Photo/IllutrationFrom “KIPUKA” (c)AI IWANE

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A photographer who trained her lens on close cultural bonds between Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and people living in Fukushima Prefecture is the winner of this year’s prestigious Kimura Ihei Photography Award.

Although at age 43, some people might quibble that Tokyo-based Ai Iwane can hardly be considered a rookie photographer, she clinched the award on the basis of her first solo photography project, a book titled “KIPUKA.”

The award was established in 1975 by The Asahi Shimbun Co. to honor the celebrated photographer Ihei Kimura and given annually to an up-and-coming photographer who has produced outstanding work.

Iwane has closely followed people of Japanese descent with roots in Fukushima who live in Hawaii, particularly those resident on the Island of Maui, since 2006.

She felt drawn to the “Bon Dance” tradition that the community continued to observe, despite the fact it originated in Japan long ago.

In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that triggered the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, residents in Maui of Japanese decent invited people living in Fukushima Prefecture affected by the tragedy to visit Hawaii and dance together to forget their sorrows.

“I wanted to capture the connection that spans more than a century,” said Iwane, whose images deftly capture the excitement of the jaunty dance movements in Hawaii.

After much trial and error, Iwane opted to use a large panoramic camera that shoots while rotating 360 degrees, producing negatives on 2-meter film. This type of camera was invented in 1904 and was often used during an influx of Japanese immigration to Hawaii. Iwane borrowed a camera locally that weighs 20 kilograms. Its horizontally-long film helped her to capture the energy of her subject.

Iwane also spent two years to produce a series of images of sugar cane plantations where Japanese immigrants used to work that she used to project immigrant family photos.

She snapped portraits of people of Japanese descent living in Hawaii and disaster victims in Fukushima Prefecture, and blackened the backgrounds and surrounding environment to create a more dramatic impact that focused on the subject’s facial expression.

“I wasn't interested in cutting away a piece of photograph. Rather I wanted to take a photograph that absorbs the energy of the place,” said Iwane, adding that the work required all of her mental and physical energies.

Iwane also added a twist by attaching a red-filter to the lens when shooting in Hawaii and a blue-filter in Fukushima Prefecture.

Of the 100,000 or so images taken over 12 years, Iwane selected the best ones for her first photography book that was published in 2018 to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.

The title of the book, "KIPUKA," is the Hawaiian word for a plant that grows out of a site charred by molten lava. It means a “place for new life.”

Iwane recalled that she was about 10 years old when her parents bought her first camera. After graduating from junior high school, Iwane hightailed it to the United States, in her words, "so I could become independent.”

She attended an alternative high school in California and learned to be self-sufficient.

Having decided to be a photographer, Iwane has sought out distinctive community situations, such as a Russian circus company and a prison in the Philippines.

After the nuclear disaster, she also established a base in Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture, to record conditions in the disaster-stricken area.

Being cash-strapped, Iwane sometimes slept in an abandoned house and used a derelict school as a workspace, circumstances she endured in both Hawaii and Fukushima Prefecture.

“I want to turn this work into a photography book that stands out,” Iwane told herself to keep her spirits going.

She said she hopes to tell the world the current status of Fukushima through her work.

Members of the selection committee such as Takashi Honma praised the quality of her images, saying they had “strong appeal.”

Honma, a former winner of the award, expressed appreciation for Iwane’s method of shooting as a “photographic experiment.”

Miyako Ishiuchi, a highly acclaimed photographer known for her “Hiroshima” series and also a former winner of the award, said, “I think the time she spent on the project and the integrity of work show her innate quality.”

Hiroto Sasaki, Asahi Camera’s editor in chief who was involved in the judging process, said Iwane's feelings and commitment show through her work, "which inspires in a straightforward manner.”