventilating, doesn't it?
I think they have always done this sound. It comes indeed from the hyperventilation. The sound is famous in Japan and stands for the pain of the practice.
Your pictures give us fantastic insight into the lives of these people. They seem blissful and proud of their tradition. What kind of a living are they making from this type of fishing? Abalone is a specialty in Japan, right? But are they gathering the numbers they need to truly benefit from this, or has global warming or some uncontrollable force affected their livelihood?
They earned a lot of money with it in the past. They could easily feed a family with the catch of abalone. Nowadays cheaper abalones are imported from Australia, for example, and what I heard is that there are fewer abalone because of the pollution of the sea. But the fishing establishment on Ise-Shima made several rules to avoid overfishing of the abalone, and to stick to this old tradition of the ama. (Time restrictions, no diving with equipment, etc.) In that way they also try to keep the prices up.
You also make documentaries. Am I right in thinking that you're making one on the ama? Do you feel that through filming this community you have an opportunity to communicate and explore certain things that you couldn't with stills?
Youʻre right, Iʻm working on a documentary. But until now I haven't been able to raise the money for that. Of course there is another layer when you make a film. It is a big difference to photography. But the documentary I want to make should not explain everything and I would like it to work in a similar way. It will be an experimental documentary without interviews, more in an observing and photographic way.
The design of the book itself is exquisite. It's an object of beauty and simplicity, Japanese in its very essence. Did you design it yourself or have a significant role in its design?
I designed it together with a friend of mine.
Has your talent for book design been influenced by the overwhelming exposure to books you must have had through working for the bookstore Schaden?
After working with Schaden for nine years I had seen so many books. Hundreds of great books, a lot more boring books, and a few books that influenced and really touched me. In recent years the amount of photo books has increased. In that way, sometimes I think there is no need for more books, as everything has been done—a feeling of satiety. But I really wanted to make that book, so I felt it had to be really good and special. I didn't want to make any compromises, and I put a lot of pressure on myself knowing that if it's not good enough, it would have no right to exist and would not sell. And of course you make a book because you want people to look at it. It has to function as an object in its totality.
Ama by Nina Poppe was published in 2011 by Kehrer Verlag
*No isobue is the high-pitched whistle emitted by the ama as she surfaces. It's a result of their breath-retention technique. For the Japanese, this melancholic whistle symbolizes the tough ama profession. Itʻs been included among the top one hundred national soundscapes of Japan.